Thursday, December 1, 2011
Five things to watch: Pac-12 Championship
By Peter Yoon
1. RICK NEUHEISEL'S LAST HURRAH
It's the swan song for coach Rick Neuheisel on the UCLA sideline, so emotions are sure to be running high for the Bruins. They would like nothing more to send their leader out with a victory. Neuheisel teared up after his team carried him off the field following his final practice and you can only imagine how emotional he will be after the game is over and there is no more UCLA football for a former UCLA walk-on quarterback whose dream job was to coach UCLA. If the Bruins should somehow pull off the miracle, it would make for a storybook ending and that's something to which Neuheisel is no stranger and true to his relentlessly optimistic character, he is holding out hope that UCLA can, indeed, catch lighting in a bottle.
2. QUICK STRIKE
Speaking of lightning, the Oregon offense has been described as just that. It's a mile-a-minute, machine-gun spread they have dubbed "The Blur" because it moves so quickly. The Ducks rarely huddle and get to the line of scrimmage and run a play about every 20 seconds. And they are devastatingly efficient. Oregon ranks last in the country in time of possession at 24:46 per game, yet is third in the nation in scoring at 45.9 points per game. Of the Ducks' 68 touchdown drives this season, 38 have lasted two minutes or less and 12 have taken a minute or less.
3. SPEED THRILLS
Part of the reason Oregon has had so much success with the fast-paced offense is because it has the athletes to make it work. Running backs LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas are all speed burners who have helped Oregon rank No. 5 in the nation with 291 yards rushing per game. Because each is equally dangerous, the Ducks are able to rotate them in and out and keep them fresh, though James is clearly the leader as he leads the nation with 147 yards rushing per game. Thomas is so valuable that he's been starting at receiver just to get him on the field. He's also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
4. HOME COOKING
Eugene, Ore., is home to several notable beer makers, but what the Ducks have brewing at Autzen Stadium is enough to make opponents feel drunk. Oregon has had 81 consecutive home sellouts, a streak that dates to 1999. Their fans are not shy, either, turning their home field into one of the most difficult places to play in the country. When USC defeated Oregon it ended a 21-game home win streak for Oregon. That isn't much of a confidence booster for UCLA, which is 2-10 on the road over the past two seasons -- a span that includes a 60-13 loss at Oregon last Oct. 21.
5. TRICK or TREAT
UCLA is a 32-point underdog in the game and because of that is approaching the game as if it has nothing to lose. Nobody thinks the Bruins deserve to be in the game because they finished second in the Pac-12 South, so they intend to play with controlled abandon. Neuheisel, who won't be coaching another game for the Bruins, said he might pull out a few surprises from deep in the playbook. UCLA normally plays a conservative, ball-control game so don't expect anything too crazy, but seeing as how Neuheisel really has nothing to lose in this game, don't be surprised if he does have a trick or two up his sleeve. Pulling off the upset would be the greatest trick of them all and wouldn't that be some way to go out?