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Friday, January 7, 2011
Oregon offense greater than sum of its parts

By Ted Miller

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon is No. 1 in the nation in scoring and No. 1 in total offense. Auburn is No. 4 in scoring and No. 7 in total offense, so the Tigers aren't so far behind.

But when you talk about the Auburn offense, it starts and finishes with this: Cam Newton.

When you talk about the Oregon offense, it starts with running back LaMichael James and then it goes on and on and on.

What's toughest about the stopping the Ducks offense?

Oregon's LaMichael James
You can point to LaMichael James and his 1,851 yards from scrimmage and 22 total touchdowns as the reason for Oregon's success. But he's not the only thing that makes the Ducks' offense go.
"Probably our tempo," center Jordan Holmes said. "We just keep going and going and going. Even when things aren't going as planned, we just keep doing our thing and eventually the defense gives way."

Agreed Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens, "It's always hard to emulate an offense going that fast." Added Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes, "Their pace is unmatched by anybody in the nation. I haven't seen a pace like that against any opponent this year."

No, it's not the tempo. The tempo is challenging, but Auburn's offense plays with fast tempo, too. So then what is the hardest thing for a defense to deal with?

"The misdirection," Oregon linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. "[QB Darron Thomas] is really good at hiding the ball with his fakes and his play-actions."

But that's not really it, either. It's the pressure the Ducks put on a defense to maintain gap discipline while dealing with a fast-tempo offense that uses a lot of misdirection.

"That's where they get people," Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "You can see people take their eyes off them, people missing gaps, and it's a touchdown, not a 4-yard gain anymore." Agreed Stevens, "It's their ability to exploit defenses. Anytime a guy mis-fits, it seems like a guy is always able to find that hole and hit it and it turns into a big run or big pass."

Oregon is a dominant running team -- 304 yards per game -- that isn't too shabby throwing the ball -- 29 touchdown passes, No. 16 in the nation in passing efficiency. And it has star players; see James, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the nation's leading rusher.

But when you talk about the Oregon offense in terms of its most potent weapon, it's really about how everything blends together. While even the Ducks can't agree on what makes the offense most difficult to stop, the buy-in is complete under coach Chip Kelly, the mastermind behind the scheme. The players' confidence suggests they see their offensive success as, well, inevitable.

"We are in a situation right now where our guys believe 100 percent in what they are doing," coordinator Mark Helfrich said.

That starts not with James, but with quarterback Darron Thomas. James calls the sophomore, first-year starter the "point guard of the offense."

Chip Kelly
Oregon coach Chip Kelly is the mastermind behind the nation's No. 1 offense.
Thomas was expected to be No. 3 this year behind starter Jeremiah Masoli and senior backup Nate Costa. But when Masoli was kicked off the team, Thomas was a surprise winner in a close quarterback competition with Costa.

Even as the starter, early in the season he was expected to play the role of caretaker and distributor. He's become much more than that. His passing numbers were significantly better than Masoli's in 2009, and he earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Oregon players thought Thomas was going to be good. Just not this good.

"He's done some things this year that have definitely surprised all of us," Holmes said.

Thomas' top target is Jeff Maehl, who doesn't look the part -- his haircut inspired more than a few "Jeff Spicoli" references from reporters meeting him for the first time. He caught 12 touchdown passes this year, a number of them fairly spectacular.

But he's one of nine Ducks who've caught TD passes.

Further, the rushing attack isn't only about James. Four other Ducks rushed for more than 200 yards.  Thomas and backup running back Kenjon Barner combined for more than 1,000 yards and 11 TDs on their own. Seven different Ducks scored rushing TDs.

Then there's the offensive line. Oh, those poor, poor Ducks linemen. They just aren't big enough to get the job done.

"We are probably the smallest offensive line in the Pac-10," Holmes said. "We're outweighed by 10 to 40 pounds on a weekly basis. So [the national championship game] is no new thing."

That itty-bitty line -- average weight: 296 pounds -- led one of the nation's best rushing attacks while yielding only eight sacks, fifth fewest in the nation.

It's fair to say that Auburn's defense is going to win the "eye test" with Oregon's offense. The Tigers look better getting off the bus, as reporters like to say. But Roof thinks the Ducks look pretty good on film.

"On top of being really, really talented, they have a great scheme, they're well coached and they're very disciplined," he said.

That's the Ducks' best offensive weapon: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.