NCF Nation: Dennis Dixon

3-point stance: Losing parallels

November, 7, 2013
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1. History provides parallels of sort to the possible demise of No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon in their big games this week. No. 2 Oregon, with a quarterback who was the Heisman favorite, lost on the road in November 2007. But that was at Arizona, not Stanford, and quarterback Dennis Dixon had a torn ACL when the game began (the knee gave out in the first half). The last time the No. 1 Crimson Tide was a two-time defending national champion, 1980, the Tide made it into November with ranking intact before losing an SEC game, 6-3. But that was at Mississippi State, not home against LSU.

2. A Georgia Tech fan on my chat Wednesday asked if the Yellow Jackets had hit a ceiling with Paul Johnson and his option offense. Georgia Tech is 6-3 as it prepares to play No. 7 Clemson. But no one wants to play an option team -- ever. A week after Pitt lost to Georgia Tech, 21-10, and Notre Dame edged Navy and its option, 38-34, the Panthers and Fighting Irish play. The first thing Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said at his press conference Tuesday? “I know for both teams, we're excited about getting away from the option offense that we have both seen over the last couple of weeks.” Exactly.

3. One of the most intriguing stories this month will be whether Duke -- yes, Duke -- can win the ACC Coastal. The Blue Devils are 6-2, 2-2 in the league, and with their victory over Virginia Tech, in the thick of the division race. A year ago, Duke started the season 6-2 – and finished 6-7. Unlike last year, the Blue Devils enjoyed an off week before they hit November. “It gave us time to talk about what lies in front of us,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Everybody’s aware on this team of what happened a year ago. We didn’t win. We had all the losses, but it’s easy to forget that we played good football in November.”
The Pac-12 blog loves hype. It loves to throw down bait and watch you folks go at each other.

Such as: Oregon's recent success trumps Washington's historical dominance of the Northwest ... discuss.

But with our subject today -- Oregon's quarterback competition -- we're resisting hype, hyperbole and grand pronouncements.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota had an impressive performance in Oregon's spring game, completing 18 of 26 passes.
Yes, the Pac-12 blog watched Oregon's spring game. Yes, redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota impressed me. A lot. And it wasn't just him completing 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Or an 82-yard TD run that included an option fake that screamed, "DENNIS DIXON!"

It was his smoothness. He looked poised and completely in control. And Bryan Bennett did not.

Yet the best reaction to this as we head into the offseason probably should be, "Hey, that was interesting!" And little else. For one, if both were lousy, Ducks fans, would you be in a panic? No. Everyone would be insisting, "There's no need to panic. This, really, is the Pac-12 blog's fault."

Every spring, players break out or flop. And then they do the opposite in the fall when we play actual games. Last year, I wrote that Colorado defensive tackle Conrad Obi and UCLA defensive end Datone Jones looked like dominant players. I wrote that because they looked like dominant players when I watched them and their coaches supported what my eyes told me.

My eyes were wrong.

Two springs back, I felt fairly confident that Nate Costa would beat out Darron Thomas for the Ducks' starting job. That's what my eyes told me. And it was also a strong hunch. My eyes and hunch were wrong. Two springs ago, I wasn't very impressed with Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. Three days ago, he was picked in the second round of the NFL draft. In 2000, I saw nothing from Washington's spring game that suggested the Huskies were going to win the Rose Bowl and finish ranked in the top 5.

My point: While it's impossible to not be impressed with Mariota and to give Bennett a deduction, it's premature to hand the job to Mariota. Based on the little we know coming out of closed spring practices, the distance between the two during the previous 14 workouts wasn't great.

Remember how well Bennett played coming off the bench for an injured Thomas against Arizona State last year? Remember how well he played in his one start at Colorado? While it wasn't good that Bennett seemed rattled Saturday, the guy already has shown poise in pressure situations. Know what I think was bothering him? I think -- and this isn't really a good thing -- that he was frustrated by how much worse his offensive line was performing compared to Mariota's

Bennett's team, which lost 41-14, couldn't run the ball and it yielded three sacks. Bennett was consistently under pressure, Mariota was not. Mariota also had De'Anthony Thomas and a much better cast of receivers. Bennett had Kenjon Barner, who had one carry. For one yard.

Bennett labored under adverse conditions, but he did have some nice moments. Mariota thrived under better conditions, but he wasn't perfect.

This isn't over.

So what are some fair takeaways?

  • Rumors of Mariota's impressive potential are true.
  • Oregon has two solid options to replace Thomas. This is not a position that will keep Chip Kelly up at night.
  • Whatever they did in previous scrimmages behind closed doors, Mariota, er, won the day when the doors were opened and the pressure was on.
  • At the very worst for Mariota, he and Bennett head into the offseason in a dead-heat.
  • Mariota now knows his candidacy is serious. And so does Bennett. Now how will each react to that knowledge?
  • Closing 14 practices -- and two previous scrimmages -- may have skewed perception of this competition. The burden for that now falls on Bennett, who will have to deal with everyone acting like Mariota will win the job. Yes, it will be annoying for him.

Before spring practices, I believed Bennett was a solid favorite. As of today, I'd rate -- again, with limited information -- Mariota a slight favorite. My opinion, by the way, means not a thing.

The spring game was interesting. Perhaps even revealing. But we probably won't know the accuracy of anyone's hunches until a week before the opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 1.

Competition on: Bennett vs. Mariota

April, 2, 2012
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Bennett-MariotaGetty Images/AP PhotoOregon quarterbacks Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota will battle for the starting job this spring.
EUGENE, Ore. -- While Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas' decision to enter the NFL draft a year early shocked many outside the football program, it didn't surprise many of those close to him, including his fellow Ducks quarterbacks. Thomas had brought up the possibility a number of times throughout the year, so backup Bryan Bennett and talented true freshman Marcus Mariota knew he was eyeballing a potential departure.

Though the news was greeted with more than a few gasps, many Ducks fans didn't spice their surprise with disappointment. Some had felt that Bennett -- despite Thomas' record-setting numbers -- was a better quarterback, or at least that he had more upside. They had seen what he'd done in limited action in 2011, coming off the bench in a big win over Arizona State and a start at Colorado.

Inside the program, not only was it not a big surprise, it also wasn't viewed as a perfunctory passing of the torch. There was a mystery man, an X factor, with whom fans and media weren't terribly familiar because Oregon has shut down access to practices: true freshman Marcus Mariota.

Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder out of St. Louis High School in Honolulu, had shown enough in one impressive redshirt year to be viewed by his coaches and teammates as a legitimate threat to win the job.

"When DT left, I told Brian, 'You got to work for it. Marcus Mariota is a very good quarterback,'" said center Hroniss Grasu, Bennett's roommate and good friend. "It's going to be a great competition."

What you keep hearing when you ask players and coaches about Bennett and Mariota is that they are notably similar. Both are tall and fairly thin -- Bennett is 6-3, 205 pounds. Both are athletic and comfortable running an option attack. Both are capable passers. Both have low-key personalities.

"We feel real confident as a staff in our quarterback situation," said coach Chip Kelly, whose Ducks begin spring practices Tuesday. "They just haven't played significant amounts. I'm real confident in whoever ends up out of those guys pulling the trigger that we'll have a pretty good one."

There's good reason for that. Since Kelly arrived as the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2007, Oregon has been good to outstanding at the position. He transformed Dennis Dixon from a guy who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2006 to a leading Heisman Trophy candidate before he got hurt. He made Jeremiah Masoli, an unknown summer junior college transfer, into a swashbuckling, dual-threat force. And under his tutelage, Thomas ended up throwing more TD passes than any previous Ducks QB.

Kelly insists he has no preconceptions: "Our program is founded on competition," he said. Of course, many coaches throw the "competition" coaching platitude around. What actually happens on the depth chart demonstrates that most still favor seniority, particularly at QB. Coaches believe in the value of experience and they are more comfortable with players with whom they've built up years of familiarity. To win a job, a younger player must decisively demonstrate superiority.

But Kelly has shown he's not like that, and we need look no further than the last quarterback competition in Eugene between senior Nate Costa and Thomas, then a sophomore.

Costa was the feel-good story after Masoli's ugly departure. He was the one-time spread-option prodigy who'd been done in by bad knees, but heading into 2010 spring practices he was again healthy and ready to lead the Ducks with his moxie and still substantial skills. Thomas was a skinny guy from Houston with an odd throwing motion who lacked Costa's polish.

Just about everyone thought Costa would win the job, perhaps even by the end of spring practices. But a funny thing happened: Thomas was announced as the starter in late August.

Bennett was a true freshman observer of that competition, at least the fall camp portion. And, just as Thomas didn't surprise him when he opted to leave for the NFL, he also didn't surprise Bennett when he won the job.

"At first, I saw Nate as the older, senior, who kind of took control more," Bennett said. "I think it could have gone either way, but I wasn't too surprised. I thought it kind of started to lean towards Darron at the end."

Fair to say Bennett knows he can't expect his limited experience -- 369 yards passing, six touchdowns, no interceptions -- to give him a substantial advantage, at least not as baubles that will impress Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. But that experience could become a foundation or launching point that helps Bennett develop faster, which could provide a competitive advantage. The game should be slower to him than to Mariota. He knows how it feels when the lights are on for real, and how his teammates and coaches react. He knows how to prepare as a starter. And he saw how Thomas won the job over Costa.

"Since Darron left, I have taken it on myself to present myself as a leader of this team," Bennett said. "I would like to be the starting quarterback of this team. In my mind, I'm going to continue to tell myself that I need to get better and worry about the things I can control. It could come down neck-and-neck. It could be decided in spring ball. I really don't know. It's more a competition with myself, because I can control what I do. I can't control what [Mariota] does."

When fellow Ducks talk about Mariota, they talk about how quickly he's picked up the offense. Mariota, in a revealing moment of humility that supports that very point, said it took him "a week" -- a whole week! -- to feel comfortable running the offense in fall camp his freshman year.

"I feel we are going in evenly," Mariota said. "Bryan is a very good player. He's been in this system for a while now. I'm just going to take it day by day. We both are. And whoever wins, we'll be rooting for each other."

Mariota adds: "If Bryan wins the job, I will be behind him 100 percent. This is a team thing."

This "team" thing has changed at Oregon. Three years ago, the Ducks starting QB was only of local, perhaps regional interest. After three consecutive conference titles, it's now a position of national import. The last three Ducks QBs have been in Rose Bowl and national title hunts.

The expectations aren't any lower in 2012, even with Thomas' surprising/not-so-surprising decision.

"I know whoever the quarterback is, he will do a great job," Grasu said. "Hopefully even better than last season. I know last season was a great season, but I think with the team we've got coming back everywhere else, we can be very successful."
EUGENE, Ore. -- John Boyett is still smiling. Everything seems fine. Up to the halfway point in a 15-minute interview, Oregon's free safety has been insightful and pleasant, even when a certain sportswriter started blathering about this or that.

But that smile hints at something else. It's a happy smile, yes, but happy in the way a lion looks just before he takes a huge chomp out of a gazelle.

Me: I just made a list of the top-25 of players in the Pac-12.

Boyett: [Big laugh] I heard.

Me: You were left off.

Boyett: [More laughing] I heard.

Me: [Nervous laugh] Are you competitive with the other guys?

Boyett: Very competitive.

If you've watched Boyett play, that shouldn't be a surprise. A soon-to-be four-year starter for the Ducks, the 5-foot-10, 202-pound senior from Napa, Calif., is child of a football family, and he's obsessed with the game, whether that's about conditioning or watching film or playing with an intensity that easily endures the filtering presentation of a TV camera.

[+] EnlargeJohn Boyett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireJohn Boyett could be the best in a recent line of successful Oregon defensive backs.
"Football is in my blood," he said.

How competitive is he? Competitive enough to be, yes, just a bit irked not only at that ole top-25 list but also that he ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

"I'm not just going to say I feel like I'm the best safety because it's me. I'm a realist," he said. "But I really do feel I'm the best safety in the country. I probably wouldn't believe that if [secondary coach John Neal and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti] hadn't told me the same thing."

But Boyett, who's led the Ducks in tackles two of the past three season and finished second in 2010, didn't come to this discussion unarmed. He's completely aware of who his rival is for best safety in the Pac-12: USC's T.J. McDonald. McDonald was first-team All-Pac-12, first-team All-American with The Sporting News, ended up ranked 19th on the top-25 list and is widely considered the best senior safety in college football. Insider

"I know T.J. McDonald's stats," Boyett said. "I know all the safeties I am competing with in the draft. I know all their stuff. But I'm not stupid competitive. I don't get into all the politics. I'm here to help my team win. If we get into another BCS championship game, I don't care if you give me first team or 20th team, I just want to help the team win."

But...

Boyett continues, "But it is crazy when you look at it. I look at my stats compared to everyone else. And I'm not a big stats guy, I just want to win games."

But...

"But of course you've got to look at it every once and a while. I've got 276 tackles, nine picks and like 29 pass breakups. And the other guy's [McDonald] got like [163] tackles, six picks and nine pass breakups. I've got him by [113] tackles, three picks and 20 pass breakups! And they are still getting...

But...

"That's why I don't get caught up in all that stuff."

Not completely, at least.

What Boyett really does get caught up in is winning. Oregon has done that during his career like it never has before with a 34-6 record over the past three seasons. He was recruited to a 2007 team that fell out of the national title hunt when quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. In 2008, his redshirt season, the Ducks went 10-3 and won the Holiday Bowl. Yet those were the down years. He became a starter in 2009 when T.J. Ward got hurt, and since then the Ducks have won three consecutive Pac-12 titles and played in two Rose Bowls -- winning one -- as well as the national title game after the 2010 season.

Boyett believes the Ducks will again be in the hunt in 2012. And he believes this defense might be the best unit with which he's played.

"We lose three or four guys, but all the guys coming in for them are just as good as them," he said. "[Aliotti] asks me how the defense is doing, and I seriously tell him, 'This defense is going to be the best since I've been here.'"

Boyett is part of an impressive recent legacy of Oregon defensive backs. When he arrived, the Ducks' secondary included Ward, Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung and Walter Thurmond. The first three were second-round NFL draft picks, while Thurmond went in Round 4.

Those are the guys who first taught him how to play, but they aren't exempt from Boyett's competitive streak either. He's got big plans for this year, and part of that plan is leaving no doubt in the eyes of NFL scouts.

Said Boyett, "Coach Neal says if I have another great year I'm going to get drafted as high if not higher than them."

Reign in Oregon: Ducks aren't going away

December, 29, 2011
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Let's play a quick game of fill in the blank: Oregon fans are ... What comes to mind? Keep it clean, folks. Behave!

Yes, it is fair to say that Oregon fans have eagerly, zealously and vociferously embraced the recent success of their team. The seed that was planted when Kenny Wheaton went the other way against Washington in 1994 is now a full-grown oak, and Oregon fans enjoy pointing out that their oak is more stately and beautiful than yours.

[+] EnlargeOregon's Chip Kelly
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIRENCAA sanctions appear to be the only thing that could derail Chip Kelly's Oregon juggernaut in the near future.
Eleven other Pac-12 teams want Oregon to go away. We have bad news for those 11. Not happening.

With the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 against Wisconsin, the Ducks are playing in their third consecutive BCS bowl game. No other team in the country has played in three consecutive BCS bowl games. But this rise to the nation's elite started before this run of conference success. Oregon's first taste of national title contention was in 2000 and 2001. After a middling, post-Joey Harrington, pre-Chip Kelly interim, it was ranked No. 2 and a national title contender in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. Oregon finished the 2008 season ranked 10th. It finished 11th in 2009 after losing the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. It finished third in 2010 after losing to Auburn in the national title game.

While opposing fans can still pull out the "They haven't won a BCS bowl game under Kelly" card, that tweak comes from beneath the Ducks in the Pac-12 pecking order, so as ripostes go, it's rather pyrrhic.

And the Ducks, even if they lose to Wisconsin, will be a preseason top-10 team in 2012, probably top-five if they win the Granddaddy. There certainly is a lot to like about the depth chart.

Not including junior running back LaMichael James, who is likely off to the NFL, the Ducks should welcome back six starters on offense, six on defense and both specialists in 2012. But that doesn't tell the entire story.

For one, the Ducks will have a two-year starter returning at quarterback in Darron Thomas. While Thomas has had runs of inconsistent accuracy, there are two bottom lines: He's 22-3 as a starter and has thrown 63 touchdown passes with just 16 interceptions.

But what's notable about the Ducks' depth chart is not just returning starters.

Oregon only lists a two-deep. That means 44 players on offense and defense. Of the 22 names on offense, just four are departing seniors, not including James. Of the 22 names on defense, just six are seniors.

And most of the players who are leaving -- or are expected to leave, as in James' case -- are presently backed up by intriguing young talents who already have significant game experience. James leaving? Well, you all know who Kenjon Barner is. Tight end David Paulson? Freshman Colt Lyerla caught five touchdown passes this season. Lose two offensive linemen? Junior Ryan Clanton and freshman Jake Fisher have seen plenty of action. Lose two linebackers? Kiko Alonso has started five games and Boseko Lokombo has played a lot. Cornerback Anthony Gildon out the door? Redshirt freshman Troy Hill has started five games while Gildon has been hurt (and is doubtful for the Rose Bowl).

Further, the Ducks have some redshirt freshmen on both sides of the ball -- particularly at linebacker and receiver -- who figure to make an impact next year. Receivers Devon Blackmon, Tacoi Sumler and B.J. Kelley were highly touted 2011 signees, who could bolster the Ducks passing game.

If you were connecting the dots, you'd actually project the Ducks to be better in 2012 than their 2011, 11-2, Pac-12 champion selves.

And, even with the loss of Thomas after next season, the Ducks appear to set up nicely for 2013. And beyond.

I know. I know. Fans of those 11 other Pac-12 teams are jumping up and down and waving their arms, bellowing, "What about Willie Lyles and the NCAA?"

True, major NCAA sanctions would seem the mostly likely way the Ducks get knocked from their ascent to the nation's elite. And it could happen. You never know with the NCAA.

But the more I talk to people who make educated guesses on NCAA investigations, not to mention a few who have specific knowledge of the NCAA's inquiry into the Ducks, the more I'm leaning toward the position that the NCAA will not pound Oregon. I suspect sanctions will fall short of what Ohio State recently received.

Of course, I thought USC would receive less severe penalties than Alabama received in 2002, so I've also learned to not expect the NCAA to be logical and fair.

The point is this: If you are wondering what Oregon is likely to be doing in, say, 2014, my projection is they still will be annoying 11 other teams.

The Ducks aren't going to go away.

Practice? Chip Kelly's not talking

October, 13, 2010
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Oregon coach Chip Kelly channeled Bizarro World Allen Iverson this week.

We're (not) talking about practice, man. We're (not) talking about practice. We're (not) talking about practice. We (can talk) about the game. We're (not) talking about practice.

Kelly closed practices this week -- a bye week, no less -- and won't say anything about what happened during practice, which means fans and media will have to keep guessing as to the health of quarterback Darron Thomas (shoulder) and backup running back Kenjon Barner (concussion). We know this because of a wonderful, testy exchange on the Pac-10 coaches conference call between a good, persistent beat writer -- the Eugene Register-Guard's Rob Moseley -- and Kelly, who never gives in to reporters' questions.

(You can listen to it here -- the exchange starts at 1:19).

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Don RyanChip Kelly and Oregon have closed practices to the media. The Ducks play just one game during a 20-day stretch this month.
Moseley asked about Barner's status: "I’m not talking about that. Practice is closed, Robby, that’s why we closed it. I’m not going to discuss practice," Kelly said.

Moseley followed up by asking why Kelly closed practice (the decision preceded the injuries on Saturday): "I thought that’s what our football team needed, so we don’t have to deal with questions like this," Kelly said.

(Moseley later felicitously noted this on his blog: "This struck me as odd. He closed practices so that he wouldn’t have to face questions like, “Why did you close practice?” Seems to me that, had he not closed practices, the odds were pretty low that I would have asked that question.")

Pac-10 coaches tend to be an open and affable group, unlike the reputations of a number of SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten coaches. And Kelly is no exception, though he can be a bit grumpier than most at times. Most teams have open practices (until Kelly's move only California and Stanford completely closed practices). But a gigantic, pink polka dotted elephant has wandered into Eugene and parked itself in front of Autzen Stadium, and this exotic interloper seems to have made Kelly even more intense than usual.

The elephant's name, by the way, is "National Championship Talk." But you can call her "Natty Champ" for short.

Kelly is trying to ignore this elephant, who is known to be fickle with her affections.

I stopped laughing just after the Moseley-Kelly exchange and was able to ask Kelly how he planned to shield his team from all the hype that is simmering around it.

"We don’t shield our team," he said. "I think our kids can read whatever they want to read. I don’t talk about that. But they also know that it means absolutely nothing. You can just look at Alabama. They were the No. 1 team in the country and they lost. Now they’re the No. 8 team in the country. So I don’t shield my team. I know our kids can read the paper. I know our kids can read the Internet. But we don’t need to discuss it. Because it means nothing."

The Ducks have been here before, though not as an undefeated team. They were 8-1 and ranked No. 2 in 2007 before an ill-fated trip to Arizona. Not sure if any Ducks fans will remember this, but quarterback Dennis Dixon's knee blew up in the first half, the Ducks lost and national title hopes went splat. They then meandered through their next two contests and ended the regular season with a three-game losing streak.

That season is not only noteworthy as a parallel but also as an example of what is different now. When Dixon went down -- and he was only the biggest name on a long injury list that season -- there was no one capable of adequately filling his shoes. The Ducks were shut out -- think about that: Kelly's offense shut out! -- in their next game at UCLA.

But when Thomas went down against Washington State, senior Nate Costa, who lost a close battle for the starting job during the preseason, stepped in and the offense just kept doing its ludicrous speed thing. Costa completed 13 of 15 passes for 151 yards and a TD. And he rushed eight times for 84 yards and a score.

"It just speaks to the depth we have in this football program," Kelly said. "It’s just like bringing Michael Clay in at linebacker or Boseko Lokombo or Cliff Harris or Josh Huff. We have depth at a lot of different spots right now, and that’s paying off for us."

The Ducks don't play again until UCLA comes to town on Oct. 21 for a Thursday night, ESPN game, so there's time for Thomas and Barner to heal, though the best guess is there will be no rush to get Barner back on the field after taking a huge hit against the Cougars that knocked him out and required two nights of hospitalization. There then will be a long week of preparation before the visit to USC on Oct. 30, which remains a big game even though it doesn't have the same gravitas that it appeared to have during the preseason.

So the Ducks have one game in a 20-day span. That's plenty of time for Thomas to get healthy (and perhaps Barner). And if Thomas still needs a few more weeks, the offense remains in good hands with Costa.

In other words, things are setting up nicely for the Ducks to remain in the national title hunt.

Chip, "Natty Champ" really is cute. You don't have to ignore the elephant in the room.

"We don’t run this football program based on outside influences," Kelly said. "People saying you’re this or that, whether you’re good or bad. I don’t think you can do that. We don’t as a coaching staff talk about it. We as a group don’t talk about it. Our players, when I listen to them talk, they don’t talk about it either."

And Kelly most certainly is not going to talk about practice.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

October, 11, 2010
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A look back on the week that was.

Team of the week: Oregon State announced its return to relevancy with a win at No. 9 Arizona. The biggest revelation: Sophomore QB Ryan Katz is ready for primetime.

Best game: You can't beat a game with two game-winning drives, unless your team is the one that produced the penultimate game-winning drive, which was the case of USC in its 37-35 loss at Stanford. For the second consecutive weekend, the Trojans lost on a last-second field goal. Still, a game billed as a potential blowout showed USC has plenty of fight left, at least on offense. (Wow. Are we now citing "moral" victories for the Trojans?)

Biggest play: There were so many big plays in Oregon State's 29-27 win over Arizona that it's hard to pick just one. But if you had to, it might just be Katz's 43-yard completion to H-back Joe Halahuni on a second and 13 play from the Beavers 33-yard line. With James Rodgers out with a knee injury, Katz's top passing options were limited, and if he'd missed the throw over the middle, it's possible the Beavers wouldn't have been too aggressive on a third-and-long call from their own territory. The Beavers got a first down on the Wildcats 24 and were able to run a lot of clock -- six of the next seven plays were runs -- before scoring a TD that gave them a a 29-20 lead, which made it a two-possession game.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck passed for 285 yards with three touchdowns against USC on Saturday.
Offensive standout: As usual, so many to choose from: Katz, Oregon's LaMichael James, California's Shane Vereen, USC's Matt Barkley, USC's Robert Woods, etc. But Andrew Luck was masterful against USC, completing 20 of 24 passes for 285 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. What's more: He led a seven-play, 62-yard drive in 1:08 to set up the game-winning field goal. And did you see his hit on Trojans CB Shareece Wright after a fumble? Smack goes the QB!

Defensive standout: Cal cornerback Darian Hagan had a bad year last season. Not this year. He had two sacks, an interception and five tackles while leading the Bears stellar defensive effort against UCLA. Honorable mentions include Arizona State's Jamaar Jarrett, who had two sacks at Washington, and Oregon's Brandon Bair, who had 3.5 tackles for a loss at Washington State.

Special teams standout: Oregon's Cliff Harris returned a punt 67 yards for a TD at Washington. He has done that three times this year, which is the most in FBS football. Oh, and he returned an interception for a TD at Tennessee.

Smiley face: Cal suffered two tough losses in September: It got embarrassed at Nevada and lost a heartbreaker at Arizona. It could have yielded. Instead, it whipped a hot UCLA team 35-7 and showed it can stop a pistol offense by holding the Bruins to just 144 yards.

Frowny face: Washington had injury issues and QB Jake Locker was trying to play through a flu-like illness, but that doesn't change the fact that it couldn't maintain the momentum it built after a win at USC. Arizona State had plenty of issues, too, but it found a way to win on the road in a rainstorm, weather one would think would benefit the Huskies far more than the Sun Devils.

Thought of the week: Oregon fans: How different did it feel when QB Darron Thomas injured his throwing shoulder knowing you had senior Nate Costa on the bench ready to step in? While Thomas may be back as soon as the UCLA game on Oct. 21, the Ducks would still feel like the Rose Bowl favorites with Costa as the starter. Recall in 2007 that when Dennis Dixon was lost for the year with a knee injury, almost everyone immediately realized the Ducks were in big trouble.

Questions for the week: Does the cannibalism begin now? Or do a couple of teams emerge at the top of the conference? Arizona's loss to Oregon State -- which left only Oregon undefeated -- hinted that stringing together wins is going to be extremely difficult due to the depth of the conference. So does that mean we end up with a muddle of two, three and four-loss teams? Or will Oregon ride home unscathed with an escort in the top-10?

Is Oregon the new USC?

October, 4, 2010
10/04/10
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With 18 starters coming back from a 10-3 team that won the 2009 Pac-10 title by two games, the only significant question for Oregon entering 2010 was at quarterback.

Of course, that's a big question. Experience at quarterback, traditionally, has been extremely important in the Pac-10. A notable recent exception would be when USC rolled to a second-consecutive conference title -- as well as the national championship -- in 2003 with sophomore Matt Leinart as a first-year starter.

What year is Darron Thomas again? For that matter, what year is LaMichael James?

No, we're not going there. We're not going to throw out the notion of Oregon stepping into the void left by the crumbling of USC's dynasty. That would be silly.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Rick BowmerQuarterback Darron Thomas is giving Oregon fans a reason to celebrate.
Wouldn't it?

Come on! Oregon doesn't have the recruiting base. It doesn't have the history. Its stadium is rowdy, yes, but it doesn't seat 90,000-plus like all the superpowers' stadiums do.

Heck, Oregon first needs to win a Rose Bowl in the modern era before anyone starts thinking about writing epic poetry about it. And in any event coach Chip Kelly is all about the present moment -- "Win the day!" -- which even has its own crest. There's nothing in "Thus Spoke Kelly" about building dynasties.

What we do have is this: Oregon was ranked No. 2 and a national title contender in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. Oregon finished the 2008 season ranked 10th. It finished 11th last season after losing the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. It presently is ranked No. 3.

The Ducks are building toward their best run in modern program history. And they are just a few clicks from becoming one of those PROGRAMS.

As we said, the question entering the season was how good could the Ducks be after losing a quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, who was a two-year starter and was considered a short-list Heisman Trophy candidate. At some point in the 52-31 win over Stanford on Saturday, the story moved decisively away from who Thomas wasn't to who he is. And who he could become.

"He's definitely coming along," center Jordan Holmes said after the game. "And I can't wait to see how far he can go because he gets better and better every week. He's just a kid. He's got a lot more football to play. I'm really looking forward to see what he becomes in the future."

With Thomas at present, Oregon might have the best offense in the nation. It ranks No. 1 in scoring (56.6 points per game) and total offense (569 yards per game). It doesn't give up sacks (one in five games). It runs the ball (No. 2 in the nation with 331 yards per game).

But Oregon also plays underrated defense. You've all heard the "one second-half TD surrendered in the first five games" factoid. But the Ducks are 15th in the nation in scoring defense -- 15 ppg -- and fourth in pass efficiency defense.

Have the Ducks given up some yards? Yes. But they surrender only 4.73 yards per play.

Whoops. That's not right. The Ducks surrender only 4.58 yards per play. Alabama's defense gives up 4.73 yards per play. My bad.

Oregon is never going to do well in total defense because opponents get to run a lot of plays against it due to the Ducks' offensive tempo -- see a rank of 98th in time of possession.

Folks say defense wins championships. The Ducks defense is good enough to win a championship.

Obviously, it's premature to contemplate Oregon stepping into the void left by USC's decline. Before USC's ascension, the Pac-10 was the most unpredictable conference in the country: See nine different teams at least earning a share of the Pac-10 title from 1993 to 2001.

And Oregon fans know that seeming juggernauts can fall hard. The 2007 Ducks were rolling with Dixon. Without him, they lost three straight and went to the Sun Bowl.

Still, at this point, the Ducks have looked like the best team in the conference as well as national title contenders. If those midseason perceptions end up being accurate in January, and the Ducks manage to win a Rose Bowl or -- gasp -- play for a national title, then Oregon will no longer just be a nice program.

It will become one of those PROGRAMS.
EUGENE, Ore. -- He Who Shall Not Be Named can now be named. Jeremiah Masoli? Neh. The "oh, what might have been!" is gone. Oregon doesn't need him. Sure, the Ducks offense ran at ludicrous speed with him last year. But their 2010 spread-option offense is running at double-secret ludicrous speed.

Sophomore Darron Thomas, the quarterback replacement after Masoli got the boot, is doing just fine, thank you very much, see 626 yards of offense in the fourth-ranked Ducks 52-31 win over No. 9 Stanford. He's doing so well, in fact, that he might help running back LaMichael James win the Heisman Trophy.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesLaMichael James rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries against Stanford.
That Thomas completed 20 of 29 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns isn't the big news. He's always been a promising passer. It's that he rushed for a career-high 117 yards and score, too. He rushed for just 102 yards in the previous four games.

"We can put those rumors to bed that he can't run the football," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. "He's everything you'd want in a quarterback."

Why is Thomas' success running important to James? Because when a defense can't entirely key on James in the spread-option, James is going to kill it. And by that we mean, say, rushing for 257 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. Stanford's defense, by the way, was yielding just 256 yards per game. That number is headed north.

Know how many yards James lost with those 31 carries? Zero.

James entered the contest ranked fifth in the nation in rushing with 151.7 yards per game (the NCAA and Pac-10 got the numbers wrong this week, giving James 158.3 per game). A marquee performance on a big stage surely raised his Q-rating. Or H-rating.

"Tonight, I feel like I was running on all cylinders," he said. "I was running physically. I was really aggressive. I played with a lot more energy."

James said that he didn't feel like that was the case earlier in the season.

"I think he was trying to dance in some (early) games," Kelly said. "When he really trusts his speed -- that last touchdown run was a blur."

That last TD run went for 72 yards. It was his third run of 20 or more yards in the game. He has 30 of those over the past two years, more than any other back in the nation.

As for Thomas, he led the offensive onslaught -- the Ducks were down 21-3 before outscoring the Cardinal 49-10 the rest of the way -- after throwing two first-half interceptions. So far this season, he's displayed notable moxie, showing no ill-effects when he makes mistakes. This was the third time this season he's led the Ducks back from double-digit early deficits.

"He's definitely coming along," center Jordan Holmes said. "And I can't wait to see how far he can go because he gets better and better every week. He's just a kid. He's got a lot more football to play. I'm really looking forward to see what he becomes in the future."

Of course, the present looks pretty darn good. The Ducks, who visit Washington State next weekend, are 5-0 and figure to enter the national title discussion. It's possible, in fact, they'll get more than a few votes at No. 2 behind Alabama and ahead of Ohio State.

Such talk doesn't go very far with the Ducks, though, who seemed to have bought in to Kelly's whole "win the day" philosophy. And it's not surprising that James said he "didn't care" about Heisman Trophy buzz.

"I don't want to be sitting at the house with a Heisman Trophy and we're 5-5," he said. "I'd rather be 12-0, 13-0 with no Heisman Trophy."

It's then noted to James that those two events -- undefeated and stiff-arm trophy -- often are intertwined, see last year's winner, Alabama's Mark Ingram.

James relents: "If the Heisman Trophy comes with winning games, I'll take it."

If he keeps running like he did against Stanford, he might. And if Thomas continues his rapid evolution into ... wait for it... Dennis Dixon (ha!), the Ducks might be up to some big things, too.

Building a Pac-10 'House of Pain'

August, 5, 2010
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Here's our take on the most painful losses for each Pac-10 team.

Feel free to disagree.

Arizona

Oregon 44, Arizona 41, 2OT, 2009

With "College GameDay" on campus for the first time, Arizona fans stormed the field in celebration. Prematurely. And that set up a red ring of disappointment around the field at packed Arizona Stadium, when Jeremiah Masoli rallied the Ducks late for a tie in regulation and then a win in double-overtime. As it turned out, if the Wildcats had won, they would have gone to the school's first Rose Bowl. Masoli tied the game at 31-31 with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Ed Dickson with six seconds left, capping a 15-play, 80-yard drive. Two plays before, he had converted an 8-yard pass on fourth-and-5. Masoli scored the game winner from 1-yard out in the second overtime. It was his sixth touchdown of the night -- three passing and three running. It may have been the best game of 2009.

Arizona State

Ohio State 20, Arizona State 17, Rose Bowl, 1997

So close to a national championship. The Sun Devils' 11-0 regular season included a 19-0 victory over defending national champion Nebraska, and they looked poised to win in Pasadena when Jake Plummer, on third-and-11, scrambled for a touchdown and 17-14 lead with 1:40 to play. But the Buckeyes weren't done. They drove 65 yards for the winning score, with David Boston hauling in a touchdown pass from five yards out with 19 seconds left. That pass was thrown by Ohio State's backup quarterback, Joe Germaine, who came off the bench to earn game MVP honors. Germaine was born and raised in Arizona and grew up rooting for ASU but opted to go to Ohio State because the Sun Devils coaches wanted him to play defensive back.

California

USC 23, California 17, 2004

Cal dominated the best USC team of the Pete Carroll era -- the Bears outgained the Trojans 424 yards to 205 -- but a comeback attempt fell short at the end. It was the Bears only regular season loss, despite quarterback Aaron Rodgers tying an NCAA record by completing 23 consecutive passes. Rodgers was nearly perfect until three throws missed from the USC 14-yard line in the final minute. Cal was undone by poor special teams play and three turnovers (versus one from USC). Making the defeat even more bitter: After a lobbying effort from Texas coach Mack Brown, the Longhorns eclipsed the Bears in the BCS standings and played in the Rose Bowl, which relegated Cal, which hadn't played in the Rose Bowl since 1959, to the Holiday Bowl, where they played without passion in an upset lost to Texas Tech.

Oregon

Arizona 34, Oregon 24, 2007

It's hard to decide between the 49-42 loss to Stanford in 2001 -- the Ducks lone defeat that season -- or this one (the 2000 Civil War defeat also deserves note). The Stanford loss -- after leading 42-28 -- ended a 23-game winning streak and was the Ducks first home loss in four years. It also cost the Ducks a shot at the national title against Miami. At Arizona in 2007 on Thursday night on ESPN, the 8-1 Ducks were ranked No. 2 and quarterback Dennis Dixon was the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. They led 8-7 and were driving when Dixon blew out his knee (he'd first hurt it 12 days before versus Arizona State). Things mostly fell apart from there, in the game and over the final two games of the regular season. Here's the distinction: 2001 and its final No. 2 ranking still rate as the best season in program history. If Oregon had beaten Stanford, however, it would have played Miami in the Rose Bowl, the BCS title game, and that Hurricanes team was, well, awesome (in the real sense of the word). If the 2007 Ducks had won out and played LSU or Ohio State for the national title, their chances would have been very good to win the program's first national title. Instead, the season ended in major disappointment -- the Sun Bowl -- and an overwhelming sense of what might have been.

(Read full post)

EUGENE, Ore. -- Opportunity doesn't always arrive on a golden chariot. Often it appears amid the smoldering debris of a train wreck.

[+] EnlargeCosta
Dustin Snipes/Icon SMIAs a backup last season, Nate Costa completed 20 of 33 passes with one touchdown and one INT.
Such is the Oregon quarterback situation.

Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremiah Masoli gets suspended for the season after a burglary conviction? That means either senior Nate Costa or sophomore Darron Thomas will inherit an offense loaded with skill and possibility. If they play well, the Ducks figure to become a top-10 team and the Pac-10 favorite. If not, who knows how things go?

Both Costa and Thomas understand that a cloud hangs over their competition. Thomas calls Masoli his "best friend on the team." They room together before games. But neither is apologizing for embracing the unexpected opportunity.

"Obviously, the circumstances that started this competition are not ideal," Costa said. "Just having the opportunity my senior year is huge, though. It means a lot to me."

Many fans are intrigued by Thomas. His long, lean, 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame suggests Dennis Dixon. Only Thomas is hardly skinny, considering he's pound-for-pound one of the strongest players on the team. He's got a good arm and runs well.

And, of course, he's already produced 15 tantalizing minutes of fame.

In 2008, with the four quarterbacks who began the season ahead of him on the depth chart hurt, Thomas came off the bench as a true freshman against Boise State and nearly led the Ducks back from a 24-point deficit. He passed for 210 yards and three touchdowns and left everyone pondering his tremendous upside.

"You can see him getting better every day," coach Chip Kelly said. "Things are starting to slow down for him a little bit. He's a really, really smart kid."

Thomas was able to redshirt last year, but the Boise State experience whet his appetite. He doesn't seem overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events that could have him leading the Ducks in front of 100,000-plus fans at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium on Sept. 11.

"This whole time, I've been ready to play," he said. "I haven't been slacking because I'm not on the field."

While Kelly won't say who's ahead, more than a few observers who've watched spring practices tap Costa.

Recall that before the 2008 season, Costa was widely viewed as the prototypical leader of Kelly's spread-option attack. He could run and throw -- Kelly's a big fan of his compact motion -- and his ball work on the option plays was said to be nearly as artful as Dixon's.

Then he blew out his knee during the preseason and underwent surgery for a third time. Most wrote him off and just thought it was admirable he fought to come back as a reserve. When he started last year at UCLA, filling in for an injured Masoli, he acted mostly as a caretaker for the offense, completing just 9 of 17 passes for 82 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He looked tentative as a runner.

But Kelly has seen a more confident, athletic Costa this spring.

"Nate's smart. Nate's heady. He moves better than people give him credit for," Kelly said. "He's got a great command of our offense. He's a great leader. He's really throwing the ball well. He's really starting to pick it up."

Then the most important part: "He's kind of like that kid two years ago."

Kelly said he's not going to keep his final decision a secret until the week of the season opener against New Mexico. He'll make a call when a winner emerges. He said he's willing to play two guys but that's not his preference.

And he grows animated when asked if things are close in the competition, the tie goes to the younger player who will be around another three years.

"The future for us is right now," he said. "We are the defending Pac-10 champs and we are going to be good again next year. How good really depends on how well our quarterback plays. We're not building for, 'Let's play the younger guy because two years down the road we're going to be good.'"

That's the rub. If the Ducks get quality play at quarterback, this squad could be headed back to the Rose Bowl.

The train wreck that led to this opportunity for a backup quarterback, however, doesn't seem to be obsessing the Ducks as much as their fans. They seem confident that whoever takes the snaps will do fine, as will the 21 other starters.

"A lot people thought there would be a lot of turmoil -- angst -- over the quarterback position, but guys on our team know that Nate Costa has command [of] our offense as well as DT," linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. "We have two able quarterbacks. There wasn't really a cause for concern. We took a blow. Now we just need to recover."

Is Oregon still the Pac-10 favorite?

March, 15, 2010
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When the Pac-10 blog published its spring power rankings on Feb. 10, it included this disclaimer: "Expect these to change, perhaps dramatically, before the 2010 season."

So, Oregon -- the easy top choice five weeks ago -- any drama in the conference between then and now?

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThe offseason has been anything but dull for Chip Kelly.
The question at present is does the order at the top change?

Here's what we wrote on Feb. 10:
1. Oregon: All the pieces are here for another Rose Bowl run, the only question being the defensive line. The Ducks also had a top-25 recruiting class, with a number of incoming players appearing capable of immediately contributing.

2. USC: A top-10 recruiting class bolsters USC and provides momentum for new coach Lane Kiffin. On the downside, three offensive linemen and the entire secondary need to be replaced. Still, the depth chart hints the Trojans will be in the conference -- and perhaps national -- mix.

3. Oregon State: The Beavers lose just five starters, but all eyes will be on the quarterback competition between Ryan Katz and Peter Lalich this spring. Young quarterbacks thrived in the conference in 2009, so there's no reason to believe the Beavers can't find a guy who can be productive.

These three still seem to be the most likely contenders to win the 2010 conference title. But how far does Oregon drop with the loss of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, who was supposed to be heading into his third year as a starter in coach Chip Kelly's spread-option offense?

The natural reaction, particularly outside of Pac-10 country, will be to promote USC. The Trojans have experience at quarterback and plenty of intriguing talent. And, you may recall, they've done fairly well in conference play in recent years before the Ducks stepped to the fore in 2009.

And the Trojans play host to Oregon next fall, which becomes an even bigger advantage when Masoli is removed from the equation and replaced by a quarterback who's never played in the Coliseum.

Of course, USC has its own off-field issue to contend with. And it's returning roster is hardly perfect, not to mention the program is breaking in a new coaching staff.

Oregon State is a legitimate candidate, but it's even less experienced at quarterback than Oregon without Masoli. And the Beavers lost two linebackers during the offseason who were expected to be back in 2010.

On the other hand, the Beavers play host to both USC and Oregon next year. We all know how much the Trojans enjoy their trips to the state of Oregon.

Despite all of this, jumping off the Ducks' bandwagon might be a mistake.

Recall how well -- and quickly -- Kelly develops quarterbacks. Dennis Dixon, pre-Kelly, looked nothing like the Dennis Dixon of 2007. And the Ducks finished in the top 10 in 2008 after walloping Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl with an emergency starting quarterback by the name of Jeremiah Masoli, who was a late roster addition when he transferred from a junior college.

We won't "officially" redo the power rankings until after spring practices. I'm going to visit all three of these teams this spring, so I'll get a first-hand look at what things might look like.

But at this point, I'd rate myself a slight USC lean with a nagging suspicion that Kelly is going to spin the off-field issues and Masoli suspension into a powerful motivator -- and unifier -- inside his locker room.

And those Beavers, hmm.

Costa or Thomas for Ducks?

March, 12, 2010
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While running back LaMichael James sitting out Oregon's season-opener inside friendly Autzen Stadium against woeful New Mexico most likely won't slow the Ducks down, it's fair to assume them losing a potential Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback is a bigger issue.

Game two is at Tennessee, after all. Big loud -- orange -- stadium.

So who steps in for Jeremiah Masoli after he was suspended for the 2010 season?

The unanticipated competition, which will commence March 30 when spring practices begin, will be between senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas.

Costa? It's possible Masoli would be an obscure backup today if both of Costa's knees hadn't crumpled. Recall that Costa was once the hot-shot prospect to run Chip Kelly's spread-option offense after Dennis Dixon headed to the NFL after the 2007 season.

Now a senior, Costa has suffered major injuries on both knees, but he knows the offense and he's got a veteran's savvy. He stayed healthy last year and even led the Ducks to a win over UCLA, filling in for an injured Masoli, and his maturity might be meaningful for an offense that is seemingly rudderless after losing a two-year starter.

Then there's Thomas, who burst onto the scene with an impressive performance off the bench as a true freshman against Boise State in 2008, throwing for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas redshirted in 2009, but the 6-foot-3, 205 pounder has tremendous upside as a dual-threat quarterback.

The issue is this: Even without Masoli, the Ducks are a top Pac-10 contender, see 18 returning starters. So who gives them their best chance to maximize their potential in 2010?

That's a big question that will hang over spring practices.

And, just to throw it out there, Kelly left the option open for a Masoli return in 2011, if he opts to redshirt and fulfill requirements to regain his good standing.

Just imagine if Thomas wins the job and leads the Ducks to a second-consecutive Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth.

Then Oregon will go into 2011 with two quarterbacks who have conference championships to their credit.

That could be interesting.

Judgment day for Oregon?

March, 12, 2010
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Oregon running back LaMichael James' will face sentencing this morning after making a plea deal on domestic violence charges, and Duck quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will face a burglary charge in court later this afternoon.

Masoli
Masoli
James
James
And coach Chip Kelly is expected to announce discipline decisions on these two second-team All-Pac-10 performers who were big reasons the Ducks were likely going to be a preseason top-10 team and the Pac-10 favorites heading into 2010.

It's a big day for Ducks football.

So, in purely football terms, the worst case is Kelly either kicks both off the team or suspends them for the entire season. That's highly unlikely, particularly with James, but let's entertain the notion.

First, the Ducks won't tumble into the slag heap, though picking a Pac-10 favorite will become much more difficult.

The Ducks spread-option offense will take a step back if Masoli isn't running the show. He's a two-year starter who's masterful at disguising where the ball is on option runs. He's also a physical runner with a nose for the end zone who's a solid, if at times inconsistent, passer.

Senior backup Nate Costa has seen only limited action in games, starting once last year when Masoli was hurt, leading the Ducks to a win over UCLA. He completed 20 of 33 passes for 197 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Recall that knee injuries derailed a promising future for Costa. He was Dennis Dixon's heir apparent in 2008, and Kelly was very high on his prospects. The biggest question with him is whether he can stay healthy.

The future, however, is Darron Thomas, who took a redshirt in 2009, his second season with the program. Thomas, at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, is best remembered for his poised performance as a true freshman coming off the bench against Boise State in 2008, when he nearly led the Ducks back from a huge deficit. He threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns.

Thomas is a good athlete with tremendous upside as a passer. Would starting his second game in front of 100,000-plus at Tennessee be a shock to his system? Probably. But UCLA won there last year with redshirt freshman Kevin Prince, so success in Neyland Stadium with a green QB is hardly unprecedented.

At running back, Kenjon Barner, a 5-11, 190-pound sophomore, is James' capable backup. The former cornerback rushed for 366 yards last year and averaged 7.5 yards per carry. He had seven carries for 64 yards in the Rose Bowl.

The Ducks also have senior Remene Alston, who rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns, but Barner's top backups might be one or two of the touted freshmen in the 2010 recruiting class: Lache Seastrunk, rated the nation's No. 6 running back by Scouts. Inc., Dontae Williams and Josh Huff.

Is potentially losing Masoli and James ideal? Absolutely not. Is it catastrophic for the 2010 season? Probably not.

Now some links:

  • John Canzano on Judgment Day -- separating rumor from truth, and Kelly turning to a surprising rival for advice (it actually doesn't surprise me at all).
  • It comes down to felonies vs. misdemeanors, athletic director Mike Bellotti told The Oregonian. In other words, Masoli needs his second-degree burglary charge -- a felony -- to be reduced to remain with the team. "A felony conviction would result in dismissal from the team and loss of scholarship," Bellotti told the newspaper.
  • Ducks headed to the NFL think the team needs better player leadership.
  • A legal expert thinks Masoli will get probation, not jail time, and may get his charges reduced to a misdemeanor.
  • Some fans are venting about the Ducks troubles -- and some are getting creative.
  • And beyond Kelly's discipline, what about school policy?

Pac-10 games of the decade

January, 20, 2010
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Lots of extraordinary games to choose from, as well as many ways to ascribe greatness: the size of the stage, the competitiveness of the game and the overall strangeness.

And we made the executive decision not to make this a list of USC upset losses -- other than the biggest one of those.

10. Oregon 56, Arizona State 55 (2 OT), 2000: Many of you are drawing a blank, but the ones who saw this one are jumping out of their chairs and going, "Oh man. That one was nuts." Both teams scored 21 points in the fourth quarter. The teams combined for 1,228 yards, 663 of those for the Sun Devils. Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington threw six -- SIX! -- touchdown passes, including three in the fourth quarter, the last of which tied the score with 27 seconds left after the Sun Devils gave away a critical fumble. Arizona State freshman QB Jeff Krohn threw five TD passes, by the way. ASU lost the game when coach Bruce Snyder decided to fake the extra point and go for the two-point conversion in the second overtime. It failed, leaving fans in Tempe stunned.

9. Washington State 30, USC 27 (OT), 2002: Any of you Cougars fans able to muster the memory of kicker Drew Dunning's slide on his knees at Martin Stadium? Dunning sent the game into overtime with a 35-yard field goal and then made the game-winner from the same distance in a victory that was critical to the Cougars' run to the Rose Bowl. The game featured a brilliant quarterback duel between Carson Palmer and Jason Gesser -- Gesser passed for 315 yards, Palmer for 381 -- and a dominant performance from Cougars defensive tackle Rien Long, who went on to win the Outland Trophy. Between this game and the 2006 Rose Bowl, USC lost just once.

8. Oregon 44, Arizona 41 (2 OT), 2009: If Arizona had won this game, we now know the Wildcats would have played in their first Rose Bowl. The Wildcats led 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, but then the game went crazy. With red-clad Arizona fans encircling the field, Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli tied the game in regulation with six seconds left with a touchdown pass to Ed Dickson. Masoli then won it in the second overtime with a 1-yard run. Masoli ran for three TDs and passed for three more.

7. Stanford 24, USC 23, 2007: Greatest upset in Pac-10 history? Maybe. Stanford was a 41-point underdog playing its backup quarterback at No. 2 USC, which had won 35 in a row at home. But Trojans quarterback John David Booty, who foolishly played -- and was allowed to play -- with an injured throwing hand, threw four interceptions, while Stanford's Tavita Pritchard led a clutch, game-winning drive, throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bradford on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds remaining.

6. Oregon 37, Oregon State 33, 2009: It was the Civil War for the Roses, with the Ducks earning a berth in the Rose Bowl. While the return of Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount was significant -- he scored a critical touchdown -- the game belonged to redshirt freshman running back LaMichael James, who scored three touchdowns and rushed for 166 yards, and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who ran over Beavers safety Lance Mitchell to convert a fourth-and-3 play from the Beavers' 33 with 3:41 left, as Oregon ran out the final six minutes with its final drive.

5. California 31, Oregon 24, 2007: Sixth-ranked California, featuring a stellar performance from receiver DeSean Jackson, outlasted No. 11 Oregon in a game between two teams that would at one point rise to No. 2 during the season, though both ultimately crumbled. The game turned on a strange play as the Ducks were on the cusp of tying the score. With 22 seconds to go, Dennis Dixon found Cameron Colvin near the goal line, but Colvin fumbled trying to reach the ball into the end zone when he was hit by Marcus Ezeff. The loose ball went through the end zone and was ruled a touchback and possession for Cal.

4. Washington 33, Oregon State 30, 2000: It was the greatest game no one saw because of the late, West Coast kickoff at Husky Stadium. And at the time, its magnitude wasn't clear. The critical play of the back-and-forth affair happened when Washington defensive tackle Larry Tripplett caught Ken Simonton for a three-yard loss on second-and-1 from the Huskies 26-yard line with 42 seconds left. The Beavers panicked and mistakenly spiked the ball -- they had a timeout left -- and then Ryan Cesca missed a 46-yard field goal to tie. It was the Beavers' only loss of the season; they crushed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. They would have played Oklahoma for the national title if they had prevailed. And the win helped the Huskies win the Rose Bowl tiebreaker.

3. USC 23, California 17, 2004: No. 7 California had a first-and-goal on top-ranked USC's 9-yard line with under two minutes left. At that point, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers had completed 29 of 31 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown. But the Bears couldn't punch it in, with USC registering a sack and forcing three incompletions. It was the closest call of the season for the best team of the USC dynasty.

2. USC 34, Notre Dame 31, 2005: The infamous "Bush Push" game. No. 9 Notre Dame was about to knock off top-ranked rival USC and make Irish coach Charlie Weis a national sensation, but Matt Leinart led a drive for the ages in the waning moments as the Trojans prevailed, scoring the winning points when Leinart got a little extra help from Bush on his second effort on a quarterback sneak.

1. Texas 41, USC 38, 2006 Rose Bowl: Perhaps the great game in college football history, particularly considering that the stakes were a national title for two unbeaten teams and the field was packed with talent and future high draft choices. Vince Young almost single-handedly willed his team to the victory -- he ran for 200 yards and passed for 267 more -- and denied the Trojans a third consecutive national title. USC walked away with a laundry list of "what ifs," but the ultimate result was a 34-game winning streak coming to an end.

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