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Oregon season recap

12/7/2010

Oregon turned in the greatest regular season in program history. How about that for a recap?

And the Ducks are one win -- over the Auburn Tigers -- away from perfection and their first national title.

The curious thing is the Ducks may have ended up here because of the very reason many thought they wouldn't in the preseason: quarterback Jeremiah Masoli getting booted from the program. After losing a veteran quarterback who might have become a Heisman Trophy candidate, it seemed reasonable to demote Oregon from national title contender to merely Pac-10 front-runner.

But it became clear fairly early that coach Chip Kelly made the right choice when he opted to start sophomore Darron Thomas. While not as good a runner as Masoli, Thomas is a better, more consistent passer. And he is a perfect manager for the Ducks' up-tempo, grind-you-down offense.

The Ducks first sent a national message during a visit to Tennessee. The Volunteers jumped out to a quick lead. Then Oregon rolled up 45 consecutive points in a 48-13 win. There was a bit of a struggle at Arizona State, and then the Duck again fell behind early against then-No. 9 Stanford, 21-3. Wham. Oregon wins 52-31. That victory would grow larger in stature as the season went on -- No. 4 Stanford might be more than just the best one-loss team -- and it is now the highest quality win posted this season.

Oregon wouldn't be challenged again until a visit to California. Of course, it drives Ducks fans crazy that the 15-13 win over Cal is treated like it was closer than it was, that the Bears missed a field goal for the win. That field goal was missed on the first play of the fourth quarter. And the Ducks burned the final 9:25 off the clock before taking a knee at the Bears' 13-yard line.

While much is made of the Ducks' No. 1 scoring offense (49.33 ppg), which is understandable, they also are strong on defense, ranking 14th in the nation in scoring (18.42). And they absolutely own the second half, outscoring foes 277-77, while allowing just 24 fourth-quarter points.

Offensive MVP: Running back LaMichael James is a Heisman Trophy finalist. He led the nation with 152.9 yards rushing per game and 21 touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 169 yards and a TD. Simply, he's the best running back in the nation and is the Ducks' most dangerous weapon.

Defensive MVP: While leading tackler Casey Matthews deserves a tip of the cap, this goes to defensive tackle Brandon Bair, who led the Ducks with 15.5 tackles for a loss. He also had three sacks and eight pass breakups (tipped balls at line of scrimmage). He led all Ducks defensive linemen with 45 total tackles.

Turning point: The win over Stanford -- 18-point lead goes "poof!" -- on Oct. 2 showed that no lead was safe against the Ducks. That knowledge allowed the Ducks to stay loose and play with confidence despite adversity.

What’s next: A national championship? Whatever happens in the showdown with Auburn, the Ducks almost certainly will begin next year ranked in the top five. The offensive line, receivers and front seven take some hits due to graduation, but the Ducks should have Thomas and James back, as well as a lot of experienced players. Since the Ducks play so many guys, they aren't easily measured merely by returning starters. But an experienced QB running Kelly's offense will be the main reason they will be expected to win a third consecutive conference title in the first year of Pac-12 play. The opener against LSU will be interesting.