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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
A recipe for UCLA triumph!

By Ted Miller

Oregon has never thrown up on itself under coach Chip Kelly.

The Ducks have lost games under Kelly, six in three seasons. But each loss was to a high-quality foe. The only unranked team that beat Kelly was Stanford in 2009, a squad that featured Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart and was ranked the next week after beating the Ducks.

Before losing to USC on Nov. 19, Oregon had won 21 consecutive games in Autzen Stadium, then the longest home winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Ducks also had won 19 consecutive conference games, then the second-longest such winning streak in FBS behind TCU.

Rick Neuheisel
Rick Neuheisel's Bruins have a big challenge Friday in the form of Oregon.
The Ducks, who very rarely lose at home and very rarely lose conference games, lost to the Trojans by three. UCLA lost to the Trojans by 50.

So it's not much of a surprise that Oregon is a 31-point favorite against UCLA in the first Pac-12 championship game Friday. The Bruins also, by the way, fired coach Rick Neuheisel this week, so the negative momentum with the program is fairly strong.

Our point: If Oregon were to lose to UCLA, and yield a spot in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio to a 7-6 team, it would rate as an upset of monumental proportions. Think Stanford over USC or Appalachian State over Michigan, both in 2007.

But those were games in which the Trojans and Wolverines obviously -- and not without justification -- overlooked their foes. Those were early-season matchups without clear stakes and with zero pregame buzz. The Ducks, who celebrate the steadiness of their weekly preparation, believing every game is a Super Bowl, are surely aware a win means Rose Bowl and a loss means Valero Alamo Bowl. It's that simple.

So there would be grounds to call a UCLA win, with Neuheisel on the sideline for the final time, one of the biggest in college football history.

We laid out that lengthy introduction because now we'll ask a simple but impossible question: How? How can UCLA win this game?

The first thing is obvious: turnovers. That's often the first place to look. If the Ducks were to, say, give the ball away four or five times and the Bruins were to end up with zero giveaways, that would bolster the Bruins' cause significantly. Recall USC QB John David Booty heaving four interceptions against the Cardinal in 2007, which made things easier for a 41-point underdog.

And all turnovers are not equal. A pick-six when the opposing offense is in the red zone can transform a game. Ask Notre Dame about that 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown that South Florida got with the Irish on its 1-yard line.

But Ducks gifts to the Bruins are obvious as a recipe for an upset and would be out of character for a team that has turned the ball over only 16 times, second fewest in the conference behind Stanford, which has 15.

In terms of X's and O's, the Bruins are going to have to take some chances on offense. They like to run the ball and have done it fairly well this season out of their pistol formation, but they are going to have to get some big plays downfield in the passing game. A 76-yard TD pass was probably the key play of the Bruins' surprising win over Arizona State.

That said, the Bruins also will want to play keep-away. Sure, Oregon doesn't care about time of possession. But UCLA should not snap the ball with 15 seconds left on the play clock. The Bruins want to minimize the Ducks' touches.

"If you are talking to your offensive unit, you've got to treat it like tennis," Neuheisel said. "You've got your serve, and you better hold it. You've got to go down and put points on the board."

Then there's special teams. The Bruins need to win that battle. They certainly can't let the Ducks get big plays on returns from De'Anthony Thomas. They can't miss field goals. They need punter Jeff Locke to pin the Ducks as far away from the end zone as possible. UCLA needs a short field for its limited offense and a long field for Oregon's explosive one.

As for the Bruins' defense, it needs to be opportunistic and physical. This term has become a cliché for Ducks opponents, but it's that way because it's true: gap integrity. The Bruins' front seven needs to maintain its assigned gaps and not get distracted by Oregon's spread-option misdirection.

"You have to be very mindful of assignments and you have to be mindful of pace," Neuheisel said.

Third down also will be key, although Oregon is rarely afraid of going for it on fourth down. The Bruins need to find ways to stay on the field on offense and get off the field on defense. That's obvious, yes, but it also speaks to the best way to prevent the Ducks' up-tempo pace from exhausting a defense.

In the end, it's simple: UCLA needs to play its absolute best, and Oregon needs to lay an egg.

There is no reason to believe that will happen, even if the Bruins are inspired to win one for the old Rickster.

But they still are going to roll the ball out there Friday and see what happens. Stranger things have occurred, after all. Not many, but some.