No one at Autzen stadium was more surprised, or delighted, last Fall than myself as the Broncos raced to a 37-13 lead over the Ducks. No one was less surprised, or dismayed, when the Broncos nearly squandered their big lead in the 4th quarter. Truly, the Broncos have a certain flair for making their fans sweat in big games and the 2008 game in Eugene was no exception. This season, the Ducks will try their darnedest to return the favor in Bronco Stadium in what will be the opener for both squads. The Broncos got over on the Ducks in Eugene last year with stellar play from frosh QB Kellen "Kellsy" Moore, opportunistic takeaways by the secondary, and a little bit of luck. This year, the Broncos will look to extend their ridiculous home win streak against a game, and revenge-oriented Ducks squad. Can the Broncos turn back the Ducks again? It's anyone's guess...but I know one thing for sure...the fans are going to sweat.
When the Ducks have the ball
The preseason hype has been all about Duck QB Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli, a JC transfer, started the 2008 season as #3 on the depth chart, but by the time the Boise State game rolled around he was ready for primetime. A late-hit-induced (no one is denying this fact, Ducks) concussion knocked Masoli out of the Boise State game before he could really do much damage...but by year's end, he was running the spread offense as well as anyone in the country. So, did the Broncos dodge a bullet not having to play Masoli in late season form? Possibly...but I also contend that Boise State's 4-2-5 defense is designed to neutralize quarterbacks that have Masoli's "unique" skillset. Truth be told, Boise State probably played a better dual-threat quarterback in 2007 and 2008 in Nevada's Colin Kaepernick. This is a tough pill to swallow for Oregon fans, but I would urge them to look at the stats for themselves. I am certainly not taking anything away from Masoli...he is an excellent athlete and a dangerous weapon, but I think the Broncos are equal to the task of neutralizing him, just as they did with Kaepernick in last year's finale.
The Bronco secondary may well be one of the best in the nation, led by senior Kyle Wilson, and it will be difficult for Masoli to improve upon his 57% completion average against the opportunistic Bronco DBs. The Ducks will be rolling out Jamere Holland this season, a USC transfer who may be one of the fastest WRs in the nation. He will pose a tough new test for Bronco defenders, but if the Broncos put heat on Masoli, he won't have as much time as he may need to shake Wilson loose. Worth a mention is TE Ed Dickson, who has great size and speed. He could own the middle of the field if the Bronco safetys aren't on their game...add in 6'7" newcomer Dion Jordan and the Broncos better claim their turf early.
Boise State had one of the better rushing defenses in the nation last year. They held the lion's share of their opponents below their season averages and forced teams to become one dimensional. In the bowl game, however, the Broncos run D was gashed time and again by the pounding rushing attack from the TCU Horned Frogs. The Broncos gave up 275 rushing yards in the bowl game...the eventual nail in the coffin on their one-point loss. The Ducks have a stable of fearsome RBs that could give the Broncos fits...that is if the Broncos don't go up big again forcing the Ducks to take to the air.
LaGarrette Blount is a bruising back who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2008. Maybe more impressive than Blount's 1002 yard campaign is that he did it while averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Many Broncos will remember Blount effortlessly hurdling Bronco defenders en route to the first TD of last year's contest—Blount will test the Bronco D-line and linebackers. The D-line, in my estimation, is up to the task, but the linebackers need to "play up" to limit Blount's production...if he gets to the second level, he will be difficult to bring down. Thankfully, Jeremiah Johnson will not be back in the Duck backfield, but Remene Alston Jr. will be back and the 5'8" 200 lb. sparkplug probably has more quicks than Blount. Alston saw limited action last season for the Ducks, but when he did get in (21 carries), he made the most...tallying 7.7 YPC. LaMichael James is a redshirt frosh who we may see take the field on September 3rd, kid is quick and has a low center of gravity. Don't forget...Masoli is a very capable runner as well, so outside contain will be key for the Broncos and defending the option will be difficult, but not impossible. The play of the Broncos new nickel/power backer will be of utmost importance. Last year, Ellis Powers' All-WAC caliber performance took running QBs out of the equation...this year, it looks like JC-transfer Winston Venable will be the man. If Venable can play at, or above, the level of Powers, it will make for a much longer day for Masoli and his backfield.
When the Broncos have the ball
Kellen Moore played out of his mind last year in Eugene. Not only did the freshman signal caller handle the pressure and noise of Autzen like a pro...he threw for 386 yards and 3 TDs against an Oregon secondary that was hailed as one of the nation's best. Of course, Jeremy Childs, Vinny Perretta, and a slew of Bronco tightends manned up as well, but Moore showed he was something special in the Oregon game, and he'll need to show it again.
Moore won't have Jeremy Childs this year to pull down balls in double coverage, but he may have his sticky-handed little brother Kirby running precision routes, and burner Titus Young should be more of a factor this year as well—stretching the field for Moore and his stronger-in-2009 arm. Austin Pettis is nearly automatic running endzone corner fades...if only the coaches remembered this all the time. The top-ranked CB in the Pac-10 last year going into the season was Jairus Byrd, but he looked flummoxed last year as the Broncos endless shifts sprung the tightends time and time again...this year, Walter Thurmond is the big CB on campus...and he hasn't forgotten what the Broncos passing game did to the Ducks secondary last season. Expect the Ducks DBs to play aggressive and look for takeaways and for the Duck D-line to get in Kellen's grill all game long. Junior DE WIll Tukuafu is one the Bronco tackles will need to get a "hand" on as he could be very disruptive. Duck fans know as well as I, Oregon has to stop the Bronco passing game if they want to win...and they do.
Look no further than the frenetic final minutes of last season's Broncos/Ducks tussle to properly gauge the importance of controlling the clock and time-of-possession. The Broncos simply could not get the run game going against the Ducks and in the end, it nearly cost them the game (along with some bad snaps). The Broncos have to get the running game going against the Ducks to take some pressure off of Kellen Moore...not that the kid can't handle it, but some breathers from the pass rush could do wonders for his psyche. In 2009, the Bronco O-line must improve upon last season's start and stop running attack. At Autzen, last year, the Broncos were only able to muster 38 rushing yards against the Ducks (ouch). When the Broncos rushed for under 100 yards in a game last year, the results were: a 5-point win, a 7-point win, and a 1-point loss...in games where the Broncos rushed for a minimum of 100 yards, they won by an average of 31.2 points. Rushing is important to the Broncos, and in 2009, they must establish the run early and often if they want to win (or at least win more convincingly). DJ Harper and Jeremy Avery may be better running backs for the 2008 and 2009 versions of the Bronco O-line. Gone are the gaping holes and cadillac-wide running lanes of 2006...now the holes close quickly and the backfield can get crowded quick. Avery and Harper's quicker cuts and more impatient run style may help bolster the Bronco running game that sputtered often in 2008, still the blocking needs to be there, so hope and pray the coach Huff figures out a good line chemistry in Fall ball...come September 3rd they have to be ready to go.
The Ducks lose stud SS Patrick Chung, but the linebacking corps looks solid. Youngster Spencer Paysinger is a brute who may make Boise State's undersized RBs look even smaller and the Ducks are excited to see Kiko Alonso roaming midfield as well. The linebacking unit for the Ducks is bigger and faster than the Broncos have seen (outside of last year's game and the Poinsettia Bowl), so the Broncos won't likely be able to run straight up the gut. Avery and Harper running off tackle or in the T with a slotback will make the most sense. Cross your fingers.
Last season, Oregon's place kicker missed both field goals he attempted in the 37-32 loss to the Broncos. If you're any good at math, you'll realize how important those field goals would have been (worth noting, Boise State's Kyle Brotzman missed one as well). Overall, Oregon's kicking should improve as last year's starting kicker Matt Evenson only converted 61% of his FG attempts and missed two PATs. His backup, and this year's probable starter, fared better in the FG department, nailing 77% of his kicks and all of his extra points. Another backup, Daniel Padilla, left the program this summer. While depth may not be of the utmost importance in the kicking department, accuracy is—and the Ducks will need to find more this Fall. Flint looks like he's fairly accurate, but leg strenght might still be a question (longest FG = 39 yards). The Ducks also need to find a capable replacement for All-Pac-10 punter Josh Syria.
The Duck special teams will certainly miss Jairus Byrd. Byrd was a talented and versatile kick returner and standout on kickoff teams as well. Walter Thurmond appears to be the heir apparent to Byrd and is a very capable kick returner in his own right (25 YPR, long of 91 yds), and redshirt frosh Kenjon Barner looks to have some skills at returning punts.
The Ducks kick coverage teams are pretty stout, allowing less than 20 yards/return in 2008, but their punt return coverage gave up a TD and allowed nearly 13 yards per. Facing off against All-American Kyle Wilson will be a daunting task for the punt coverage team and I'd be surprised to see many punts go anywhere near the senior from Piscataway, New Jersey.
It's too early to say which coach has the edge here. Surely, Coach Petersen has more games under his belt, but he is a young buck still as well. Coaching-wise, this may be as close to a mirror match as we've seen...at least on the offensive side of things. Petersen likes to get tricky and has an extensive playbook...so does Chip Kelly. Both have been under the guidance/tutelage of Mike Belotti and I think you'll see similar philosophies permeate their game plans. Kelly may win the "wanting it more" battle as he'll no doubt want to win his first outing as head man. Motivation will be high as well for Kelly's squad as offseason hype and payback will be on their minds after being upset in Eugene last Fall. Whichever coach gets their squad the most ready will obviously have the edge...and I'm sure both know how to do it. Bronco Stadium is a tough place to win for opponents and regardless of their preparation, the Ducks may have blue voodoo working against them. We've got a little over 50 days left till this epic tussle, so enjoy the ride, Ducks and Broncos...it'll be here before you know it.
I'll invite Duck fans to fact check or add more to the insight to the preview if they wish.