Oregon Football: Winners and Losers from the Ducks' First Month
Five games. Five wins. Five rides north and south on I-5.
Except for the midnight ride home after all the blasted night games, I suspect Ducks fans are happy with Oregon's season so far (try to think of it in terms of how much the Ducks are contributing to Oregon's economy, especially Eugene's hotels, bars and restaurants). September was an incredible month for Oregon and a great time to be a Ducks fan.
One month in is a good time to look at what's working and what needs work, winners and losers, if you will. Although the term "losers" is going to be relative on a team that finds itself 5-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Let's time travel back to Sept. 1 and analyze the good, the bad and the ugly to date.
Winner: Nick Aliotti
Oregon's defensive guru, Nick Aliotti, has been ignored more than any other human being on the planet for the past few years.
While Oregon's offense has soared under head coach Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, Aliotti's defense has barely rated a blip on the national radar screen. Most often, the rap has been that the Ducks are all flash and dash and no D to speak of.
That, my friends, has changed in 2012.
Oregon's defense is tied for 10th nationally in quarterback sacks with 16. The defense has also registered eight interceptions for a nation-leading 227 yards.
The three touchdowns scored by the Ducks' defense in the month of September is matched by only two other FBS teams (Purdue and San Diego St). Only Fresno St. has seen its defense score more TDs than the Ducks (4).
Beyond the stats, Oregon's defense is playing as a cohesive unit. They are physical, fast and disciplined. It is, frankly, a joy to watch the Ducks' D flying to the ball on each and every play.
Defensive coach Nick Aliotti and his starting defenders winners so far?
Loser: Carson York and John Boyett (But, Mostly, the Fans)
When senior safety John Boyett intercepted a pass in the first game of the season against Arkansas St., most Duck fans thought, "Here we go!"
When, on Sept. 10, Oregon fans heard that Boyett would have season-ending surgeries on both knees, the collective groan was so loud it could be heard in California.
On that same dark day, fans also learned of senior offensive lineman Carson York's season-ending knee surgery to repair his right patella—re-injured during the Fresno St. game.
The loss of the only two remaining starters from the Ducks' 2010 BCS National Championship Game against Auburn—and two of the fans' favorites—was a nasty blow. Boyett and York were also noisy team leaders, as befitting their senior status.
Their respective replacements have done a mostly admirable job stepping into these gigantic shoes. But there is no denying that a part of the team's soul was lost on that second Monday in September.
Winner: Marcus Mariota
Anyone who knows anything at all about college football will tell you that if you have a freshman quarterback, your team will likely have a "rebuilding" year.
Marcus Mariota burst onto the Oregon football scene at the Ducks' spring game and hasn't slowed down since. The redshirt freshman is redefining what experience is supposed to mean to the QB position.
No, Mariota hasn't been perfect, and has, on very few occasions, looked like the freshman he is. He learned the difference between getting hit in practice and getting hit in a real game, and how much easier it is to cough up the ball when the guys across the line are wearing different colored jerseys.
But just when I was thinking about writing an article about Mariota's fumbles, guess what? He stopped fumbling. Just when I was ready to ask the question: Why doesn't Mariota take off running more often? Guess what? He took off running with terrific success. He appears to be a quick study.
According to ESPN.com, Mariota's efficiency rating is second in the Pac-12 Conference (Arizona State's Taylor Kelly is first). Mariota has done an excellent job of distributing the ball amongst all of Oregon's many offensive weapons.
Freshman or not, Mariota is getting the job done.
Loser: Josh Huff
As the most experienced receiver among a slew of youngsters in the Ducks' receiving corps, Josh Huff's ongoing knee injury is hurting Oregon's offense. The junior wide receiver has not been the answer at wideout that many had hoped he would be.
While the Ducks have many other weapons, the lack of a go-to receiver when the meat of Oregon's schedule hits has the potential to cause trouble down the road.
True freshmen Bralon Addison and Dwayne Stanford are getting some quality catches, as are sophomores Keanon Lowe and Eric Dungy.
However, a healthy and productive Josh Huff by late October could be the difference for the Ducks' stretch run.
Winner: Kenjon Barner
You have to love how Kenjon Barner is taking over for his good buddy, LaMichael James, running the football.
After the month of September, Barner is sixth in the nation in rushing with 605 total yards on 96 attempts. His 6.3 yards per carry average is healthy, and he's the proud owner of nine touchdowns in five games.
Barner's 195 yards in the Washington State game—the Ducks' first road game—and that 80-yard beauty, placed Barner in the rarefied air of his predecessor.
The Ducks are primarily a "run first" team. Kenjon Barner is doing his part and has been an important cog in Oregon's 5-0 record.
And, is it just me, or does Barner look much faster this year?
Winner: The Secondary
If we time travel back to August 31, there were many (including this scribe) who feared that the Ducks' cornerbacks would be the weak link on this team.
Five games in it seems very silly to have doubted this group.
Terrance Mitchell has become a feared defender on one side, and it appears that opposing QBs—not wanting to test Mitchell—are choosing the other side of the field more often than not.
But sophomore cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has responded with a very loud "Oh, really?"
IEO has been seemingly everywhere at once—breaking up passes, forcing fumbles and intercepting passes. Did I mention that interception that IEO ran to the house for six in the Arizona game?
Backup Troy Hill has also gotten in on the action, especially in the Arizona game when he, too, picked one off 'Cats QB Matt Scott and took it in for points.
Oregon's secondary? No worries, man.
Loser (For Now): Bryan Bennett
It feels wrong to use the word "loser" in regards to backup quarterback Bryan Bennett. Bennett did lose the starting QB job to Marcus Mariota, but he's been important to the Ducks in the backup role.
I won't lie to you: There have been several moments when it was starkly clear to all why Mariota won the job over Bennett. But Bennett has also had some highlights during the first month.
As you know, it's a long season and many scary, bad things can happen. Having Bryan Bennett on the sidelines is reassuring.
Bennett may have lost the job, but he won when he made the right choice to stay with the Ducks during this run at the national championship. And a month from now, he could be on the other side of this coin.
Winner: Colt Lyerla
After reading Aaron Fentress' excellent in-depth article about Colt Lyerla, it's clear the kid is a winner just by making it to the University of Oregon. Considering Lyerla's childhood troubles, his flashes of brilliance this season are the cherry on top of the sundae.
I'm not sure who was more surprised at tight end Lyerla's appearance at the running back position in the Arizona game, the fans or Lyerla himself. His performance in that game—64 yards rushing and one touchdown—might end up being one of the special moments of this year. Certainly he and Bryan Bennett jointly carrying the rock across the goal line will be talked about for years.
There are remaining questions about Lyerla. Will he continue to mature? Will his recent success help him to have more confidence in his considerable abilities?
For now, bask in the starring role that Colt Lyerla has grabbed by the horns.
Loser: 7:30 PM Start Times
While many Autzen Stadium ticket-holders live in Eugene and, thus, have an easy stroll home after games, many, many more fans travel from some distance.
Portland. Roseburg. Bend. Medford. Coos Bay. Try getting home before 2 a.m. after ESPN has dictated that the Ducks will kick off at 7:30 p.m. to suit their national audience goals.
Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens, in a letter to address growing fan frustrations over the issue of late games, basically said (and I'm paraphrasing here because Mullens is too nice to actually put it this way: "It comes with the territory of being nationally relevant, so grow up."
Saturday's game with Washington will be the third straight 7:30 p.m. kickoff. And if you think Ducks fans are tired and cranky now over this issue while the state is enjoying an unusally warm and dry autumn, wait until the real weather starts.
In rationalizing the situation to fans, there was one important point that Mullens neglected. How many poll voters on the East Coast do you think have watched the Ducks' late games to their conclusion at approximately 2 a.m. EST? Do the Ducks usually play better in the first or second half?
I rest my case.
Winner: De'Anthony Thomas
I chose this photo to show that it is possible that De'Anthony Thomas can occasionally be touched by opposing defenses.
However, it hasn't happened very often so far this season. Speedster Thomas has scored eight touchdowns in September: five rushing and three receiving. His 48 points has Thomas tied for 13th nationally in total points scored.
Aside from what Thomas' skills have meant to the Ducks' 5-0 record, Thomas has been a winner off the field as well. A glittering Sports Illustrated cover tagging him as "The Fastest Man in Football" probably did more to attract the attention of those important poll voters than his performance on the field.
Saturday's College GameDay interview with Thomas and Snoop Lion further cemented the Black Mamba's growing reputation in college football's elite.
The sophomore may not win the Heisman Trophy this year, but he remains a winner every time he steps on the field.
It was far easier to come up with winners for this article than losers. That's what comes from being 5-0 to start off in September, one of the best starts in Oregon football history.
I suppose we shouldn't conclude until we've at least mentioned Chip Kelly.
Winner: Chip Kelly.