Oregon Football: 5 Things Standing in the Way of a Pac-12 Championship
After a two-year hiatus, Oregon football aims to regain the Pac-12 Conference championship in 2014.
Returning to the perch that the Ducks occupied for three consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2011 should be arduous, however. Oregon faces challenges both externally and internally.
The Pac-12 has become more competitive overall, coming off of the most collectively successful campaign in league history, while Oregon is itself ironing out the wrinkles that prevented it from winning the last two titles.
The Stanford Defense
Twice in as many seasons, the Stanford defense has effectively kept Oregon from reclaiming the Pac-12 championship. Now, the Cardinal defense the Ducks faces on Nov. 1 is not exactly the same as the units that held Oregon to 14 and 20 points.
Gone are linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, both of whom wreaked havoc against the Ducks. Stanford also loses safety Ed Reynolds.
The most significant loss is that of defensive coordinator Derek Mason, whose game plan for stopping the zone-read elements of the spread offense grounded Oregon. Mason is now the head coach at Vanderbilt.
But the Cardinal are positioned to rebound from the losses, head coach David Shaw told Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Defensively, we're so good up front. A lot's going to be said about the guys that are leaving, including Derek Mason. But we have a veteran group up front that's really tough to run the ball against. It's really tough to pass-protect [against].
Linebacker A.J. Tarpley, defensive tackle David Parry and defensive end Henry Anderson key a front seven that should remain one of the conference's—if not nation's—most fearsome.
Combined with a secondary returning Alex Carter and Jordan Richards, new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson inherits a lineup capable of maintaining the lofty standard the last two Stanford teams have ridden to Pac-12 championships.
Defensive Line Development
No Oregon unit faces more uncertainty in 2014 than the defensive line, which lost three leading contributors in Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli.
DeForest Buckner is a proven commodity, breaking through for 39 tackles in his sophomore campaign. Otherwise, the line is relying on finding untapped potential.
Former 5-star recruit Arik Armstead has yet to come into his own. Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp gained experience in 2013, but their contributions were limited. There is not much depth behind them.
New defensive coordinator Don Pellum must be creative in how he utilizes the defense's strengths—namely the linebackers corps—while defensive line coach Ron Aiken gets his unit up to speed.
Aiken told The Oregonian that he hopes to put the collective height of his line to use.
That's the way we've recruited them. We're working right now to automatically get separation. That’s what we’re trying to do with long arms. We talk 'lockout and separate' because then you can get off a block and onto the ball.
Armstead is 6'8", Buckner is 6'7" and Balducci is 6'4". The reserves backing them range from 6'4" to 6'9", a lineup from which Ducks basketball head coach Dana Altman could build a formidable frontcourt. How it translates on the football field will go a long way in determining Oregon's Pac-12 championship fate.
Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen
New Washington head coach Chris Petersen's 2-0 all-time record against Oregon certainly has no bearing on the 2014 season. None of the Ducks on the current roster were members of the last team a Petersen-coached Boise State bunch beat in 2009.
Likewise, each Oregon head coach Petersen bested—Mike Bellotti in 2008 and Chip Kelly the next season—long since left the program.
And perhaps more notable than Petersen's 2-0 mark against Oregon is the 0-10 record Washington has against the Ducks since 2004.
Still, Petersen's arrival in the Pac-12 North deals something of a wild card. Petersen is the nation's winningest active head coach, and he inherits a Washington program that made significant strides on the road back to national relevance last season.
The Huskies won nine games, the most for a Washington team since 2000. Every starting offensive and defensive linemen returns from the 2013 lineup, giving Petersen and his staff a solid foundation on which to build.
Washington is indeed a potential spoiler in Petersen's first year, and the element of unknown he brings certainly ups the ante on the Huskies' and Ducks' Oct. 18 meeting.
No team is immune to injuries, but the bug bit Oregon especially hard late in 2013. The Ducks lost offensive lineman Mana Greig and defensive lineman Ricky Havili-Heimuli in the regular season's final month, and quarterback Marcus Mariota was limited by a left MCL sprain.
Completely preventing injury is not a realistic option. Weathering such adversity is realistic with depth and role players flourishing in more prominent roles.
Oregon is already facing this challenge in the offseason with the loss of wide receiver Bralon Addison to a knee injury. Offensive lineman Tyler Johnstone is rehabilitating a knee injury he suffered in the Dec. 30, 2013 Alamo Bowl rout of Texas.
Facing key injuries now allows head coach Mark Helfrich and staff to restructure the lineup while also presenting new players with opportunities to take on more responsibility. But the Ducks must be able to similarly acclimate in the season should such lineup-shaking injuries occur in the fall.
A Trip to the Rose Bowl
Just three Pac-12 programs have won conference championships since 2001: Oregon, Stanford and USC.
UCLA is trying to break through the league's glass ceiling in 2014. The Bruins have the manpower to do so, returning the most veteran starting lineup in the Pac-12, and the right leadership in head coach Jim Mora to join the conference's elite.
The Bruins took the fight to the Ducks for a half last season, forcing a 14-14 tie at intermission. Oregon responded with a second-half deluge that exposed the young Bruins as not quite on that same level just yet.
Mora said in his postgame press conference that the second half set the standard UCLA wants to reach, per GoDucks.com:
We weren’t satisfied with being 14-14 at halftime. There are no moral victories in sports – not when you’re trying to be a champion. We reject that notion. I feel bad for our guys because we did lay it all out there. We weren’t perfect. But at the same time, as I feel bad for them, we have to hold them to a high standard if we want to achieve what we are capable of someday achieving.
UCLA is a likely top-10 team entering 2014 and poised to take the next step, but must do so at Oregon's expense. The Ducks visit the Rose Bowl early in the campaign, on Oct. 11. This is a potentially season-defining matchup for the Bruins, and one sure to test the Ducks' Pac-12 championship mettle.