I'm worried. For the first time all season. Seriously.
I bought into the hype before Boise State. I was certain Oregon would get their revenge against Purdue. I knew Utah was overrated. I had a feeling the Ducks would step up against Cal. And Washington State is, well, Washington State.
But UCLA? What's so special about the Bruins?
It's really not that I'm worried about UCLA at all. I mean, yeah, they're a decent team. Actually, they're a little better than that. They went into Knoxville and knocked off the Volunteers. And they gave Pac-10-leading Stanford a late scare in Palo Alto. Both pretty impressive.
But in a vacuum, there is nothing about the Bruins themselves that scares me. Kevin Prince? Johnathan Franklin? Terrence Austin? I'm sure they're nice guys, but man, that's a whole lot of mediocrity.
So you ask, what could I possibly be worried about? What is it that caused me to stay up late last night, tossing and turning while I pictured what will happen when the Ducks travel to Westwood on Saturday?
There are four things. And any single one of them could be enough to derail Oregon's Rose Bowl aspirations with a devastating loss at, coincidentally, the Rose Bowl.
Jeremiah Masoli's Injury
Just as Masoli finally started playing up to his Heisman-like potential the past two weeks, the curse of the Oregon quarterback struck: a knee injury. Seriously, another one?
Masoli came out in the second quarter against Washington State with the Ducks already leading 35-0. So when he came out, the initial thought was they were just resting him and putting in the second stringers in early.
Turns out Masoli has a sprained MCL, an injury that usually takes at least a couple weeks to heal completely. So the Ducks will turn to junior backup Nate Costa as the starter on Saturday. And if things go according to plan, Costa will lead Oregon to victory, allowing Masoli to rest this week and during the open date next week, before suiting up at full strength in Husky Stadium on Oct. 24.
Costa, who was supposed to be the starter last season before re-tearing his ACL in fall camp, has never started before. And the only in-game experience he has, is against the second team during blow outs over Cal and Washington State this season, Portland State in 2006, and during a big loss at USC that same season.
Sure, he has an inspiring story, as he has come back from multiple devastating knee injuries. Sure, he was a top recruit coming out of high school. And sure, he has a career 84.4 completion percentage. But he only has 21 career passes has never started a game before.
Don't get me wrong, I love that Chip Kelly has enough confidence in Costa to let Masoli rest up and avoid any resemblance to what happened with Dennis Dixon in 2007. It's just that getting handed the ball in the Rose Bowl with the season on the line is a lot of pressure to deal with.
Playing on the Road
Oregon has had it easy the last month with four straight home games. And for the Ducks, playing in Autzen stadium is an advantage that very few other teams are privileged with.
Before Cal came to Eugene two weeks ago, Jahvid Best told reporters that the crowd at Autzen is the only one that stands out in his mind as having gotten to him.
Former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr once said, "Autzen Stadium is where great teams go to die." And trust him, he knows from experience.
So when Oregon travels south to UCLA, it will be their first road game since the debacle in Boise.
The Ducks have had some trouble playing away from Autzen in the recent past, with a 9-9 road record since 2006.
It will interesting to see how focused Kelly has team this time, because Oregon looked lost and overmatched in the season opener against the Broncos.
Injuries in the Secondary
Apparently knee injuries don't only happen to quarterbacks at Oregon.
Just weeks after team captain Walter Thurmond suffered an ACL ending his season, fellow senior cornerback Willie Glasper succumbed to the same fate. That leaves Talmadge Jackson as the only remaining cornerback with starting experience.
“We just got to plug the next guy in,” Kelly said. “You deal with injuries every day. It’s college football. UCLA’s quarterbacks are banged up. Tim Tebow’s hurt. Sam Bradford’s hurt. It doesn’t just happen at Oregon. It happens everywhere in the country.…We’ve got a lot of guys out so it’ll be interesting to see how this thing finishes up.”
After the defense stepped up following the loss of Thurmond, despite already being without T.J. Ward, they held Cal and WSU to just nine total points, it will interesting to see how the Ducks respond to yet another hit to their secondary. Inexperienced reserves, Anthony Gildon and Chad Peppars will compete for the starting spot.
Playing With Expectations
Oregon has gotten off to many fast starts throughout the decade. But just when they appear to be a serious contender, the Ducks have wilted under the pressure.
For example: 2003, 2006, 2007, and this season, in the opener against Boise State.
Playing with the hype of being a contender for the BCS is a completely different animal than fighting for the Emerald Bowl. The entire country is watching. Every play matters. Just one mistake marks the difference between playing in San Diego in December instead of the Rose Bowl in January.
And now, as Oregon has climbed back to No. 13 in the rankings, they have once again emerged as the sexy, dark horse pick for the national championship.
By all means, I think the Ducks have a great chance to run the table and end up in Pasadena on New Years Day, or possibly better. But it's up to Chip Kelly to have his team focused for every single game, whether it's UCLA or USC.
Nonetheless, I still like Oregon in this game.
Prediction: Oregon 34, UCLA 17
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