College Football Predictions: 5 Oregon Players Who Will Step Up Against Nevada

Bryan Kalbrosky@@BryanKalbroskyCorrespondent ISeptember 6, 2011

College Football Predictions: 5 Oregon Players Who Will Step Up Against Nevada

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    If the Oregon Ducks look to beat Nevada, they’re going to need better play from the likes of Darron Thomas and LaMichael James.

    The Ducks are still playing with a mission to make the BCS National Championship, but the road has now gotten increasingly bumpy. Still, if you expected Chip Kelly to let his players at the University of Oregon off with a break following a crucially disappointing loss against LSU in their season opener, you’re in for a major surprise when the Ducks welcome Nevada into Autzen Stadium for their home debut.

    While the Oregon football team did not look ready to play an LSU defense that matched up as one of the best in the country, Oregon's players looked shaky and off of their game. They were unable to produce the big plays that they became famous for, and their hurry-up blur offense was ineffective once again against an SEC team that had more than a month to prepare for them. That’s the third time that this has happened to Oregon in as many seasons, and fans are beginning to wonder if this flaw is more than just a coincidence.

    Regardless, the road to redemption began immediately after they lost 40-27 in their debut.

    Now it’s time to look forward and focus on the areas at which the team looked poor last week. On Saturday, the Ducks fly inward to Eugene (a much more comfortable place to play than the hardly-neutral Cowboys Stadium) to take on Nevada.

    Nevada is hardly a team to look past, and coming off of their best season in school history they should put up a fight against the Ducks. If the Ducks hope to win this game and not fall to 0-2, they’re going to need bigger contributions from both their role-players and their stars alike.

    Chip Kelly may not have looked stellar in the big game, but I wouldn’t write off this coach quite yet. Expect him to work with these distinct areas and players before the game on Saturday.

5. Receivers

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    One of the chief contributing factors that helped the Ducks' offense succeed in 2010 was a balanced attack on all sides of the ball.

    However, both of last year’s starting receivers (Jeff Maehl, D.J. Davis) have graduated, and the Ducks need helpful replacements if they hope to continue that same offensive success.

    Maehl was an ever-reliable receiving option, and while many compared him to Wes Welker, that’s hardly a merited comparison as Maehl did far more than just run a slot. Maehl was a perpetual deep threat, could beat the most elite defensive backs, and did not have many dropped passes.

    The loss of a player like Maehl will always hurt a football team, but the Ducks look for people like Lavasier Luinei to step in 2011.

    Quarterback Darron Thomas looked to eight different receivers on Saturday, and none of the completions were good for more than twenty yards.

    Tuinei was the leading target with seven receptions, but his average reception was only 6.7 yards and he was unable to pick up 50 yards in the air in his effort.

    Tight end David Paulson had three receptions, good for 21 yards, and looked to be an effective target when he was thrown to. As a redzone threat, expect him to get a better look in the Nevada game.

    Besides looking at running backs in the screen (13 of the 31 receptions were to his running backs), Oregon also got help from sophomore Josh Huff and junior Justin Hoffman. Huff has big-play potential, as last season he caught a 57-yard pass and notched an 85-yard run.

    Oregon uses a receiver bubble screen and deep route to win football games. That was not a part of the game against LSU, and if the quarterback is going to throw the ball 54 times, he needs more than one touchdown to show for it.

    The receiving corps didn’t look awful against LSU, but they need to help Oregon play their game. They weren’t open in the important drives, they never broke a big run like they had last season, and they need to be more effective against Nevada. When you drop as many passes as they did against LSU, you aren't going to win football games. Simple as that.

4. Running Back

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    For the Oregon style of play, the only way to ever establish the game in the air is by first establishing an effective rushing attack.

    Chip Kelly designed an offense for his team in which they maintain possession of the ball for as little time as possible and hope to score often. In 2010, they averaged 80 plays a game, and led the league in points scored. 

    With their quick scheme, they attempt to tire out opposing defenses, and typically are a much bigger force of football power in the second half against tired opposition.

    This explains how they were able to go from a 31-24 deficit at the half against Stanford last season, to outscoring them 28-0 in the second half to win the game.

    To maintain this depth, Oregon relies on a triple-back scheme, waiting for contributions from Heisman Candidate LaMichael James as well as the likes of Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas.

    Last season, James led the country in rushing yards and began the 2011 season by taking over as the all-time leading rusher in University of Oregon history. His 1,731 yards helped him carry the Ducks to their first National Championship. Averaging 5.9 yards per carry, he was a constant threat to break a big gain, as his season-long run was 76 yards.

    In the LSU game James only rushed the ball 18 times, and averaged a miniscule 3.0 yards per carry. His long was 13 yards. For a team that needs to get the ball up the field as quickly as they can, that type of effort will not help the team.

    To relieve pressure from James, the team looks to Kenjon Barner. Due to fatigue and poor conditioning, Barner ultimately ended up with only four offensive touches for a total of seven yards. This evidently put far too much pressure on James, who needs to rest and not carry the entire load to reach the success that he is accustomed to.

    Barner was forced to enter the locker room with cramps, while James did not run out with the team in the start of the second half because he was still being looked at by medics and the running game never established itself in the way that Oregon is used to.

    That’s how this team is expected to win football games. If it never happens, they can’t expect to continue winning.

    That’s why, against Nevada, I would expect James and Barner to become more effective and step up their games. Instead of having to face an SEC defense, they play Nevada in front of a home crowd at Eugene.

    Kelly and his fans will need a big game from both LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.

3. Quarterback

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    Darron Thomas is the anchor of the Oregon offense. He was the chief player that helped them to the most yards and scoring in the league last season, and reads opposing defenses to call the plays.

    Thomas has a difficult responsibility, but as quarterback of the Oregon Ducks, his job is certainly an interesting one. His ability to read the opposing zone is the pivotal keystone that helps this offense run.

    As the play-caller and offensive leader, he is expected to have a great day in every game if the Ducks look to win. His numbers in Saturday’s game didn’t look entirely awful on paper (31 completions, 240 yards, one touchdown), but numbers can be deceiving.

    Thomas threw the ball 54 times, which is virtually unacceptable for a scrambling quarterback. Thomas is not Peyton Manning in the pocket. The throwing game is not what wins football games for this team, especially when Thomas is averaging only 4.4 yards per completion.

    Thomas missed multiple passes on third down, and had trouble running the hurry-up offense as he kept having to run back to the center to confirm the play, which goes against the entire point of the offensive blur scheme.

    He is allowed (and should be encouraged to) run more than twice, as both times that he left the pocket, he looked good, gaining 6.0 yards per carry.

    Thomas looks to become a Heisman candidate this year, but the bigger candidate for that award is his running back. Against Nevada, Thomas needs to recognize this truth and help the rushing game get a better start.

    He was playing a very difficult defense in LSU, and I respect that, but this team needs to have a proficient passing game. I was not impressed with a seemingly rusty performance from Thomas. 

2. Special Teams

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    Before you say it, I’ll say it first: Cliff Harris was not in the game due to a suspension, and he was unable to help his team succeed in special teams area

    Now that it’s been said, we need to recognize that Kenjon Barner was just as trained in the kick return game and should have been ready for this job as he knew Cliff Harris was going to be out for at least week one.

    Oregon came into this game thinking that they had the best special teams unit in the country, and while Rob Beard kicked a perfect game (two-for-two with FGs, plus he converted all of his XP’s), Barner fumbled a punt return that turned into a touchdown after he tried to run it back from his own five yard line.

    There is virtually no reason to ever risk that type of play, and the smart move would obviously be to call a fair catch on that play. This fumble turned into an immediate touchdown before the second half, and gave LSU the momentum and stabilized their lead.

    In the third quarter, De’Anthony Thomas fumbled on a rush (which turned into a touchdown) and ended up fumbling once again on the ensuing kickoff. Both of these fumbles allowed LSU to score two touchdowns in a matter of three-and-a-half minutes, which was an entirely influential game changer for the Tigers.

    Against Nevada, Thomas will be able to get rid of the jitters that he may have had in his first big game of his NCAA career, and Barner won’t be plagued by the nagging injuries that he was dealing with throughout the game.

    These blunders may have cost them the game against LSU, but they’re going to have to be fixed in the Nevada game if they want to put up a respectable fight this season.

1. Offensive Line

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    This is the most crucial area in which the Ducks need to improve if they look to have any success in 2011.

    This flaw was greatly exposed against LSU, and could prove to be deadly if other teams are able to capitalize like LSU was. Granted, Oregon will never play a team with the defensive line as good as LSU's, but that does not change the fact that they looked poor on Saturday.

    The offensive looked young, small, inexperienced and overmatched. They did an awful job protecting Thomas, who was unable to read the opposing defense and in turn had to overcompensate with too many passing attempts as the LSU defense continued to rush him. He never had time to drop back for a long pass, and the line was unable to protect Thomas or Barner on the rush.

    They looked overly excited, continuing to get called for false starts and penalties far too often. In total, Oregon was called for 12 penalties for a total of 95 yards. This is amateur football, and for a team that usually outsmarts their opponents, these were dumb mistakes that could have been avoided.

    The offensive line is very young. They are the product of a rebuilding offseason for the team, following the graduations of three offensive linemen in Bo Thran, Jordan Holmes and C.E. Kaiser.

    Hopefully these are problems that can be fixed, but for an undersized offensive line, they look to be no match for SEC defenses. In the future, they need to protect the quarterback in the spread offense so as to not let the open defender rush in and stop the scheme.

    Against Nevada, they will have an easier defense line to guard and need to prove that they can compete.