So that is what a passing game is supposed to look like.
Last week the Oregon thumped then-No. 6 Cal 42-3 in a dominating performance where everything came together for this young but promising team.
Whether it was the re-emergence of seemingly ignored tight end Ed Dickson, the efficiency of oft-maligned quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, or the defense holding Jahvid Best to only 55 yards rushing everything turned out just Ducky last Saturday.
The dark cloud within this silver lining was the injury to cornerback Walter Thurmond III on the opening kickoff. A dangerous kick returner and lock down corner that was expected to receive post-season accolades and be an early round pick in the coming NFL draft, Thurmond has undergone season ending surgery to repair damage to his knee.
Expectations are soaring again for Oregon fans after the big win over Cal. The Ducks will complete a four game home stretch this week against Washington State, a team almost unanimously picked to finish last in the Pac-10 conference.
After going 2-11 last year, with wins over FCS Portland State and winless Washington, the Cougars endured several early season setbacks before beating Southern Methodist in overtime. WSU comes off a loss to USC at the Coliseum, but managed to keep the score much closer than most had expected they would.
So this week the Ducks come in as the much ballyhooed flavor of the week in the Pac-10. Against them is a young, plucky Cougar team that has been given a spark by a freshman quarterback and shown surprising resilience in the face of adversity.
The words “trap game” spring to mind.
The last thing Oregon can afford to do is fail to take WSU seriously, because as dominant as their performance was against Cal there is still room for improvement.
The Duck’s special teams have been erratic so far this season. Thurmond was a dangerous returner (his punt return for a touchdown turned out to be the difference against Utah) but also had a couple of fumbles to his credit.
The Ducks have also been plagued by penalties on return plays and have allowed a punt to be blocked at various points this season. It is imperative the Ducks avoid negative momentum changing plays on special teams because with the loss of Thurmond they have much less ability to affect positive swings in this phase of the game.
Thurmond’s absence will also be keenly felt on defense. Nick Alliotti will no longer be able to leave one corner on an island with total confidence. With starting free safety TJ Ward questionable for Saturday as he continues to recover from a high ankle sprain suffered opening week, Washington State’s new passer Jeff Tuel may face a Ducks secondary with no returning starters from last season.
Oregon kept Cal’s offense in check even without the services of Thurmond and Ward. True, Golden Bears quarterback Kevin Riley missed his share of open receivers. But part of the reason he had so little success was the Ducks ability to apply pressure throughout the game.
With the loss of Thurmond, a good pass rush becomes even more critical for Oregon’s defense to continue to shut down their opponents. With Tuel being a true freshman making his first start in a hostile Autzen stadium, expect Alliotti to bring the heat early and often to prevent the Cougars from exploiting the Ducks secondary.
After weeks of obscurity, the Ducks passing game came to life against Cal and combined with the solid ground attack proved impossible for the Bears defense to stop.
Oregon’s running back committee continues to impress, with LaMichael James leading the way. As the young offensive line has improved its blocking over the course of the season, the Ducks’ runners have made the most of their opportunities and all have demonstrated the ability to make defenders miss.
As impressive as the running game was last week, the story against Cal was the resurrection of Oregon’s passing game. Jeremiah Masoli completed 21 of 25 passes for 253 yards with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. 11 of those completions and all three touchdown passes went to tight end Ed Dickson, whose true potential finally shown through with a career high 148 yards receiving.
Whether it was Masoli simply making it a point to find Dickson on his reads or a change in the play calling, the emergence of Dickson elevated the performance of the entire offense. With defenses now having to worry about Dickson on every play, opportunities emerge for the Ducks other pass catchers to have break out games of their own.
Despite all the positives, turnovers have continued to plague the Oregon offense. Had Cal not been so willing to return the favor last week, the game would surely have been much closer.
The biggest problem for the Ducks to address this week is the continuing issues with the shotgun snap from center Jordon Holmes to the quarterback. Masoli has regularly had to either jump at balls going over his head or gather in snaps that have gone off to the side. In several instances this has led to bad exchanges with running backs.
This isn’t the only time ball handling has been an issue. Oregon’s first touchdown drive in the third quarter seemed to sap what little life the Golden Bears had in them, but it almost gave them their second wind when Dickson nearly fumbled (he was ruled down on the field and the replays seemed inconclusive) and a forward pitch past the line of scrimmage was ruled a fumble.
For Washington State to pull off the upset, they must give Tuel time against the Ducks pass rush to try to take advantage of the injuries in Oregon’s secondary. On defense they must find schemes that allow them to contain the Duck’s running game while forcing Masoli to beat them with the deep ball instead of with the shorter routes and screen passes that worked so well against Cal.
If the Ducks’ defense continues to play at a high level, Masoli and Dickson avoid regressing after their breakout performance and Oregon’s ball handling improves this week’s game has the makings of a blowout. But if the Ducks fail in any of these areas a few lucky turnovers could give the Cougars a chance to continue this season’s trend of big upsets.
After all, there is a reason they actually bother to play all the games.
MY CALL: Oregon Ducks 31, Washington State Cougars 17