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TGS 2O12 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...OREGON DUCKS
by Bruce Marshall, GOldsheet.com Editor


So you think things just began to heat up in the rivalry between Oregon and Southern Cal, eh?

You should have been around in the late ‘50s.

Forgive us for reminiscing, but there was a time when hostilities between the Northern and Southern schools on the Pacific Coast would make the modern-day, ESPN-hyped rivalries seem like child’s play.

These were the days of the old Pacific Coast Conference, the forerunner to the modern Pac-12 during an era in which there was a clear delineation between the various sub-regions within the West. The bottom line was that the Northern schools didn’t much like the Southern schools, and vice versa. Although some animosities still linger between the Northwest quadrant of the league and the California (especially So Cal) contingents, relations are downright civil these days compared to what they were over a half-century ago.

And as we prepare for another gridiron campaign in which the Ducks from Eugene figure to once again be in the mix for conference and national honors, a little trip down memory lane might serve as a nice history lesson for the Erin Andrews crowd which can’t recall Oregon football before the Ducks began outfitting themselves in all sorts of shades of green and gold, with dabs of black, silver, and white for added effect, not to mention the feathery design that now adorns all of the Ducks’ various football outfits. More on all of the old feuds in just a moment.

Not that there is much reason for Oregon and its new legion of fans to look too far into the past. The Ducks’ recent emergence as one of the elites has been one of the major tectonic shifts in the long-established college gridiron hierarchy. Over the last two seasons alone, HC Chip Kelly’s troops have generated nearly 50 points and 500 yards per game. For three seasons running, Oregon has been a BCS participant; over the past two years, the Ducks have played for a BCS championship and won a Rose Bowl. All unimaginable stuff once upon a time when Oregon was struggling just to reach the .500 mark for most of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, when thoughts of going head-to-head for top recruits across the country didn’t even enter the dreams of the most die-hard of Duck backers.

The recent surge in prominence roughly coincides with the contributions of main benefactor Phil Knight (left), the Nike founder and chairman and an Oregon alum who has been the driving force behind an unprecedented facilities upgrade that is the envy of almost every school in the nation. The Duck program is now high-tech in every sense of the word, with every gadget and comfort a recruit could want at his (or her) fingertips. Regional sources say Knight upped the ante several years ago after the tragic loss of son Matthew (for whom the Ducks’ new, state-of-the-art basketball arena is named), deciding thereafter that the Oregon athletic program, and its facilities, would be his legacy.

Now, Duck coaches, administrators and student-athletes work in modern, streamlined comfort, with every Nike-themed bell-and-whistle at their disposal, and facilities second to none. The home of the gridiron Ducks, Autzen Stadium, built in 1967, was enlarged and modernized a decade ago and now more resembles a spaceship that has landed in a clearing nearby the Willamette River.

Oregon, however, had plenty of football history before Phil Knight ever became involved, featuring Hall of Famers such as Norm Van Brocklin, Mel Renfro, Dave Wilcox, Dan Fouts, and another familiar name, Ahmad Rashad, who was known as Bobby Moore during his playing days in Eugene (shown at left in a 10-7 win over USC in October of 1970).

There is also that fascinating chapter of nastiness and finger-pointing in the ‘50s to which we earlier alluded.

Once a homogenous conference of state universities and private colleges, by the postwar period the PCC had reshaped itself into two distinct groups of schools, which included the Northern members in Oregon and Washington on one side, and the Southern wing consisting of the California schools (Cal, Stanford, USC, and UCLA) on the other. (Idaho was still a member of the league in the ‘50s, but refused to make long and costly trips to So Cal just to get mauled by the Trojans and Bruins.).

Vast distances between some of the schools (the Washington schools and those in So Cal were a thousand miles apart) played a role in regional gridiron politics. USC and UCLA, in particular, began to believe they had less in common with the Northwest schools than they did with institutions in the Southwest (namely Texas) and Midwest, which in some cases were nearly as close distance-wise. Rivalries between the flagship institutions began to more resemble grudge matches than traditional rivalries.

The first crack in the PCC dike, however, occurred at none other than Oregon, where HC Jim Aiken, who had taken a team of World War II vets and molded them into a powerhouse in the late ‘40s, saw his program nosedive, and began doing what others in the conference had been guilty of...recruiting on the edge. Once Aiken’s under-the-table payments to players were uncovered, PCC commissioner Victor O. Schmidt threatened the Webfoots with expulsion from the league and insisted the school fire Aiken.

In turn, Oregon began suggesting that it wasn’t the only school in the conference operating in an underhanded manner. Schools began implicating one another as the finger-pointing and whistle-blowing grew into an epidemic. Eventually, Oregon faculty representative Orlando John Hollis (right), dean of the law school, would come down particularly hard on the California schools when acting as the prosecutor in the later conference tribunals judging the numerous scandal-ridden institutions.

Subsequently, USC and UCLA were both caught with their hands in the cookie jar, with slush funds uncovered and severe penalties resulting. Oregon’s Hollis, as the chairman of the faculty committee that meted out severe punishments to the Trojans and Bruins, eventually became the target of vitriol from the L.A. area press, which had become further incensed that the Oregon State Beavers and Hollis’ Ducks had won the conference titles in 1956 and ‘57, respectively, while the local USC and UCLA teams cooled their heels on probation. Oregon’s Hollis became an especially-favored target of the L.A. Times sports section, which invented various insults for the distinguished administrator. “The Foundering Fathers of the PCC” was one such slap; “The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse” was another; and, finally, “Orlando Hollis and his gay group of vestal virgins from the University of Oregon.”

Given the heightened acrimony and increasing opposition to playing the schools in the Northwest, the California schools (save Stanford) began plotting a course designed to break up the PCC. Alumni at USC and UCLA began to demand secession from the loop soon after the penalties were announced, and deep-seeded animosities between the regions were bubbling to the surface. It was truly the college sports version of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys.

At the 1957 PCC meetings, the schools forced PCC commissioner Schmidt to resign, and a week later USC, UCLA, and Cal-Berkeley voted to leave the conference. Washington, worried that it would be losing out on games vs. the California schools, also voted to leave in June of 1958. By August of that year, Stanford and the remaining schools in the North decided to dissolve the strife-weary loop, although they honored contracts for the 1959 games and sent Washington to the Rose Bowl on January 1. 1960.

A new alliance was formed soon thereafter, the AAWU (Athletic Association of Western Universities), originally consisting of the four California schools, plus Washington. Gradually, Washington State, Oregon, and Oregon State worked their way back into the loop, and the league would be renamed the Pacific 8 in 1968, but not before the Southern wing got its way at the outset and wasn’t compelled to schedule the Northern schools, replacing them with intersectional battles instead.

Indeed, a check of early and mid ‘60s AAWU schedules shows UCLA and USC with a full complement of nationwide foes; the Bruins would only play the California schools, plus Washington, in conference play through 1966, and in the Rose Bowl year of ‘65 played a non-league slate that included Michigan State, Penn State, Syracuse, Missouri, Air Force, and Tennessee. Oregon, at odds with the L.A. schools, didn’t come to terms with either for quite a while, as the Ducks wouldn’t schedule USC until 1967, or UCLA until 1969.

So, whatever hostilities you might believe exist between modern-day Oregon and the schools in So Cal, trust us, they’re not as bad as they used to be.

Which brings us to 2012, and another chance for Oregon to continue its remarkable recent surge in which it has posted a 34-6 SU mark over the past three years for HC Kelly, who gave serious consideration in the offseason to an offer from the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs before deciding to stay in Eugene. Some are speculating that Kelly is likely to eventually bolt Eugene, perhaps because of ongoing controversies including alleged payments to Texas-based Will Lyles’ recruiting service, and reports of widespread marijuana use within the program.

Trappings, perhaps, of the Ducks’ new-found status as a national power, but also distracting enough to make Kelly contemplate a move to more serene coaching waters. Stay tuned for further developments.

On the surface, it might seem as if Kelly has something to worry about this fall on the attack end, with the linchpins of last year’s offense, QB Darron Thomas (whose decision to opt for the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining instead boomeranged spectacularly in April, as he wasn’t selected by any team at Radio City Music Hall) and homerun RB LaMichael James (whose no-surprise early departure was rewarded with an early selection by the 49ers), having left Eugene. Indeed, only four starters return for the “O” this fall.

The Ducks, however, have been reloading rather than rebuilding for several years, and have had no trouble replacing star performers in the recent past (all Oregon did after QB Jeremiah Masoli’s premature departure after 2009 was record an undefeated regular-season mark the following year). Informed Pac-12 sources are thus not concerned about whomever emerges as the new QB, whether it be electric soph Bryan Bennett (right), who filled in with some flair a year ago (6 TDs and no picks in 46 pass attempts; 8.7 ypc) when Thomas went down briefly with injury, or RS frosh Marcus Mariota, whose skill set is perfectly suited to Kelly’s wide-open spread option and who might have outplayed Bennett in spring work.

Kelly has said he’ll wait until fall camp to make a decision on who starts the September 1 opener vs. Arkansas State, and some suggest the pair might be rotated. But most sources believe the Ducks will keep winning either way. True frosh Jake Rodrigues might be better than either, although he’s more likely to redshirt this fall.

The reload theme continues at RB, where sr. Kenjon Barner (left) finally gets his chance at the feature role after quick-stepping his way to 1896 YR and 20 TDs the past three years in mostly-relief work behind the departed LaMichael James. Then there’s the carnival tilt-a-whirl dimension provided by soph De’Anthony Thomas, a slash weapon who rushed for 595 yards and caught 46 passes as a frosh in 2011 and also streaked 91 yards with a handoff from Darron Thomas to score a TD in the 45-38 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. For good measure, De’Antony also added a pair of kick return TDs last fall.

Three starters are also back along an OL that paved the way for those 46.1 ppg and 522 ypg in 2011, augmented by a touted juco addition, 6'7, 290-lb. OT Kyle Long. The receiving corps is a bit short on experience (jr. Josh Huff, with 31 catches LY, is the only starting WR returnee, though he could be looking at a September suspension after an offseason DUI), but possesses loads of speed and ability. With a chance to shine, look for sorts such as last year’s ballyhooed juco recruit, Rahsaan Vaughn (14 catches in limited work in 2011), to emerge as key playmakers. The same can be said for soph TE Colt Lyerla, projected as more than an able replacement for reliable David Paulson.

Kelly also has a pair of experienced PKs in upperclassmen Rob Beard and Alejandro Maldonado, the latter perhaps best remembered for slightly hooking a makeable 37-yard FG that would have forced OT in a bitter 38-35 November 19 loss vs. USC that effectively took the Ducks out of the running for the BCS title game. De’Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff are also perhaps the most-lethal kick return pair in the nation.

While the Ducks have not been renowned for defense nearly as much as their offense in their rise to prominence, vet coordinator Nick Aliotti nonetheless believes he might have one of his best stop units since the “Gang Green D” of the 1994 Rose Bowl Ducks during an earlier Aliotti tour of duty in Eugene.

Last year, Aliotti’s troops allowed 24.6 ppg, which is a more impressive number than it sounds because of the brisk pace of Duck games and the fact opponents were usually playing catch-up, trying to rally from big deficits in contests that would often more resemble pinball games due to the non-stop tempo provided by the high-powered UO offense.

Aliotti’s goal this season is improved depth, hoping to interchange two full platoons which can play at a breakneck pace with resultant high pressure. Keying the defense is arguably one of the better linebacking corps on the coast, if not the country, spearheaded by heat-seeking sr. Michael Clay (left). Another senior, MLB Kiko Alonso, was Defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl.

Much of the defensive front and secondary return in tact, and there is real excitement about the arrival of frosh DT Arik Armstead, considered by Scout.com as the top-rated recruit in the country at his position. Armstead, who enrolled early, wowed the staff in spring work and is likely to push returning jr. starters Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart for playing time. At 6'7, DE Dion Jordan swoops from the edge like a pterodactyl and had 13 tackles for loss and 7 ½ sacks last fall as a junior.

Meanwhile, the secondary is loaded, with starting experience on the corners in Terence Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olumu, while sr. FS John Boyett has nine career interceptions.

The schedule is tailor-made for another run to the BCS; there’s no opener at Jerry Jones Stadium in Arlington against LSU to worry about this season, rather three straight non-league gimmes at Autzen Stadium out of the chute. Already, there is anticipation that the season will come down to a projected November 3 showdown at the L.A. Coliseum vs. the despised Lane Kiffin and his Trojans. The sobering reality, however, is that the Ducks are probably going to have to beat the Trojans twice (also in a likely rematch in the Pac-12 title game) to have a realistic shot at the BCS title game in Miami.

Spread-wise, note that Oregon covered its last five away from home a year ago, although the hefty imposts were often too much to overcome at Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks failed to cover their last five.

Summary...We can overanalyze the returning starters angle and deem the Ducks as unlikely to replicate their recent successes after the departures of QB Darron Thomas & RB LaMichael James, but that would be foolish as Oregon has reloaded successfully for Chip Kelly the past three seasons and should do so again this fall. In fact, the Ducks might not skip a beat at all on attack if QBs Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota are as good as they looked in spring. The season likely comes down to two games vs. Southern Cal...at the L.A. Coliseum on November 3, likely to decide the locale of the conference title game, and the expected rematch a month later. If the Ducks win both, they’re probably back in the BCS title game for the second time in three seasons.


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