Sept. 2, 2010
Saturday: At No. 11 Oregon -- Autzen Stadium, Eugene
On The Air: 770 KKOB-AM/Lobo Radio Network; Comcast (channel 77)
Online: GameTracker, game story, stats on GoLobos.com
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
Don't be fooled by the soft nickname. The Oregon Ducks have claws and teeth and gobs of talent. They are billed as the monsters of the Pac-10 pond. They could take that billing national.
You want quick perspective on how tough it is to play the Ducks in a season opener? They beat Utah 31-24 in their season opener in 2009 and have won 16 of 17 home openers dating back to 1993. They have averaged 43.2 points in their last five home openers.
What the Lobos face in the No. 11 Ducks isn't simply a ranked program, the defending Pac-10 champs or the team picked to repeat at league champs. The Lobos face a Ducks team that might be better than the Ducks of 2009.
Oregon won the Pac-10 last season for the first time since 2001 and that wasn't supposed to happen, in part, because it was Coach Chip Kelly's first go-around as a Duck and because the USC Trojans supposedly were the cream of the Pac-10 crop. The Ducks had 174 career starts out of the 2009 returnees that reached the Rose Bowl. They have 279 starts out of the 2010 returnees.
You think that means the Ducks will be better? Only three Ducks are slated to make their first career start when Oregon plays New Mexico, although one is a quarterback.
It's possible the Ducks were looked upon as Ugly Ducklings last season and nobody expected them to blossom into the gorgeous swans that ruled the Pac-10 nest. This season they are marked and targeted. They also are motivated to be marked and targeted.
The Lobos know what they face this coming Saturday in Eugene. They face a fast and talented Oregon squad that wants to do it even better in 2010. For sure, that means the Ducks can't afford a blemish on their record by falling to New Mexico Lobos, a team that went 1-11 in 2009.
Coach Kelly has harped on the notion that this isn't the same team that won the league a year ago. However, in pointing out the obvious -- which is true of every team -- Kelly's comments force you do a quick study of the Ducks' depth chart. You notice that there are 18 starters back. That's nine on offense and eight on defense. Kelly has 27 players with at least one start. That's pretty close to returning the same team.
One loss from 2009 is quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was booted off the squad. Masoli had a solid junior season with 2,147 yards and 15 TDs. He led the Ducks to a league crown and to the Rose Bowl where Oregon lost 26-17 to Ohio State.
That's a key position and a bit of a question mark going into the game with New Mexico. The Oregon depth chart lists Darron Thomas and Nate Costa as the Ducks' 1-2 punch in the pocket. They have one career start between them and it`s possible that the Lobos might put some pocket pressure on whichever Duck is quacking out the signals.
It is being said in Oregon that the Ducks' schedule should allow a new quarterback a chance to get comfortable. Of course, that's a slap at New Mexico, heavy underdogs to the No. 11 Ducks. Is it possible that Oregon went with Thomas, a unproven sophomore, over Costa, a senior, because of the Ducks' lack of respect for Lobos?
Or is it possible that Thomas is that good? In his only game played in Autzen Stadium, he threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes against Boise State.
Probably, the Ducks will look to establish a running attack to take pressure off their quarterback. That would be easier if LaMichael James, who ran for 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009, was in the backfield. He's not, suspended for the UNM game.
For sure, the Ducks will be looking to use their aggressive and ultra-quick defense to keep Lobos out of the end zone, thus taking additional pressure off the Oregon QB. This unit has a chance to not only be the best defense in the Pac-10, but one of the top defenses in the nation.
There are other things to deal with in Eugene, too -- like the crowd. Duck fans flock to Autzen Stadium like sportswriters flock to a free buffet.
Oregon is looking at its 69th consecutive sellout when the Lobos visit on Saturday. UNM Coach Michael Locksley said simulating the noise of Autzen Stadium was one of his pre-game keys. The stadium sits 54,000. It will be a loud house come Saturday.
There is a possibility is that the Ducks will be looking past the Lobos. A better possibility will be that the Lobos will enter Autzen Stadium with a chip on their shoulder. One Oregon writer looked at Oregon's pre-conference schedule and wrote it was "mediocre to lousy." The headline on the story said the non-conference schedule "looks like cupcake row."
The much-improved Lobos don't plan be a soft chew for Oregon on Saturday. But one thing is for certain: these Ducks have large fangs.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.