Oregon head coach Chip Kelly is used to being in the spotlight.
His first ever game as head coach resulted in a post game brawl where his star running back, LeGarrette Blount, sluged Boise State linebacker Byron Hout resulting in Blount’s suspension for most of the season. Still, without Blount in the backfield, Kelly led his team to a Pac-10 championship, and a Rose Bowl appearance, for the first time in nearly a decade.
Then, just months later, Kelly’s star quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, was charged with burglary, and later with possession of marijuana and driving infractions, which resulted in his kicking the Heisman candidate off his team.
Once more coach Kelly’s Ducks, who were 2010 national championship contenders at the time of Masoli’s dismissal., were without a star talent because of stupid, irresponsible actions. And, once more, Kelly rose to the challenge. After kicking Masoli off the team, the Ducks entered the 2010 season with moderately dampened expectations, but they did not stay dampened for long.
Now, with only two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Ducks not sit only atop the Pac-10 Conference, but thanks to an undefeated record they sit as the top ranked team in every major poll, including the BCS standings. Should Oregon finish the season in that spot, Coach Kelly, in only his second season at the helm, will have led the Oregon Ducks to their first ever national championship game.
Oregon has rolled over every opponent it faced in impressive fashion, including a 52-31 victory over Stanford, ranked ninth in the nation at the time. They have put up 504 points this season, and allowed only 172 to opponents. Oregon has risen to every challenge, and now have only one legitimate obstacle standing in the way of championship dreams – the Arizona Wildcats.
Yes, the Oregon State Beavers always present a challenge in the annual Civil War rivalry game. But this season all appearances are that the Beavers will be outclassed by the faster, more talented Ducks. If the Ducks do survive their matchup against the Arizona Wildcats, then beating the Beavers will be a mere formality.
The question is – can the Wildcats REALLY challenge the Ducks? In a short answer, yes (but it won’t be easy).
Arizona will enter Autzen Stadium ranked 21st in the BCS. They have already beaten top-ten ranked Iowa, and boast one of the best passing offenses in the country. Junior quarterback Nick Foles is averaging 275.1 yards per game, and has 13 passing TDs compared to only six interceptions. Foles’ primary target, Juron Criner, is currently one of the ten best receivers in the country, averaging 98.2 receiving yards per game.
But passing alone will not beat the Ducks.
The most important battle for the Wildcats in this game will be in figuring out how to stop the Ducks from scoring. Short of faking injuries to slow down the Ducks’ high-octane offense, that may not be possible as the Ducks are the only team in the country to AVERAGE more than 50 points per game. Running back LaMichael James has already racked up over 1,400 rushing yards and 17 TDs for Oregon, and quarterback Darron Thomas has been good for another 23 TDs in the air, 11 of which have gone to receiver Jeff Maehl.
The Wildcats are not coming into this game unprepared, or untested, though. The defense has allowed only 18.1 points per game (one of the best averages in the country), and two of the team’s three losses this season are by a combined five points. Unfortunately for Arizona, run defense has been a weakness lately, having given up 217 yards and 205 yards on the ground in losing efforts over the last two weeks against Stanford and Southern Cal, respectively.
Prior to those two losses, however, the Wildcat defense allowed only 88.9 yards per game on the ground, and if they can return to that earlier form they will have a very real opportunity to play spoiler to Oregon’s BCS hopes. If not, the Ducks can pack their bags, because they are as good as guaranteed an invitation to Phoenix on January 10th.