The Cerebral Vortex

A team can only hope to grow from such adversity. Injuries can derail the loftiest of goals, forcing a team to go deeper and deeper into its ever-thinning cast of players to cobble together a game-day roster. For the Oregon Ducks, the situation has become far more dire. One injury can be sustained -- unless it occurs to the starting quarterback. Most any Eugene resident can remember where he or she was when Dennis Dixon cut left on a Thursday night in November at Arizona and crumpled, the sting of a perfect season slipping through the fingertips. Two years ago, and even at ... a line of wounded Ducks...the beginning of last season, the controversy over the starting position at quarterback was between Dixon and Brady Leaf; now the situation has become irrevocably complicated for offensive-coordinater wunderkind Chip Kelly...


... as was evidenced today at Autzen Stadium, where the seventeenth-ranked Ducks fell to the BCS-Buster benchmark Boise State Broncos. Chris Petersen, formerly the receivers coach under Mike Bellotti at Oregon before leaving for Idaho and an offensive-coordinator position under Dan Hawkins, got the best of his former mentor in the first meeting ever between the upstart and the second fiddle...


The Ducks started the game with junior-college transfer Jeremiah Masoli at the helm. A vicious late hit by Ellis Powers, who wielded his helmet like the sledgehammer he brought onto the field in pre-game festivities, left Masoli concussed and Oregon's best shot on offense derailed. Turning to freshman Chris Harper, the Ducks became frightfully one-dimensional. Pitches left and right were quickly swallowed by a Bronco defense which must've drooled with anticipation every snap as, time and time again like clockwork, the Oregon offense would snap the ball and pitch laterally. Harper was never tested as a quarterback because Kelly, Bellotti and the rest of the Oregon coaching staff dummied the playbook into nothing but obvious running plays...


But that's not Dixon handing off the ball anymore. None of the current healthy Duck quarterbacks -- and this includes Masoli, who was in shorts on the sideline shortly after the over-the-line ejection-warranting-but-not-receiving hit by Powers but should be okay, Bellotti said after the game, for Washington State -- have that rare awareness that Dixon brought to his position. However, none of the quarterbacks on the depth chart (including both preseason number-one Nate Costa and opening-game starter Justin Roper) are seniors; none have operated in Kelly's offense prior to this season. Even Roper, who looked so strong in the beginning of the season, was deemed incapable of operating this spread until that Sun Bowl trouncing of South Florida last January...


The Ducks looked completely out of water as the first half wore on, Harper blindly executing pitch after pitch into a wall of Bronco defenders. But for Oregon supporters, not all was lost in this defeat. The removal of true freshman Darron Thomas' redshirt paved the way for a potential comeback which would've been deemed foolhardy to hope for upon the entrance of the kid in the number-one jersey. Standing in the pocket, tossing dart after dart at his receivers, Thomas deftly ... and another gets thrown to the wolves...drove Oregon down the field to the tune of three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Time simply ran out for the higher-ranked team today, as squandered opportunities prevented the complete swing to victory. "We were probably too stubborn offensively," Bellotti told the Register-Guard after the loss. "I should have gotten Darron in there sooner."


The biggest lesson learned was one of offensive balance. For the first fifty-eight offensive plays from scrimmage, the Ducks attempted the run fifty-one times. Boise State, acutely aware that Oregon had no faith in Harper to get the ball to his receivers, jammed the box over and over again. They swarmed to the edges as Jeremiah Johnson and the other Duck tailbacks tried to break clear outside. Then, when the least-experienced Oregon quarterback migrated onto the field, the offense went pass-happy, calling a throw on all of its final thirty plays -- the ones with Thomas present. Boise State, now looking solely for the heave, still couldn't stave the onslaught... until finally their diligent observation paid off with a timely interception to effectively ice the game. Had the Ducks gone to the air sooner, logic dictates that they would've found a much-easier time rushing the ball... 


This, however, is not the loss of the entire season. A Pac-10 team is not automatically out of the entire race simply because of one non-conference loss -- especially with that loss coming against such a highly-respected mid-major squad. On their fifth quarterback of the season, Oregon is finally starting to mold back into a team capable of regaining its 2007 swagger. Masoli can still recover and lead this team, but the future looked a little brighter as even the sun poked through the Willamette Valley cloud cover to witness the first snaps of a potential future game-breaker. Sometimes our greatest discoveries come as we dangle precariously from our last strands of rope...


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