Mitchell: 5 Reasons Oregon Falls to LSU
Oregon head coach Chip Kelly
When head coach Chip Kelly and his Oregon Ducks take the field this Saturday against the LSU Tigers, they will be 60 minutes away from their first loss of the 2011 season, and their second consecutive to an SEC powerhouse. CFN's Russ Mitchell on five reasons why.
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me on Twitter @russmitchellcfb
Both LSU and Oregon are dealing with off field distractions, though LSU's have certainly been more recent. The Tigers will be without starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and wide receiver Russell Shepard, suspended last week due to an arrest and a suspected NCAA violation, respectively. That news was followed by an announcement Tuesday that starting LG Josh Dworaczyk will undergo surgery on his knee; the senior and his 23 starts will miss considerable playing time as a result.
All three Tigers are upperclassmen, and all three will be missed.
However, when the Ducks go to sleep at night it's not the LSU offense keeping them awake – it's the defense. The Tigers lost three All-Americans to graduation this offseason, and yet its 2011 defense may be even better than the one that ended 2010 ranked twelfth best in the nation.
Oregon's vaunted rushing attack has shown cracks when playing against top notch defenses. In 2010, the Ducks averaged a mere 2.3 yards per carry (32 carries) against Auburn's defense. Against Cal's, Oregon averaged only 2.9 ypc. Moreover, these performances were with the benefit of an offensive line deep with seniors (more on that below).
When its running game struggles, Oregon likes to rely on a dynamic passing attack. LSU's Pass Defense was ranked tenth best in the nation last year, and returns everyone but Patrick Peterson to a unit considered by many to be the deepest in college football this season.
The Tigers' weakness heading into fall practice was at defensive tackle and linebacker; however, reports through August indicate the replacements from both units have excelled.
If not actually better, this unit will certainly be faster. Defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are both redshirt sophomores who were named Freshman All-SEC last season. Montgomery and Mingo redefine the term "cat quick", and are talented enough to replace the two upperclassmen returning starters ahead of them on the depth chart.
Ask anyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line and they'll tell you defense wins championships, and this might be the best defense Chip Kelly has faced as a head coach. If not, it's a close second.
The Oregon quarterback is certainly a talented athlete, however, the book on him says he struggles against top competition, particularly holding onto the ball. Thomas had four interceptions and four fumbles (one lost) against Stanford, Cal & Auburn last year, to go with a 108 Quarterback Passing Efficiency rating against Cal.
Again, remember that was with a senior-laden offensive line, a luxury Thomas will not have on Saturday.
LSU's secondary is likely to be the most talented, deepest and fastest Thomas has ever faced. As to speed, so are the aforementioned Montgomery and Mingo.
His worst two performances were arguably the road games against Cal and Auburn. It's safe to expect that Thomas will see a whole lot more purple at the Cowboys Classic this Saturday than green.
Finally, for Oregon to have a chance at succeeding, Thomas will also have to put aside recent brushes with the law and other distractions, and be 100% focused when he travels to Dallas for this high profile game.
Did we mention Darron is a Texas native, starting in his home state for the first time in his collegiate career, and thus likely to be inundated with requests on his time/attention from family and friends?
Kelly is 0-3 against Top 20 non-conference teams during his tenure as head coach at Oregon. By comparison, LSU's Les Miles is 29-1 in non-conference play, 11-1 against non-conference BCS opponents.
Miles is 15-3 in games that his team has a week or more to prepare; that includes season openers, bye weeks and bowl games. Kelly is 5-3.
As to Kelly's signature wins, Cal ended the 2009 campaign a disappointing 8-5, USC went 5-4 in PAC-12 play and Utah was 0-3 against its challenging opponents. In 2010, Kelly had a big win over Stanford, and that's it (the Ducks only played one other Top 25 team until Auburn (Arizona #21)).
Meanwhile, Miles is the only LSU coach to beat Florida, Auburn and Alabama in a single year, and he's done it twice. He's won a National Championship, is 3-3 against Urban Meyer, 2-2 against Nick Saban, 2-0 against Steve Spurrier, and has never lost a season opener. Kelly is 1-1 in season openers.
Advantage: The guy who chews grass.
A lot has been written this past week regarding how LSU will have to reconfigure its offense around the play of new starting quarterback Jarrett Lee, and certainly that's not ideal for the Tigers. If Miles & Co. felt Lee was a better option, he would have been starting.
However, very little has been written about the fact that after spending an entire offseason preparing for a mobile quarterback in Jefferson, Oregon has had to scramble to replace that game plan with a defensive scheme for Lee, a pocket passer. That's even less ideal.
Remember, LSU is quite familiar with Lee, a fifth year senior with nine starts under his belt. Since his disastrous redshirt freshman campaign, the Texan has a 4:2 TD-to-INT ratio, and came off the bench last year in clutch situations to lead the Tigers to victories against Florida (throwing the winning touchdown with seconds remaining), Tennessee and Alabama.
He may not be the Tigers' #1 option, but he's not exactly wet behind the ears.
We save the most compelling reason for last. It's not by accident that Auburn and Oregon met in the 2010 BCS National Championship game – they were stacked with senior talent on both sides of the line. Experienced linemen are the cornerstone of dominant college football, and Oregon must replace nearly 70% of its starting linemen from 2010.
There is perhaps no unit in our sport that takes longer to gel than the offensive line, and the Ducks shuffled out three of their starting five. It would be good if Oregon had a seasoned wide receiving corps to take pressure off these new replacements, however, the Ducks must also replace both starting wideouts.
On defensive, Oregon will be without starting CB Cliff Harris who is suspended for the LSU game. Harris is not only one of the Ducks' leading returning tacklers but is also one of the nation's best punt returners. As big of a blow as that is for the defense, more so is the fact that Oregon must replace three of its starting four defensive linemen.
Meanwhile, even with the injury to Dworaczyk, LSU returns eight of its ten offensive linemen – nearly all are upperclassmen, and all eight were redshirted. For years they have been playing together in a conference that celebrates talented, quick defensive linemen like perhaps no other in America.
They will face arguably the most inexperienced Oregon defensive line in years; as a unit, it has only 16 starts to its credit.
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