Pac-12: Oregon Ducks

Best of the visits: Pac-12

October, 19, 2014
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Another weekend of Pac-12 games meant another weekend of Pac-12 visitors, as multiple conference programs hosted important official and unofficial visitors. Those recruits took to twitter to share their experiences, as Arizona State, Cal, USC and Oregon all put together significant performances -- including three home victories -- in front of recruits.

Cal hosts big weekend

The Golden Bears had a number of official visitors on hand -- including ESPN 300 wide receiver Carlos Strickland -- and almost pulled off the upset against UCLA. As always, the Cal passing game was on display, and this time it came in front of Strickland and three-star receiver Lavan Alston. Class of 2016 standout running back Sean McGrew, who holds a number of Pac-12 offers, was also on hand on an unofficial visit.

Oregon's ESPN 300 visitors

Perhaps no Pac-12 program hosted a more potent one-two punch than the Ducks, as Oregon brought in ESPN 300 teammates John Houston Jr. and Rasheem Green on official visits.


The two hold significant interest in UCLA, USC and other programs, but the Ducks picked a great weekend to bring in the talented defenders on official visits. Neither is expected to make a decision before signing day, but Oregon could be in the mix for both until the end.

Masina's second Pac-12 trip

ESPN 300 outside linebacker Osa Masina has three Pac-12 programs among his final schools, and the nation's No. 124 overall prospect was on an official visit to Arizona State this weekend. Masina went to UCLA earlier this month and will visit USC at the end of November.

Recruits see big USC win

While the Trojans didn't host any official visitors, being the only game in Los Angeles brought out some important local prospects.

ESPN 300 athlete Ykili Ross attended several USC games this season and was at the Coliseum again on Saturday.


The Trojans also received an unofficial visit from 2016 ESPN 300 safety C.J. Pollard, who picked up an offer from USC last week. Pollard is another in a long line of Gardena (Calif.) Serra standouts and his father, Marvin, is a former USC cornerback.

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A quick look at Oregon's 45-20 victory over Washington, the Ducks' 11th consecutive win over the Huskies.

How the game was won: Oregon’s offense is playing like it wants to play. Jake Fisher returned to the lineup in the Ducks’ win over UCLA, and the O-line looked like it took another step forward against a talented Huskies front seven. Though the O-line had a few silly penalties that they’ll have to clean up, the offense managed to click and tore up the Washington defense with big plays. Oregon accounted for 22 plays of 10 or more yards against a stout defense.

Game ball goes to: Oregon running back Royce Freeman. He’s a freshman who plays (and is built) like a fifth-year senior. Freeman averaged 5.8 yards per rush against a defense giving up only 3.1 yards per carry, finishing with 169 yards on 29 carries. It was his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game, and he had a Pac-12 season-high four rushing touchdowns in this game, with a fifth taken away by an offensive line penalty. It was the most rushing touchdowns in a single game for a Duck since Kenjon Barner recorded five against USC in 2012. But to be kind, let's give a second game ball to the Oregon offensive line for making that possible.

What it means: First and foremost for Ducks fans, the streak against Washington is still alive. From a national perspective, this was a big game. It answered the question of whether or not Oregon’s offensive performance against UCLA was a one-and-done. (Answer: nope, not at all.) And while most of the nation was tuned in to the top-five matchup in Tallahassee, the Ducks managed to put on a pretty good show in Eugene.

Playoff implication: With 10 days until the playoff selection committee releases its first ranking, Oregon is still very much in the conversation. The Ducks O-line was far from perfect but still light years ahead of where it was in Oregon’s loss to Arizona. In this game, the committee saw an unflappable Marcus Mariota, a strong run game and a defense that is coming along. And even if the defense is still slow on the uptake through the rest of the season, the improvements of the O-line could give the committee enough belief that this Mariota-led offense could probably make up for whatever deficiencies the defense has shown. At the end of the day, it’s about who has more points.

Best play: Dwayne Stanford's 16-yard receiving touchdown in the third quarter. He jumped backward and elevated over both Kevin King and Sidney Jones, spun in the air and came down with the score to give the Ducks a 35-6 lead. It was Stanford’s second touchdown of the season, but his first career touchdown reception against an FBS team.

What's next: Oregon travels to Berkley to take on California, a team that will be eager to prove itself after a very close loss to UCLA on Saturday. Washington welcomes Arizona State to Seattle for a chance to pick up a sixth win and bowl eligibility.

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
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12:30 p.m.

UCLA at California, ESPN2, ABC

[+] EnlargeGoff
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJared Goff will look to rebound against UCLA after Cal scored just one touchdown last week.
This is the battle for bragging rights between California's top two public schools. Both teams are coming off disheartening losses, so there should be a sense of urgency coming from both sidelines. Cal must demonstrate that it can at least slow down an explosive offense to keep this competitive. However, the Bruins' defense hasn't been much to write home about, either. Expect UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley and Cal QB Jared Goff to light up the Memorial Stadium scoreboard.

3 p.m.

Colorado at USC, Pac-12 Network

The Trojans escaped against Arizona with a win by the skin of their teeth when the Wildcats' last-second field goal attempt was wide right. The week before, USC lost to Arizona State on a Hail Mary. On paper, it looks as if Steve Sarkisian's team will have a chance to catch its breath at home against struggling Colorado, but if there's one thing the Pac-12 has taught us this season, it's that absolutely nothing is automatic.

5 p.m.

Washington at Oregon, Fox Sports 1

It now has been more than 4,000 days since the Huskies last beat Oregon. Washington enters Autzen Stadium armed with a sterling defensive front seven that has helped generate a nationwide-best five defensive touchdowns this season, so there's hope in Seattle that the Huskies can snap Oregon's 10-game streak this time around (Danny Shelton is the kind of big body in the middle that can neutralize explosive offenses).

The Ducks, though, are fresh off a statement win at UCLA. So while Washington is eyeing the upset, the Quack Attack is looking to make another spectacular Marcus Mariota-led splash. Keep this in mind: When it comes to avoiding turnovers, these are the top two teams in the nation. Washington has given it away only once, the Ducks just three times.

7:30 p.m.

Stanford at Arizona State, ESPN

The Cardinal showed signs of offensive life last Friday against Washington State, and they can continue developing their identity on that side of the ball against an Arizona State defense that has not been good (the Sun Devils are allowing a conference-worst 6.1 yards per play). ASU will likely need to find more offensive consistency than it did in two games versus Stanford's top-flight defense last season. Much of that will rest on the shoulders of quarterback Mike Bercovici, who has thrown for an NCAA-record 998 yards in his first two career starts. Taylor Kelly may play, but it'll probably be Bercovici working with explosive weapons D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong against the Cardinal's rugged defense.

Revisiting Pac-12's 'fearless predictions'

October, 17, 2014
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Anu Solomon, Marcus Mariota, Kevin HoganGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12 blog revisits some of its preseason "fearless predictions" to see how they stand at the midway point of the season.
At the midway point of the season, the Pac-12 bloggers decided it was a good time to revisit some of the blog's fearless predictions for 2014. How'd we do?

1. A Pac-12 team will win the national championship: We wrote that Oregon, UCLA, Stanford or USC would win the national championship, and we'd like to celebrate the fearlessness of that prediction because at this point that is its strongest quality. Each member of that foursome already has at least one loss, with Stanford, UCLA and USC having gone down twice. At No. 9, the Ducks seem like the most likely team to work its way back into College Football Playoff consideration, but that might require going undefeated the rest of the way. No easy task. The Pac-12 has proved even deeper than it appeared in the preseason, while the top doesn't appear as unassailable as it did in August. We may have swung for the fences and missed with this one. -- Ted Miller

2. A Pac-12 player will win the Heisman Trophy: The Pac-12 blog is still confident. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota presents the best candidate from the league. He's yet to throw an interception, his dual-threat numbers more than qualify him and the Ducks are still in the hunt for a conference title and College Football Playoff berth. Although he's the nation's most accurate quarterback, the window for UCLA's Brett Hundley is shrinking quickly. But with names like Buck Allen and Shaq Thompson starting to emerge, the league still has a phenomenal shot at a stiff-arm trophy. -- Kevin Gemmell

3. No Pac-12 coach will be fired at season's end: The two coaches whose seats were moderately warm going into the year, Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Cal's Sonny Dykes, both have their programs headed in the right direction. That leaves absolutely no coaches in the Pac-12 in jeopardy of losing their jobs. -- Kyle Bonagura

4. Cal and Colorado will be good enough to deliver a major upset this fall: I think we can consider Cal's win at Washington State as major enough considering the kind of offensive numbers (and special-teams touchdowns) that Jared Goff and his teammates had to put up in Pullman. To win on the road against a team whose QB threw for the FBS passing record is pretty major. However, at the midpoint of the season, we're still waiting on Colorado. The Buffs came pretty close against Cal and Oregon State, which we could've considered in this category, especially with how well Cal was playing at the time. But we're keeping this prediction with Colorado. The Buffs have six regular-season games left and four of those teams are currently in the top 25. We're not counting out a top-25 takedown by Ralphie & Co. -- Chantel Jennings

5. The USC-UCLA game will be a battle of top-10 teams: OK, maybe we shot for the moon a bit with that one. But what about top-25 teams? That's still likely. The Trojans are at No. 22 and UCLA is the first team out of the rankings at the unofficial No. 26 spot. USC has only one ranked team in its next four games leading up to the UCLA showdown. Good chance it will still be ranked. Same for UCLA, which has only No. 16 Arizona as a ranked opponent on the docket before hosting the Trojans on Nov. 22. Win out and the Bruins will be back in the top 20. -- Kevin Gemmell

6. Oregon will cover the spread against Michigan State in Week 2: Annnnnd, we got one. Boom shaka laka. -- Chantel Jennings

7. The Pac-12 will go 3-0 against Notre Dame: Well, after Stanford yanked defeat from the jaws of victory -- hey, let's rush three and not cover anybody on fourth-and-11 from our 23-yard line with time running out! -- this prediction is already doomed. The question now, with Notre Dame ranked No. 5 as it heads to No. 2 Florida State on Saturday, is whether Arizona State (Nov. 8) and USC can beat the Irish (Nov. 29). We're going to stay optimistic -- I know; so strange! -- and say yes. Biggest reason why? Stanford played Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, but the Irish have to come west to play the Sun Devils and Trojans. And now's not the time to note that home-field advantage hasn't been worth squat in the Pac-12 this season. -- Ted Miller

8. Whoever starts at quarterback for Arizona will pass for more than 3,000 yards: Freshman Anu Solomon has cemented himself as the Wildcats' starting quarterback, and our initial assessment of 3,000 yards actually looks conservative now. Through six games, Solomon has demonstrated remarkable poise in the pocket, even leading Arizona to a shocking 31-24 upset over Oregon at Autzen Stadium. He has already racked up 2,136 yards passing, 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Since the Wildcats are on target to play in a bowl game, Solomon is actually on pace to shatter that three-grand figure while throwing for 4,628 yards and 33 touchdowns. Rich Rodriguez is developing a potent attack in Tucson, and it should only improve as Solomon accrues more experience with his talented receiving corps. -- David Lombardi

9. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan will be the Pac-12's most improved player: This prediction has not come to fruition. Through the first half of the season, Hogan has actually regressed in a key statistical area, and Stanford has struggled mightily in the red zone, a place where great quarterbacks shine. Averaging 7.7 yards per attempt, Hogan's no longer as efficient as he was in 2013 (8.9 yards per attempt) despite enjoying a much more complete aerial arsenal (Stanford's tight end position is back this year). The Cardinal's running game is not as strong this year, and that's forced Hogan to shoulder a heavier load. He averaged 15 throws per game in 2012. That number bumped up to 21 in 2013, and it has shot up to 29 here in 2014. It's become clear that this larger burden has pushed Hogan further from his comfort zone.

If Stanford can re-establish its running game and return Hogan to the play-action happy spot that gives him more opportunities to make plays with his legs, we may be able to revisit this prediction at season's end. -- David Lombardi

10. Six teams will be ranked in the final top 25 at the end of the season: Six looks like a stretch at this point and it's not because the Pac-12 might have six of the country's 25 best teams. With the level of parity the conference has shown over the first half of the season, it'll be tough to differentiate from, say, the conference's No. 5 team and its No. 8 team. That dynamic will make it significantly more difficult to have more teams in the top 25 than if there were a clear divide between the haves and the have-nots. -- Kyle Bonagura

Pac-12's top recruiting visits 

October, 17, 2014
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As the schedule flips to the second half of the season, recruits will witness some important games in the Pac-12 this weekend. The three biggest recruiting weekends in the conference all feature ESPN 300 prospects, as programs look to positions themselves to close their recruiting classes with marquee prospects.

1. Oregon

Pac-12 North recruiting roundup 

October, 16, 2014
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At the halfway point of college football's regular season, there is still plenty to be decided both on the field and on the recruiting trail. The Pac-12 placed six programs among the top 40 recruiting classes in Wednesday's updated class rankings and conference recruiting classes contain as many as 24 -- Arizona -- and as few as nine -- Stanford -- verbal commitments. This update offers a look at where each Pac-12 North program stands with its 2015 recruiting class, including its top prospect and position of strength, as well as a look at where things are going well, and not so well, for each class.

Cal

Total number of commitments: 10

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The introduction of Chris Petersen to the Washington-Oregon rivalry comes as quite a relief to the ink-stained wretches who write about college football. Redundancy and predictability are the sworn enemies of the scribbling class, and the Huskies-Ducks rivalry has been a model of redundancy and predictability for a decade, with the boys in green -- or, you know, whatever -- owning the purple team by at least 17 points in the last 10 matchups.

With Petersen now fronting the Huskies, that's an item of interest that a journalist can wrap a lead around. He or she doesn't have to immediately recycle the droning, "Is this the year Washington breaks through?" One can observe that Petersen not only was once a Ducks assistant -- from 1995-2000 under Mike Bellotti -- when he started a longstanding friendship with second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, but he also was 2-0 against Oregon while heading Boise State, where he was 92-12 and was universally esteemed for his Huge Football Brain.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images"I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff," Huskies coach Chris Petersen said, "but that's not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."
"Huge Football Brain"? That hints at Chip Kelly, which means Huskies fans have stopped reading and now have thrown themselves on their prayer rugs and begun wailing to the college football gods that Washington really, really would like Petersen to become Washington's version of Kelly. Or, even better, Don James, Take 2.

With Huskies fans duly distracted by their invocations, we'll note to the tittering Oregon fans that the Ducks will be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of an obscure moment in their team's history on Saturday. While video of Kenny Wheaton's pick-six interception against Washington in 1994 is as difficult to find as a white peacock, it does exist, and there's a quiet minority of Ducks fans who believe it was a meaningful moment in the transformation of the program.

Those Oregon fans obsessed with such esoterica will be glad to know the Duck will don throwback uniforms to honor the occasion, of which at least one Oregon administrative Twitter feed observed this week: "Prior to 'The Pick' Oregon all-time had a .495 Win% (359-366-34). Since that game, Oregon is .731 (177-65)."

So, yes, call us a wee bit sarcastic when we poke fun by minimizing the impact of "The Pick," unquestionably the Ur-moment in Oregon football history, a highlight that plays immediately before every Ducks home game.

And the reason it is the definitive before-after line for the program's rise to West Coast and national prominence is not only that it was the key play in a run to the program's first Rose Bowl since 1958, it was that it happened so dramatically against the Huskies, the established Northwest power that Ducks fans most hated.

Which brings us back the rivalry and the two head coaches. Both know the rivalry well. That means they will at least acknowledge its biliousness, unlike Kelly, who seemed to enjoy telling reporters how much he liked former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, knowing it would inspire forehead slaps among the Ducks faithful.

"Do I understand the rivalry as a native Oregonian? Absolutely," Helfrich said. "I know the history of that very well and what it means to our fans."

And yet, it's all about an established winning process with the Ducks, and that centers on preparing the same every week for a "nameless faceless opponent."

Echoed Petersen, "I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff, but that’s not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."

That carries over to Helfrich's and Petersen's friendship. Both insisted in the preseason it would overcome them being at professional loggerheads in the Pac-12's North Division, though they admitted this week they hadn't talked thus far this season. Both also insisted this week that it has no impact on their emotions or preparation for the game. Which, you know, is as it should be.

Petersen, while at Boise State, handed the Ducks their last nonconference loss at home in 2008, and then spoiled Kelly's head coaching debut in 2009. While that's an interesting factoid, it's also far less relevant than how well the Ducks offensive line, which recovered nicely in a win at UCLA with offensive tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, will play against the Huskies stout front-7, led by nose guard Danny Shelton, defensive endHau'oli Kikaha and linebacker Shaq Thompson.

What Oregon showed last week while redeeming itself after flubbing around in a home loss to Arizona is that when the offensive line is playing well, the offense hums along like in days of old. Petersen knows his team can't allow QB Marcus Mariota to feel comfortable.

"He might be the best player in college football, so that’s a problem right there," he said.

Another interesting factoid: Neither QB has thrown an interception this year. Because Cyler Miles isn't the playmaker that Mariota is, it's probably more critical for him to maintain his clean sheet Saturday.

So here we are, back at the redundancy: Is this the Huskies year? Maybe. Stranger things have happened this season. A lot stranger. But all the history and emotions don't hold a lot of weight with either coach. Whether the Huskies break through or the Ducks make like Spinal Tap's amplifiers and go up to 11, the coaches just view the game as X's and O's either doing what they want them to do or not.

Noted Petersen dryly, "So it doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything in the past. It comes down to playing good football."

Pac-12 Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
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Why Utah will win: Duh, the Utes are on the road. Is any further explanation needed? I like the confidence Utah is playing with. I like that they are a three-phase team. And I really, really like the sack-happy Utah front seven against an Oregon State offensive line that hasn't fully come together yet. The Utes have established a strong running game that will exist regardless of who is handing off the ball. OSU's offense is yet to really come together. And unless you've got a defense like Stanford's, averaging fewer than 30 points per game will eventually catch up with you. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Oregon will win: Oregon has won 10 in a row in this bitter rivalry, and each of those victories came by at least 17 points. That’s dominance. Last year, the Huskies challenged the Ducks for three quarters at home before being overwhelmed in the fourth quarter in a 45-24 Ducks win. While Washington is closing the gap, and the Chris Petersen hire adds an intriguing wrinkle to the series, the Ducks seemed to regain their footing last weekend at UCLA. They’ll particularly need that improved O-line play to neutralize Washington’s tough front seven. But don’t despair Huskies: Marcus Mariota won’t be around when the Ducks come back to Husky Stadium in 2015! -- Ted Miller

Why Stanford will win: Stanford is just a bad matchup for Arizona State. The Cardinal's physicality on defense caused problems in both games last year and there's not much reason to indicate that won't be the case again Saturday. Stanford's offense has struggled, but there were enough schematic changes against Washington State to sense improvement is coming. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why Arizona State will win: Because there’s no way that if all five of us picked all five of the same teams this week, that we’d all be perfect. My gut says one of these games doesn’t happen the way we all believe it will. The Sun Devils are the more highly ranked team and they’re playing at home which in the Pac-12 this year means they should lose, right? So, I’m going to say they’re going to win. Despite Stanford’s tough defense, I think Arizona State has enough success against them to sneak out with a win. The Pac-12 this season has made little sense and for some reason everyone thinks Stanford is going to come in and crush ASU, so I say, what the hey, let’s pick ASU because no one else did. -- Chantel Jennings

Unanimous picks

Why UCLA will win: Don't get us wrong, Cal has a very real shot to win this game. Their offense is still explosive, and UCLA's defense has not shown that it's anywhere near Washington's caliber, the Bears' last opponent. We're still waiting for evidence that Cal's defense can stop Brett Hundley & Co. -- David Lombardi

Why USC will win: It's clear that the Trojans are significantly better than Colorado, and they're at home. Despite its inconsistency this season, USC just has too much size, athleticism, and skill to reasonably think they'll lose this game. -- David Lombardi
EUGENE, Ore. -- For as much praise as Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal gives cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu when it comes to the football field, he gives him just as much grief when it comes to his golf game.

“He has hit balls with me before. He’s awful,” Neal joked. “Let me put it this way: He has a lot of work to do.”

It’s easy to give his All-American corner a hard time when it comes to golf because most sports are easy to pick up for Ekpre-Olomu.

Golf, according to Neal, isn’t one of those.

[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmo/USA TODAY SportsIfo Ekpre-Olomu has connected with DBs coach John Neal over golf and the lessons it can bring to his play on the football field.
Ekpre-Olomu had never played until he moved to Eugene from Southern California for college. Though golf is popular in his hometown, he was always too busy with other sports.

Neal, on the other hand, picked up clubs for the first time two decades ago. But he didn’t take his first lesson until three years ago. Now, he mostly plays in the offseason, but even so, he estimates he has hit at least 50,000 shots in that time.

As a freshman, Ekpre-Olomu was a little taken aback when his coach began comparing football to golf. The man who coached former Oregon defensive backs Jairus Byrd and Patrick Chung couldn’t possibly be making this kind of a comparison, right?

But Neal made his case -- the pressure to get the right shot in golf and the right shot in football as a DB, the different thought processes that are happening simultaneously, the importance of the details.

“When you start talking about a sport when you have to calculate all those things in one instant and then you can turn around and apply it to football, it makes clear sense,” Neal said. “If you can detail football or any other game you play, like these guys do [for] golf, you’ll be better than most people.”

So Ekpre-Olomu began taking a few trips to the driving range.

His first time, he showed up in baggy cargo shorts and running shoes. He was worried about where his ball might land. "There were houses right on the side of where you’re teeing off. You’re worried about, ‘Oh, I don’t want to hit a house,’” Ekpre-Olomu said. He was learning from friends who also had only recently picked up the game.

Then it started making sense.

“I started realizing a lot that it does relate a lot,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “It takes a lot of repetition and a lot of confidence and patience because you’re not going to be as good as you want at first, but it’s how much repetition you do and how much work you put into it.”

At this point in Ekpre-Olomu’s career, Neal says his star cornerback has all the shots in his arsenal. But -- like any top golfer -- that doesn’t mean he’s perfect all the time.

Wazzu scored twice on Ekpre-Olomu. Arizona freshman running back Nick Wilson tore through an Ekpre-Olomu tackle as if it were tissue paper.

But Ekpre-Olomu stores those memories. He doesn’t want to be beat the same way twice. Off the top of his head he can count six times in his career that he has made a mistake in coverage in which the other team scored. But he also remembers the high points, reminding himself not to let the bad shots affect the next shot.

He remembers his first interception at Oregon (“I didn’t know what to do after. I just kept running around like a chicken with its head cut off”) just like he remembers the first time he really connected with a golf ball the right way (“Now you know that you can do it every time”).

And though football will likely be the way Ekpre-Olomu makes a living, he has a feeling he might always use the links as a way to relax, and more often than not, help him work on his football game.

Right now neither Ekpre-Olomu nor Neal has much time for golfing, but Neal believes that if Ekpre-Olomu ever decides to commit himself he could move from the “lot of work to do” category to becoming a good golfer.

And when that happens, Neal will be ready to for some head-to-head competition.

“I hope next year when he makes a lot of money,” Neal said, referencing Ekpre-Olomu’s future salary in the NFL, “he pays for me to go to his country club.”
When Oregon steps on the field on Saturday against Washington, the Ducks will be throwing it back a few decades.

The 1994 season sticks out for both Oregon and Washington fans as a momentous game thanks to Kenny Wheaton and “The Pick.”

In that game, with Oregon leading 24-20, Wheaton was able to pick off Washington QB Damon Huard and return the interception 97 yards, sealing the victory for the Ducks. Oregon would go on to win the game 31-20 and, eventually, the Pac-10.

In order to honor the 20-year anniversary of this moment in this match up (and throw some salt on the Huskies’ wounds from this game), Oregon will wear throwback uniforms on Saturday night.

Troll on, Ducks. Troll on.

We've reached the season's halfway point, and we may actually know less about the Pac-12 than when the year started. The road team has won 14 of 18 conference games so far this season, the South has turned into a gigantic free-for-all in which five of the six teams still harbor legitimate hopes of winning, and the North picture isn't too much clearer. Oregon and Stanford appear to again be on a decisive collision course there, but it'd be foolish to just assume that in a time when consistency does not seem to be allowed. Plus, both face tricky tests in another intriguing slate this week. So, it's time to circle the wagons and do it all over again.

The delicious appetizer: Utah at Oregon State

Just over two weeks ago, the Utes and the Beavers became afterthoughts on the same night: Kyle Whittingham's club blew a big lead at home against Washington State right before Mike Riley's men found themselves on the receiving end of a thorough whipping in the Coliseum.

Then the fickle face of the Pac-12 smiled. And suddenly, Utah and Oregon State have a prime opportunity to capitalize on chaos. The winner of Thursday night's clash in Corvallis will improve to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the conference race. With the recent extinction of unbeaten Pac-12 teams, that would equate to prime positioning in this topsy-turvy conference race. Take both of these teams seriously because they're both playing sturdy defense: The Utes (allowing 4.7 yards per play) and the Beavers (allowing 4.8 yards per play) are ranked two and three in that category behind Stanford in the Pac-12. Utah leads the Pac-12 in sacks, and that'll test Sean Mannion's release.

Game with the biggest College Football Playoff implications: Washington at Oregon

The 5-1 Ducks have owned the Huskies for an entire decade, and they'll need to make it 11 straight to remain at the top of the Pac-12 North. Oregon blasted UCLA's shaky defense right out of the Rose Bowl Saturday en route to a 42-10 lead and 42-30 win, but this next game promises to challenge Marcus Mariota. The 5-1 Huskies have grown up quickly on the defensive end. Just ask Cal's offense, which only mustered seven points against the Dawgs despite coming in averaging more than 50 per game.

Speaking of Mariota, he's been spectacular: 70 percent completion rate, 17 touchdowns, no interceptions. In fact, only three quarterbacks in the nation have attempted more than 100 passes this season without throwing a single interception, and all of them play in the Pac-12: Mariota, Washington's Cyler Miles, and Utah's Travis Wilson.

We'll find out if the Ducks have made true progress in fixing their offensive line woes next Saturday. Oregon hasn't allowed any sacks in three of the four games that left tackle Jake Fisher has started (he's back!), but they also haven't faced a defensive front seven of Washington's caliber. Hau'oli Kikaha (conference-leading 10 sacks) and Danny Shelton are dominant forces right now, and that's allowing Shaq Thompson to wreak havoc from the second level. Oregon will be tested Saturday, especially if Miles continues to avoid turnovers.

The proving grounds game/redemption opportunity: UCLA at Cal

Both of these teams had golden opportunities at home last Saturday, and both went up in flames early. The Bruins wilted against Oregon, while the Bears could never recover from Jared Goff's goal line fumble that Thompson returned 100 yards for Washington's first score.

So neither team was ready to take the proverbial next step, and that turns this game into a chance for atonement. It seems as if the Bruins' defense has been on a fairly steady course of regression as this season has progressed, and Sonny Dykes hopes that's the medicine for his suddenly-stalled offense. Meanwhile, Cal's defense has yet to prove that it can contain a top-shelf Pac-12 offense. We'll probably see plenty of points in Berkeley as these two clubs vie to prove they have a backbone.

Desperation Bowl: Colorado at USC

Let's make it clear that these teams are desperate in completely different ways. The Buffs are 0-3 and just clawing for a single for a Pac-12 win. The Trojans, meanwhile, sport the conference's best record (3-1). Steve Sarkisian's team, though, is starved for consistency. USC should be ecstatic that they escaped Arizona with a win -- Buck Allen (7.9 yards per carry) and Leonard Williams were fantastic. But the on-again, off-again cycle has become far too familiar in Troy, where USC has followed up massive wins with horrendous defensive no-show losses. The Trojans are heavy favorites at home against the Buffs, but a slippery roadie to Salt Lake City awaits, so they'd better find stability now.

Don't forget dessert (diamond in the rough game): Stanford at Arizona State

By the most important statistical accounts, Stanford's defense is the best in the nation (8.8 points per game, 3.6 yards per play). Meanwhile, ASU's offense isn't messing around, either (41.2 points per game, 7.2 yards per play). So this rematch of the 2013 Pac-12 Championship is setting up to be a fun Saturday nightcap. In all likelihood, though, this game will probably be decided by the performance of these teams' struggling halves: Will Stanford's adjusting offense, scoring a conference-worst 26.3 points per game, be able to consistently score against an ASU defense that's giving up a conference-worst 6.1 yards per play? The loser in the desert will face a massive uphill climb in the Pac-12 race.

Pac-12 Show (4 ET)

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
11:53
AM ET
Pac-12 reporters Kevin Gemmell, Chantel Jennings and Ted Miller review this past weekend's games, including USC's upset of Arizona, and look ahead to Week 8. They will also answer your questions live on screen.

video 

After its devastating home loss to Arizona last week, Oregon responded by knocking off UCLA 42-30 in Pasadena, California. Here's how it happened:

How the game was won: Oregon's offensive line dominated. Jake Fisher, who has been out since the beginning of the Wyoming game, finally returned. And his return marked a bit of a return to the way the offensive line would like to actually be playing. After two consecutive lackluster performances (which included 12 total sacks), Oregon's O-line really played impressively as the Ducks had their first 100-yard rusher this season and didn't allow a single sack.

Game ball goes to: There were plenty of great offensive performances for the Ducks, but none of them would have happened without Oregon’s offensive line. So, a tip of the hat to quarterback Marcus Mariota (passing: 210 yards, two TDs, zero interceptions; rushing: seven carries, 75 yards, two TDs), running back Royce Freeman (18 carries, 121 yards, two TDs) and tight end Pharaoh Brown (five receptions, 84 yards, one TD). But the game ball belongs to the group that made that all possible and has gone from terrible to trustworthy in just one week.

What it means: UCLA is out of the playoff discussion. A one-loss Pac-12 team making the playoff? Plausible. A two-loss team? It doesn’t happen unless the SEC self-cannibalizes, Oregon drops another game and then UCLA comes away with the conference championship. So, a lot of dominoes would have to fall.

Playoff implication for the winner: The Ducks are in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12. With how improved Oregon’s O-line looked with just the return of Fisher, the committee will need to look at the Arizona game with an asterisk of sorts as the Ducks were down three O-linemen at that time. If this is the offensive line and defensive pressure that Oregon can play with moving forward, it’ll be hard to keep the Ducks out of the playoff conversation.

Best play: Mariota has a way of turning nothing into something, even when it's his own fault. With an 11-point lead on second-and-10, Mariota fumbled, managed to recover his own fumble in stride, and then made his way into the end zone to give the Ducks a much more comfortable cushion.

What's next: Oregon welcomes Washington to Autzen Stadium. The Ducks have won the past 10 meetings between the teams. And UCLA travels to Cal next weekend and will look to avoid a three-game losing skid, which hasn’t happened since it closed out the 2012 season with two losses to Stanford and a bowl loss to Baylor.
Little more than a decade ago, the Oregon football program grabbed attention from across the country thanks to a number of large, and not entirely inexpensive, billboards. From Joey Harrington in New York City to Rashad Bauman in San Francisco to Maurice Morris in Los Angeles, the Ducks were looking for a way to make an impression on the impressionable -- namely, high school football recruits.

The Ducks double-dipped in Los Angeles, following up the Morris billboard one year later, in 2002, with another one that depicted three Oregon wide receivers -- Keenan Howry, Samie Parker and Jason Willis -- on the side of the Figueroa Hotel, less than three miles from the USC campus.

Fast forward 12 years and the idea of Oregon needing to rent advertising space in Southern California -- or anywhere in the country, for that matter -- to make an impact with recruits seems laughable. Instead, the Ducks found a way to become a billboard in 2006, unleashing an astounding 384 possible uniform combinations -- a number that would balloon to 512 by the end of the season. Opposing fans couldn't take them seriously. Recruits couldn't get enough. And with that, the Ducks had their hook with every prospect in the country.

"I heard about Oregon mainly because of the jerseys," said 2015 Oregon quarterback commit Travis Waller. "It's all about the jerseys and the flash, but kids these days are attracted to that. [Oregon doesn't] need to explain itself. Everyone knows who Oregon is now."

Five-star quarterback Torrance Gibson, the No. 12 prospect in the country and someone who has not been heavily recruited by the Ducks, was recently asked via Twitter, which college team had the best uniforms.

"Hands down 'Oregon,'" Gibson tweeted.

But while the uniforms served as an icebreaker for virtually any prospect in the country, Southern California has always been the point of emphasis for Pac-12 programs, including Oregon. The Ducks' run to the top of the Pac-12 came largely on the back of Southern California prospects, and specifically those who were overlooked by UCLA and USC. Standouts such as Terrence Whitehead, Terrell Jackson, Patrick Chung, Walter Thurmond, Jerome Boyd, Jeremiah Johnson and Brian Paysinger all joined the Ducks from 2003-05 and were lightly, or not at all, recruited by the hometown Bruins and Trojans. Of course, there were occasional recruiting victories over the then-Pac-10 powers, as Oregon beat both for A.J. Tuitele in the 2003 class and topped the Trojans for Jaison Williams and the Bruins for Geoffrey Schwartz in 2004.

Starting in 2007, when Chip Kelly took over as offensive coordinator and the Blur Offense was installed, it was no longer just the uniforms that had recruits' attention. Speed became synonymous with the Ducks and Oregon became a coveted offer nationwide. While the Ducks continued to pluck under-recruited prospects from Southern California, they began connecting on a larger percentage of Southern California prospects sought by UCLA and USC, headlined by the signing-day steal of De'Anthony Thomas from the Trojans in 2011. On the roster that will head to the Rose Bowl this weekend, for every Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- who didn't receive an offer from either Los Angeles program -- there's a Royce Freeman -- offered early and coveted by both. Hroniss Grasu, Derrick Malone, Darren Carrington, Rodney Hardrick, Tony Washington and Joe Walker all signed with Oregon without offers from the local schools. Tyree Robinson, Glen Ihenacho, Cameron Hunt and Austin Maloata -- along with Arik Armstead, Byron Marshall from Northern California -- were all important recruiting victories for the Ducks over either the Trojans or Bruins, or both.

There is some chatter in the area that Oregon's national focus is taking them away from Southern California a bit, but others are quick to point to defensive coordinator Don Pellum's long history at Oregon and recruiting the area as a sign that the Ducks will never stray too far.

The 2015 class is a fairly strong illustration of where the Ducks likely see themselves sitting comfortably as far as recruiting nationally. Their top two commitments are from Missouri and Georgia, both coveted by virtually every program in the country. But five of the Ducks 13 commitments are from the Southern California area and two ESPN 300 commitments -- guard Zach Okun and athlete Malik Lovette -- were significant targets for the Bruins and Trojans, respectively. Beyond the commitments, Oregon is swinging for the fences with the rest of its targets. Defensive tackle Rasheem Green, defensive end Keisean Lucier-South and inside linebacker John Houston Jr. -- the Nos. 4, 5 and 9 players in the state -- will all take official visits to Eugene this year, while safety Marvell Tell, the No. 12 prospect, has already visited.

Oregon's annual trip to Southern California will take place Saturday, and recruits in the area will flock to the game -- of course, UCLA's rise and recruiting prowess has plenty to do with that as well. But a visit from the Ducks is akin to the circus coming to town, billboards and all.

A number of recruits in the 2015 and 2016 classes who plan to attend the game said they are looking forward to the possibility of seeing something a little bit different than other Pac-12 visitors when the Ducks take the field.

"Speed is mandatory to be offered there," said Washington State commit Dominic Davis, who will attend the game and holds offers from UCLA and USC. "Seeing them in person versus on TV will probably give me an idea of just how fast they are. On TV, everybody looks fast. But you can't hide speed in person."

"I love watching Oregon play," said David Long, a 2016 recruit with an early offer from UCLA. "It speeds up the pace of the game and they have a lot of guys that have great ability in space."

Waller said Oregon has an opportunity to make a statement against UCLA, which would give the Ducks coaches even more ammunition as they continue to make themselves comfortable recruiting the best of the best in the region.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Even with new faces on defense -- from Don Pellum calling plays on the sideline to the front seven to the defensive backs -- there was an expectation that Oregon would take a step forward in the post-Nick Aliotti era.

Last season, there was -- as there is in every fan base -- discontent. And it was understandable.

[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsIfo Ekpre-Olomu and the Ducks know they need to play better on defense to get back on the national radar.
Though the Ducks' defense finished the 2013 season allowing just 4.6 yards per play (ninth nationally) and forcing opponents into 70 three-and-outs (15th nationally, which is even more impressive when you consider how much the Oregon defense is on the field), it faltered in key moments and big games.

There weren't enough halftime adjustments, the players had to deal with too many changes and the adjustments weren't good anyway. The defensive line didn’t get enough pressure. The defensive backs weren’t good enough in man coverage. And so on and so on.

Because the Ducks had an offense powered by a player they called Super Mariota, the defense didn't have to do much, right?

As we near the midpoint of the 2014 season, the Oregon defense still faces plenty of criticisms (and rightfully so).

The past few weeks haven’t exactly been good. It gave up 436 passing yards to Washington State, and quarterback Connor Halliday targeted All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu twice in the end zone for touchdowns.

Last weekend, the defense sputtered against Arizona, giving up 495 yards of offense to a team led by a redshirt sophomore QB and a true freshman running back. In that game, the Ducks’ best pass-rusher, Arik Armstead, exited the game early. He was seen wearing a walking boot on his left foot this week.

Fans can debate whether these are old or new issues, but one fact remains: Statistically, the defense has taken a major step back post-Aliotti.

From 2009 to 2013, Oregon's defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards per play, turnovers and efficiency. Five games into the 2014 season, those numbers have dropped -- significantly. Oregon ranks 79th nationally in yards per play, is tied at No. 41 in turnovers forced and is No. 74 nationally in efficiency.

It’s always hard to compare seasons. But it’s pretty obvious that the Ducks aren’t just dealing with a small drop.

From 2009-13, the Ducks played 62 FBS opponents. Those 62 teams, in the seasons in which they played Oregon, finished with a 380-360 final record. So finishing second in efficiency and turnovers and seventh in yards allowed per play is impressive.

This season, the Ducks’ four FBS opponents have combined for a 14-7 record. However, that number will likely finish closer to the 50-percent win percentage mark as the season progresses and Oregon's and its opponents' schedules get tougher.

As the numbers change, the one that needs to improve most is the defensive efficiency rating.

On Monday, coach Mark Helfrich pointed to mental mistakes as the main reason the defense is underperforming and giving up big plays.

“Usually, the genesis of it is communication,” Helfrich said. “Your communication happens with your eyes and your hands. There’s no verbal communication on defense, and we practice that way -- there’s very little verbal communication in practice.”

Helfrich said that on one occasion against Arizona, the defense checked to a coverage that wasn’t in the game plan for the Wildcats. He also said that two of Arizona’s touchdowns came on plays Oregon had practiced last week “1,000 times.”

“We had two out of the three guys communicating great,” Helfrich said. “And one of the three [did] not. And that’s a touchdown.”

Helfrich said that this has been “the bane of existence for defenses” everywhere so it’s not as though this is a new problem for Oregon, or any team.

There is a good chance those miscommunications are occurring because the Ducks have some young players on defense and are moving them in and out of the lineup to try to find the best fit.

“They’re still trying to figure out the best guys -- who should be on the field and who shouldn’t,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “We’re 4-1. Most teams in the country aren’t 4-1. … We’re really just trying to look and see how we can improve the team any way we can whether it’s switching guys out, putting new guys in, playing more DBs, playing less DBs, doing whatever we can do.”

Like Helfrich, Ekpre-Olomu isn't worried that the Ducks are still trying to find the right personnel heading into Week 7. He understands that the defensive shuffle has contributed to communication errors.

As Oregon hits the road to face No. 18 UCLA, the Ducks know they’re facing a possible elimination game from the College Football Playoff. The offense still has its stud quarterback who has pulled a rabbit out of a hat more often than not.

But can the defense do the same? It might take that kind of leap to keep the Ducks on the national radar.

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