Coming off of a 45-38 Rose Bowl victory over the Wisconsin Badgers, the Oregon Ducks entered the off-season wanting more. Oregon finished the 2011-2012 football season as the Pac-12 champions with a 12-2 overall record, but those two losses seemed to sting more than anything else.
The first loss came on the opening weekend to future National Championship runner-up LSU by a score of 40-27. At the time, it was a matchup between two of the top five teams in the country, and the Ducks left the game feeling anything but knocked out of the national title race. A loss to a highly-ranked team at the beginning of the season matters little in college football, a world where upsets occur quite often and the picture never seems clear. The Ducks knew that they must bide their time and defeat their other opponents, and wait they did.
As the national title picture became a race between a number of one-loss teams and undefeated LSU, Oregon was bolstering its resume with dominating victories over Pac-12 foes such as Washington, Arizona State, and California. When the Ducks traveled on the road to face unbeaten Stanford, Oregon rose to the challenge and handily whipped Andrew Luck and his Cardinal teammates 53-30. This key win propelled Oregon into the top 2 of the BCS, an honor which they lost a week later with a three-point defeat in Eugene against the USC Trojans. Oregon had to settle for the Rose Bowl just one year after falling to Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers in the BCS National Championship, and their hunger for that crystal ball has grown even more.
Each of those years, however, the Ducks relied heavily on a rushing attack led by LaMichael James, who will be entering the NFL Draft in late April. In his three seasons at Oregon,James rushed for over 5000 yards and carried one of the nation’s most explosive running games on his back. He will forego this senior season with the Ducks, but that may not spell trouble.
In a game against California, James’ knee was injured and he had to be taken out of the game. Second-string running back Kenjon Barner stepped in for the next two weeks and posted consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Overall, he ran for 939 yards in the season. As a backup to one of the nation’s top rushers, that’s impressive. Barner will post huge stats as a starter and is definitely capable of filing in James’ shoes. Their offensive line is only losing one starting senior, and will return two upcoming seniors, a junior, and sophomore. This experienced group did quite well while blocking for the three-headed rushing attack of James, Barner, and De’Anthony Thomas last season, and will most likely lead the offense to another high-scoring season.
The main question coming into spring practice concerns the Ducks’ passing game. They’ll no doubt be able to run the ball around their opponents, but does this offense have the wings to take off in flight through the passing game? Darron Thomas made a surprising decision to leave Oregon and enter the Draft early. Thomas was a decent quarterback at Oregon, but he seemed to lack the play-making decisions that is needed to improve his draft stock. Thomas’ decision leaves coach Kelly with a competition for the starting job between two fellow sophomores, Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota.
Bennett was the only of the two to see the field last year, completing 25 of 46 passes for 369 yards. He also put six of those into the endzone and succeeded in not being picked off by the defense. Despite this, both quarterbacks are young and will have to prove themselves in the spring game on April 28 in order to receive the starting job.
The Ducks’ targets in the passing game include aforementioned sensation De’Anthony Thomas, who can both rush and catch the ball for huge amounts of yardage. The receiving core from last year is relatively young, and didn’t get many opportunities to make a name for themselves. The Ducks have a lot to prove in the passing game; a well balanced offensive attack would crush any team with a stout rushing defense, and could help the Ducks achieve that national title that has eluded them for so long.
Tim Ahrens is a staff writer for Autzen Zoo. Read more of his work here.
Topics: 2012 Rose Bowl, Andrew Luck, Arizona State Sun Devils, Auburn Tigers, California Golden Bears, Cam Newton, Darron Thomas, De'Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James, LSU Tigers, Oregon Ducks, Stanford Cardinal, Washington Huskies, Wisconsin Badgers