But I'm not worried about the offense. Nate Costa has looked solid in his play against Cal and Washington State. He has the physical skills as well as the leadership skills to be very successful. Though he doesn't have a lot of game experience, he has been at Oregon since 2006 and knows the system, and I'm confident we'll be just fine with Costa leading the charge.
On Saturday, I'll be paying attention to the defense.
Oregon's defense is better than it was last season. The improved play of the safeties and linebackers has led to excellent pass defense, and the defensive line has grown significantly in the past few games and is not only holding their own, but making plays left and right.
Meanwhile, UCLA hasn't shown a great offense. They're averaging less than 5 yards per play, and barely over 300 yards per game. Although they've faced good defenses, the Bruins don't strike fear into my heart.
Of course, I thought the same thing last year, and UCLA matched Oregon in first downs and almost matched the Ducks in total yards. This weekend's game gives the Duck defense an opportunity to finally put its stamp on the season.
We've seen the Duck defense have a great performance here and there (though it's been significantly better in the last three games), but every time we start to believe in the unit, they seem to falter against less than stellar offenses. Last season against UCLA and Stanford, teams that were far from offensive juggernauts, Oregon struggled to get off the field and simply did not play up to what we expected.
Part of the issue could be that our expectations were flawed, and that those performances were good representations of the Oregon defense in 2008. But 2009 seems different. We have more skill at the linebacker position than we've had in many years. We have tremendous versatility that the coaching staff has used very well so far this year.
Regardless of which defense shows up, I still think the Ducks will win this game. I see Oregon putting up 24-31 points, and holding UCLA to at most 21. But this defense has the talent, depth, and versatility to be great, despite its losses in the secondary.
If Oregon is the team we want them to be, this defense will turn in a dominating performance, and keep the mediocre UCLA offense down for the game, something they weren't able to do last year. They will limit the 3rd down conversions (UCLA converted at a 45% rate in lasts year's game), limit them to less then 4 yards per play, and keep the UCLA offense off the field. And they will do this on the road in a traditionally hostile environment.
The Ducks have the chance to prove that they are among the best defenses in the Pac-10, or if they will regress to the defensive performances we've seen over the past few years. They have a number of advantages against the Bruins offense, and it's time to prove that week in and week out, they can give a dominating performance against any offense, especially those they should be expected to stop.