Even with a 13.5 point spread in our favor tomorrow, I'm awfully nervous for this game. The closer the game's gotten, the more nervous I've been.
In spite of a 72-point demolition of New Mexico in which they rolled up 720 yards of total offense and could have scored 130 points if they really wanted to, I felt strangely insecure about the week that would follow it.
Make no mistake about the New Mexico game. New Mexico was a bad football team. They were arguably the most inept, disorganized, and slowest teams I've ever seen play on a football field. It wasn't so much that they were putting in a solid effort and Oregon was just too good to let them even earn a yard -- it was that they were just so incredibly off-kilter that they were literally one step above handing the ball off to Brandon Bair.
The other thing that New Mexico didn't offer was a real mid-range test for our team. This game was, for all intents and purposes, a glorified scrimmage. And, while it's better than nothing and opening the season blindfiring at Tennessee, it's not as satisfying and worthwhile as going against a Houston or a Fresno State or a Michigan State. One could only hope.
The last time we went out on the road early in the year for a big non-conference game was last year at Boise State. We all know how that ended. "That was the first game of the year and Boise State was actually good", you say. Fine.
The year before that we went on the road after two very easy wins against the Huskies (who would go on to finish 0-12), and Utah State (who were remarkably comparable to the New Mexico team we just faced, if not just a bit better.) We went out to Purdue the next week and found ourselves down 20-6 at halftime, playing a flat and slow game against a team that was not expected to even touch us.
We ended up winning that game on the feet (or wings) of Jairus Byrd and a few heroics by LeGarrette Blount. "That was a game where we had two mediocre quarterbacks at the helm! Darron Thomas is better than them!" He may be; we don't know yet. He hasn't played in a big road game yet, let alone in Neyland. Tomorrow is a massive litmus test for him.
Obviously, along with everyone else, I have all the trust in the world in our stellar coaching staff to know what they're doing out there. But, for fandom's sake, I'm writing this post anyway. I've identified one thing that I think could tip the game to Tennessee awfully quickly and shock the town if we let happen...Don't be stubborn. I'm looking at the Oregon coaches on this one. We all love Chip Kelly's playcalling when it works. It's also very logical. In his short history at UO since becoming OC in 2007, Chip Kelly has chosen -- especially in big games where the whole playbook is needed -- to start out passing, and passing a lot. Often pass plays have consumed most of the first quarter and into the second quarter. It works, usually, too. Oregon is known for its running game, but in every case Oregon has chosen to pass to set up the run. They stretch the field with the pass and get the defense expecting any of many things.
When it doesn't work, though, the games get bad. In the Holiday Bowl in '08 Kelly's entire first half consisted of pass after pass with few runs. Masoli was particularly inaccurate to start out that game, and the offense suffered. We found ourselves behind 17-7 at the half and the game thread was full of "WHERE IS THE SPREAD OFFENSE?" Nobody knew what was going on. At Boise State '09, the same stubbornness of playcalling plagued us again. The coaches were so set on breaking out the passing game in spite of the clearly inaccurate Masoli that there were hardly any called runs until the 3rd quarter. The absolute discord in that game came down to the inability to pass, in short. But it wasn't aided at all by hammering that square peg.
Turn that page in the playbook, no matter how bad you want not to. If Thomas proves rattled, inaccurate, mistimed, or turnover-prone early on in this game, the coaches need to throw their young quarterback a bone. I'm sure they know this. I know it generally doesn't become the LaMichael show until the 2nd or 3rd, but we need to get him the ball. There's been a lot of build up for him coming into this game and everyone says he's faster and stronger this year than he was before. Let's use it.
The same goes for Barner. We have to build on his performance last week. We have to get them both involved. The Tennessee coaches have already gone on record as being very afraid of Barner and James' dual presence in the backfield. The game plan better call for some splitback sets if they really feel afraid of it.
The Oregon offense's biggest enemy is itself when for one reason or another the playmakers don't get the ball. We can't afford to play set-up ball for a whole half if Tennessee jumps out early. Break out as much of the book as you can as quickly as possible.