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GameWeek Preview: Oregon's Offense vs. Houston's Defense

The first week of the season is so much different from the rest.  There is so much anticipation, regardless of the opponent.  We're playing Houston and, yet, I feel many of same butterflies that I do in a midseason game vs. Cal or SC.  Some of it is simply that after eight months without football I just need to feed the addiction.  But a lot of it is uncertainty.  A new year brings with it a lot of hope, but also a lot of question marks.  And while we can speculate all we want, the reason the first game is always so big is that it is the very first time that we start to see a part of the answers.

While it is difficult to predict your own team with complete confidence, it is even more maddening when looking at the opponent.  The hard thing about previewing an opponent in the first week is that you have no baseline to start with, and you're not even terribly familiar with the personnel to boot.  Sure, we know about Anthony Aldridge and Donnie Avery, but how much do we really know about Houston's left tackle or middle linebacker?

With that in mind, I want to start thinking about what we can expect to see in the Houston game.  I can't say that I remember a lot about the game in '05, well, except that the Cougars threw the ball a lot and ran a lot of unorthodox packages.

Well, and I remember this:

Anyway, on to this week's game:

For the Ducks offensively, the biggest news was in Tuesday's Register-Guard:

The host Ducks, who meet the Cougars at 12:30 p.m. to open their season, have no set plan to use anyone other than their first-string guy.
"Dennis Dixon was the starter going into spring, was the starter coming out of spring, was the starter going into fall camp, is the starter coming out of fall camp," UO coach Mike Bellotti said Monday. "And he's performed very, very well. He's improved in some areas. So far his decision-making has been very, very good in the scrimmage situations."

This is huge.  I don't think this means that we won't see any Brady Leaf on Saturday, especially if the game gets out of hand.  But what it tells me is that there won't be the idiot strategy of "Brady's going to come in and play the third series no matter what."  I've always hated that strategy, and believe that it was the primary factor in our Holiday Bowl loss in '05.  This tells me that Dennis Dixon can rest assured that if he's playing well, he won't be taken out of the game.  And as crazy as it sounds, Dennis has never had that luxury.  It has to be a huge confidence boost for him, and offers hope that Bellotti will end this two-quarterback garbage for good.

Dixon will certainly have help.  The strength of this team lies in the Thunder and Lightning combination at running back, and there is some talk that Stewart and Johnson could each get 1,000 yards this season.  That's an achievable goal--in my opinion, this is a more talented backfield than Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith, and they each broke 1,000.  In fact, I think aiming for that would be a sign of great strategy, as the RBs and offensive line are the strength of the offense.  To get there, you're looking at running the ball about 65% of the time.  That's a lot of Snoop and JJ, a lot of bad news for opposing teams, and, as long as Stewart's ankle holds up, a lot of good news for Oregon.

We do know that Houston has a good defensive line.  Ell Ash and Phillip Hunt are very skilled pass rushers who create havoc for opposing quarterback.  However, if Oregon's running the ball 65% of the time, how effective will they be, especially considering that they're stronger against the pass than the run?  They'll be on their heels, because the Cougar linebackers are mediocre at best and Stewart will run right through them.  With Oregon's offensive line, the advantage of already being in the shotgun most of the time, the running game, and Dixon's speed, the pass rush should be largely neutralized.  Get this defense on their heels, then maybe take a shot or two at the secondary.

Okay, at this point, I potentially have two of my questions answered:

  1.  What will we see at quarterback?  A lot of Dennis Dixon
  2.  Will we see a lot of the running game? Yes, if Chip Kelly is competent
My third question would be, who are we going to throw the ball to?  The easy answer is Jaison Williams, and he should be among the elite receivers in the country this year.  But you have to have someone else you can go to, a Keenan Howry and a Samie Parker.  Who's that going to be?  Strong?  Colvin?  Paysinger?  Strong and Paysinger have both had good camps, and are the most likely candidates.  UH lost half of their secondary to graduation.  If Oregon can be successful enough running the football that they force a lot of single-coverage with the inexperienced secondary, its another plus for Oregon.

This all sounds rosy.  I want to clarify a bit.  I'm not saying that the Ducks are going to come in and roll over this team like they're playing Linfield or something.  I'm not saying that Houston's defense is terrible, it may be the best in Conference USA.  What I am saying, however, is that Oregon's offense is well equipped to handle Houston's strengths on defense, while the opposite may not be as true.  Given that, and the talent discrepancy between the two teams, best play would give Oregon a major advantage.  Best play is always a big assumption (see Indiana, '04).  If one of the running backs develops fumbilitis or, on the opposite side, if Houston's defense plays a great game, it could be different.  

There is also the 1,000 lb. Gorilla in that we're assuming that we won't see the Dennis Dixon that we saw in the second half last year.  Which is maybe the most pressing offensive question of all.

We'll preview the Oregon defense against the Houston offense on Thursday.