Most fans refuse to be objective. Most reporters refuse to be subjective.
I refuse to be either. And will now attempt to be both.
With that, a few random thoughts from a journalist in the stands at Autzen Stadium for Oregon’s 42-3 upset of No. 6 Cal on Saturday afternoon.
FALLING IN LINE
A lot of UO fans have been hard on quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for his erratic — and, at times, downright awful — play in the Ducks’ first three games of the season (two of those wins). My problem with Masoli is that he has happy feet…he gets a little fidgety under pressure, doesn’t usually pass well when not set — sometimes throwing the ball into the turf five feet in front of his receiver — and locks onto a receiver too early, rather than going through his progressions.
Most fans judging Masoli’s performance against Cal will say that he did better in all three aspects Saturday. And he did. But the reason he did those things better is because the offensive line gave him more time.
It was no secret that Oregon opened the season with a green (no pun intended) offensive line. But I don’t think most fans have given enough credence to just how big of an impact that’s had on the first few games. Saturday’s game was the first time this season I’ve seen the O-line consistently block well, which allows a quarterback to get settled into the game mentally and allows a guy like Masoli, who isn’t yet adept at dealing with the pass rush, the time he needs to check down and make the right throw.
The problem with young, inexperienced offensive linemen who haven’t played together much is that coaching and film sessions can only do so much. The bottom line is, the guys just have to jell and get used to playing together, to learn their assignments well enough that they become second nature, and to learn their linemates’ assignments as well as they know their own. It takes time.
For the Ducks’ O-line, it seemed to take exactly three games, because on Saturday, the big men up front were clicking.
UO coaches haven’t made it a secret that they want Masoli to target Ed Dickson more. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound tight end is a great blocker, and while many offenses relegate the tight end to full-time blocker, Dickson’s pass-catching abilities are wasted in that role. Yet he had just four receptions through the first three games. The Ducks have had Masoli throwing to Dickson more in practice, and it showed on Saturday, with Dickson tying a UO single-game record for receptions by a tight end with 11 for 148 yards, both career highs for the senior. Oh yeah, and he scored three touchdowns.
Looks like Masoli got the memo.
And, again, praise is due to the O-line for giving Masoli time to check down and throw the ball to Dickson, who was not the first-option receiver on many of the catches he came up with.
An interesting note: Dickson’s 11 catches tied the UO tight end record established by Josh Wilcox in 1995, on a day the Ducks wore throwback-style uniforms that harkened back to those worn in the mid-’90s.
I haven’t been the biggest fan of the latest UO uniforms. I hate the “feathers” on the shoulders. They look silly. But the worst thing about the uniforms is they continue to feature the “Bellotti bold” type font that Nike created in 2006 just for Oregon. It’s supposed to look sleek, hip, cool. And some think it does. But one problem: YOU CAN’T READ THE NUMBERS FROM THE STANDS. My friends in the pressbox have said the numbers are even harder to read at their angle, and radio play-by-play guy Jerry Allen has repeatedly mentioned having problems reading the numbers. Which is, you know, kind of important.
So it was refreshing to actually be able to read those numbers from section 28, row 55, seat 8. A colleague of mine said the numbers were not only readable, they popped off the jerseys. A nice change. Given the Ducks’ performance in the throwback unis, and the superstitious nature of athletes, here’s hoping they’ll keep up the throwback trend. The type font, if nothing else.
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE
Oregon was already without its hardest-hitting player, safety T.J. Ward, who missed his third consecutive game with an ankle injury. Then the Ducks lost arguably their best player — and certainly their most consistent in the first three games — when cornerback Walter Thurmond III was injured on the opening kickoff return. Thurmond fumbled on the play, Cal recovered and ended up kicking a field goal for an early 3-0 lead.
At that point, the loss of Thurmond looked as though it might be devastating for the UO defense.
So what did the Ducks do from there? They shut out the No. 6 team in the nation the rest of the way, stuffed Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best, grounded Cal’s potent passing attack. In short, they dominated.
The Ducks zone-blitzed. They were solid in coverage. And, despite Cal starting its first drive on the UO 21 after that Thurmond fumble, Oregon kept the Bears out of the red zone for the entire game. Take a moment to let that one sink it, because it’s pretty damn impressive.
The defensive line dominated up front as the Ducks finished with five sacks, two each by defensive ends Terrell Turner and Kenny Rowe. UO linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger played well, and the secondary was solid throughout, even without Thurmond and Ward.
One of the things Dennis Dixon became great at during his senior season at Oregon was hiding the ball on handoffs, causing momentary confusion over who actually had it. And in football, if you can freeze a defender for even a moment, it can make the difference between getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage and picking up big yards. A major benefit of having a quarterback who can run with the ball the way Masoli can is the defense has to always consider him as a threat to run. Throw in a little misdirection, a fake handoff here and there, and that threat becomes even more dangerous. However, a fake handoff is only deceptive if the quarterback and running back can sell it. And Masoli has improved dramatically in that department. He’s not quite the master of disguise Dixon was, but he was certainly better Saturday than he had been in the first three games. Now, if he could just master holding on to the ball…
That’s all I’ve got for now. I didn’t get into Masoli’s redemption — going 21-for-25 for 253 yards and three touchdowns after failing to throw a TD pass in the first three games — nor Best’s dismal day — 55 yards from a running back who came in averaging 137.3, third-best in the nation — because I figure those things will be covered and over-covered by people who know far more about this stuff than I do. These are just the things that stood out the most to me and, from my vantage point, made the biggest difference. Feel free to chime in.