DUCKS NOTES: Airborne Cougars, the Lyerla Look, Kelly on the Oregon O-line, and Alonso among the 'top players' in the nation
The Washington State Cougars realize it'll be a daunting task to beat Oregon in their Pac-12 matchup, 7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
The Cougars are fully aware of the Chip Kelly-coached offense that has put up about 50 points per game since he joined the Ducks in 2007. Oregon has beaten WSU five times in a row since Kelly arrived.
While WSU coach Mike Leach says the two offenses that will take the field Saturday have "some similarities," Kelly counters with "none" when asked the same question. Leach's team wants to throw the ball with QBs Connor Halliday and/or Jeff Tuel, and Kelly's spread team has always beaten teams primarily with its ground game and supplemented with pass.
Leach, the former Texas Tech coach, compares the Ducks to great wishbone offense teams of the past in philosophy.
"They get it into people's hands and get them in space," Leach says.
Cougars linebacker Travis Long says defenders have to "just be where you're supposed to be and not hesitate. They play fast, you hesitate and they'll bust a big run on you. ... They run that read zone really well and get on the edge."
Kelly says the Cougars will throw the ball all over the field probably in the direction of star receiver Marquess Wilson, and "we've got to wrap up and tackle."
He adds: "Because their mentality is pass first, second and third, they'll always be in the ball game. ... I think it's a formidable foe."
The two WSU quarterbacks have combined for 1,255 yards passing on 60.4 completion rate, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The primary receivers: Isiah Myers, 24 catches, 235 yards, four TDs; Gabe Marks, 19, 326 and two; Wilson, 18, 317 and four; Brett Barolone, 13, 104 and none.
Tuel has played well against the Ducks the past two seasons, but he has engaged in a competition with Halliday to start this season.
Halliday went 32 of 60 for 401 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in WSU's disappointing 35-34 loss to Colorado on Saturday. He has played the past two games (going for 378 yards and four TDs vs. UNLV), and taken first-team snaps this week.
"He's really emerging as a leader," Leach says. "At times he was great (versus Colorado), at times he pressed and tried to make too much happen."
Says Halliday, a 6-4, 190-pound sophomore gunslinger from Spokane's Ferris High: "I've played in four college football games (actually seven). I'm growing up as fast as I can. Experience is key. I think I've done a good job in the experience I have had."
Halliday went 27 of 36 for 494 yards in a game against Arizona State last season.
Leach has been critical of his players and their enthusiasm and effort after the Cougars blew a big fourth-quarter lead against Colorado.
He toned down his talking this week, but said:
"We're pretty good when things go our way. We need to be good throughout."
"We need to be a team that embraces the competition of tight and tough situations."
"We're kind of individualized. We need to be more synchronistic."
Halliday says energy and emotion has been good throughout the week.
"That (Colorado) game has to be flushed," he says. "Everybody's pretty excited to have the opportunity to go out Saturday and show the nation what we're capable of, with the game being on national TV."
Says Kelly, of NFL prospect Wilson, a 6-4, 185 junior from Tulare, Calif.: "He has great skills. Great route runner, great wing span, great range for his size. I'm really impressed with the physical stuff that he brings. Hopefully we can disrupt his routes and not let him run clean downfield."
Kelly says the insertion of Colt Lyerla at tailback against Arizona wasn't a new element the Ducks needed on offense; rather, it was trying to maximize the 6-4, 245-pound tight end's skills. Lyerla played running back at Hillsboro High.
"In 2010 and 2011, we didn't have a back over 190 pounds," he says, of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner (UO's current starting running back). "We didn't look at it like (Lyerla provided power running). It's, 'How do we utilize our personnel?' It's not that we were looking for something to add. We had a guy we were trying to get the ball in his hands. Like with De'Anthony (Thomas)."
But, having a 245-pound running back can certainly help the Ducks in power-running, short-yardage situations best example, just look back at the BCS national championship game, when Auburn recorded a safety (tackling James) and stopping the Ducks from scoring on short running plays (Barner).
Lyerla says it's easier to carry the ball as a running back, rather than catching and running as a tight end: "It's a lot better to be going forward, having a little time to look and see where you want to go."
He says grasp of the playbook was one reason UO coaches opted to start using him at running back. "I'm proving that I'm getting the hang of things," he says.
Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota likes the look of backup QB Bryan Bennett and Lyerla in the backfield at certain times. It's kind of a Wildcat look, although, remember, Bennett can also throw the ball.
"I wouldn't want to tackle Colt," he says.
"They're both energetic guys. Both very athletic. That's keeping the defense on their heels and what other defenses have to prepare for. It's a good little package we have."
Kelly says the offensive line, which has lost Carson York (knee) for the season and suffered other injuries, has been "doing a good job. We're young in a couple spots. Both tackles (Jake Fisher, Tyler Johnstone) are young guys. We're pleased but we're not satisfied. We know we can get better."
In another area, Kelly likes the contributions of freshmen Dwayne Stanford and Bralon Addison at receiver, where veteran Josh Huff (knee) has missed the past two games.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso, a senior from Los Gatos, Calif., has been playing at a high level. He has two interceptions, including one against Arizona. He has 19 tackles for second on the team (Michael Clay, 25). Last year, he had an interception against Oregon State, and then another as part of forcing two key turnovers in a defensive MVP performance in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
The twice-suspended linebacker, who has only spoken to media once (after the Rose Bowl) in two seasons, seems to finally be living up to his potential. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has called Alonso a sure-fire NFL player.
Kelly, who doesn't vote in the USA Today coaches' poll because he doesn't get to see all the teams ("I don't know who's good in any other conference"), says this about the 6-4, 240 Alonso:
"I think he's really emerged as one of the top players in not only this league but the country."