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Big month on Ducks' horizon

Oregon offense has been 'decent,' defense showing signs of progress
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Touchdown, Oregon — LaMichael James (left) celebrates in the end zone with Anthony Gildon (center) and Erick Dargan.

EUGENE -

A loss to a better team, growing pains, key injuries and rediscovered mojo marked the first half of the season for the Oregon Ducks.

The second half will determine whether they stay in the national spotlight or fall into comparative obscurity behind Stanford in the Pac-12.

November shapes up as the pivotal month for the Ducks, who should win by at least four touchdowns in the next two games - at Colorado on Saturday and home against Washington State on Oct. 29. Crunch time starts Nov. 5 at Washington. Then come games at Stanford, Nov. 12; at home versus USC, Nov. 19; and with Oregon State at Autzen Stadium, Nov. 26.

Win 'em all, and the Ducks would be in the Pac-12 title game Dec. 2. Win that one, and they'll go back to the Rose Bowl, at least.

Ranked ninth in polls and 10th in the first BCS standings, UO appears to be a long shot to return to the national championship game. But a lot of things can happen.

Coach Chip Kelly says he and his assistant coaches don't prepare their team to peak at a certain time - say, for example, Nov. 12.

'We look to peak every week, building from Monday to Saturday,' says Kelly, who has a 27-5 UO coaching record in two-plus seasons. 'Then we've got to replicate, go back again.

'If you peak in November, and not play well in September and October, what are you peaking for? Trying to win six games and go to a bowl game? That's not what our program's goals and aspirations are. You better take each week as the Super Bowl, because the reality in college football right now is the regular season is the playoffs. You lose a couple games and you're out of it. You better peak each week.'

In other words, it's BCS or bust for the Ducks (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12). Here's how they stack up for their November run:

Offense

It all starts up front. LSU blew up the Ducks' offensive line and, thus, their running game in the opener, but UO coaches moved big Mark Asper from right tackle to right guard and inserted Nick Cody into the starting right tackle spot. The O-line has improved, with freshman center Hroniss Grasu being steady and seven or eight guys playing. The unit has given up only three sacks.

'We're trying to get our best guys on the field,' Kelly says. 'Nick has really progressed. (O-line) was a real big question mark for us coming in. I hope they continue to progress.'

The Ducks have rushed for 300-plus yards in four consecutive games. No LaMichael James (elbow), no problem: Kenjon Barner (171 yards) and De'Anthony Thomas (73) carried the load last week against Arizona State.

QB Darron Thomas has picked up where he left off, and Bryan Bennett stepped in when Thomas hurt his knees against ASU.

Determining its array of receivers was an early Oregon mission. True freshman Thomas, who has 264 rushing yards, a team-high 21 catches for 310 yards and eight total TDs, has been a godsend. Vets David Paulson, Lavasier Tuinei, Justin Hoffman and Josh Huff, and newcomer Rahsaan Vaughn, round out the corps.

The Ducks lead the Pac-12 in scoring (48.7) and total offense (539.0). They rank second in red-zone offense (scoring on 28 of 30 opportunities, second to Stanford's 31-for-31).

'We're doing some decent things,' Kelly says. 'We've got to stay out of the penalty situation, stay out of negative-yard situations. We've done a better job in ball security since our opening game, but we still need to be cleaner.'

Defense

Not much has been strikingly formidable here. The Ducks have generated only six turnovers while giving up 413.8 yards per game (11th in the Pac-12) - 173 on the ground, 240.8 through the air. The unit has been a work-in-progress, given injuries in camp to an already green defensive line, the early suspensions of linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Cliff Harris, an injury to veteran linebacker Michael Clay and youth at corner in Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill - youth all around, really.

The defense doesn't possess any All-Pac-12 candidates, outside of free safety John Boyett. So, it's a matter of finding success as a group. 'We're playing well enough to win games. But we must continue to improve,' defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says.

Sophomore Taylor Hart has been a standout on the defensive line, where expected studs Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli have no tackles-for-loss. Kelly says Hart 'embodies' what the UO coaches preach about all-out effort.

Outside linebackers Josh Kaddu and Bo Lokombo and versatile Dewitt Stuckey have been steady. Alonso is working back into form, and Clay is returning to the fold. Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone Jr. also have contributed. 'We're getting a lot smarter as a group,' Clay says.

Boyett and rover Eddie Pleasant have been good in the secondary, and senior cornerback Anthony Gildon has been playing the best ball of his career. Corners Mitchell, Hill, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Avery Patterson are getting experience, and Harris has been easing his way out of the coaches' doghouse.

'I feel like we're doing really well,' Gildon says. 'Young guys are starting to play within themselves, learning our defense. … I feel like we're getting the defense down … but we'd like to get more turnovers, and finish with the ball in our hands.'

While the Ducks are fourth in the Pac-12 in points allowed (23.3), they rank first in pass efficiency defense (55.2 percent completion rate, 240.8 yards per game and only eight TD passes with five interceptions). The Ducks are also good in the red zone, with six stops in 26 opponent trips.

'Our defense is doing a really good job of preventing big plays. We're forcing people to drive the field against us,' Kelly says. 'We've got to do a better job on third downs and getting them off the field.'

Special teams

Punter Jackson Rice leads the Pac-12 with a 44-yard net average. 'He's got to be one of the top punters in the country right now,' Kelly says. 'He's also done a good job on our field-goal unit (as holder), running that show.' Alejandro Maldonado is 35 for 35 on PATs and has made two of three field goals - both against Arizona State, from 37 and 30 yards. The returners are always dangerous.

'I've been really pleased with our special teams,' Kelly says. 'We're doing a great job in our coverage teams. We can do a better job in our return teams.'