Can the Ducks bully the Badgers?
• Oregon's chemistry could be powerful mix in Rose Bowl against tough Big Ten foe
The celebration last Friday night was unlike anything Autzen Stadium has ever seen. Moments after the Oregon Ducks wrapped up a 49-31 victory over UCLA in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game, fireworks exploded, confetti rained and huge balloons bounced around the field.
Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich let slip the secret ingredient to the Ducks' three consecutive league titles.
'Chemistry,' Helfrich said.
What happens when Oregon's cohesiveness cannot make up for not having the edge in athleticism or talent over an opponent?
In the three years since Chip Kelly took over the program, Oregon has been a classic schoolyard bully. With an innovative offense, the Ducks whip teams that do not match up with them physically or with their speed and pace. Take away this year's win over Stanford and the other Pac-12 teams Oregon has beaten this season have a combined 40-58 record.
Against a bigger, strong team, however, the Ducks have come up short or had their face rubbed in the mud.
Enter Wisconsin, which has a playmaking quarterback-running back tandem and huge offensive and defensive lines. The Badgers look in some ways very much like Ohio State (a 26-17 winner over Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl) or even Auburn (a 22-19 winner in the 2011 national championship game), although the Wisconsin defense doesn't seem as imposing.
Here is a look at the most critical areas for the Ducks as they prepare to take on a bully of their own size in the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl at Pasadena, Calif.:
• The 2011 Ducks have a mix of old hands, such as senior tight end David Paulson, and young guns, including true freshmen such as all-purpose De'Anthony Thomas and tight end Colt Lyerla.
The old hands have put in the sweat to build the Oregon program into what it is today. They also understand the heartbreak of coming so close to reaching a goal and seeing it slip from their fingertips.
'For me and the other seniors, it's our last chance to play with the Oregon uniform on. And, for a lot of us, it's our last chance to play football,' Paulson says, of the Rose Bowl. 'So we're going to give it everything we've got, and hopefully go out on top.'
The young guns do not know what it is like to lose the most important game of their lives. But they would like to make sure that the program's 0-2 BCS record over the last two seasons does not become 0-3.
'We need to go in there and win it and make a statement,' Lyerla says.
• The Ducks' offense was everything people have come to expect of a Kelly-led operation. Running plays like a Gatling gun, the Ducks have amassed 6,698 total yards and 46.2 points per game in going 11-2.
In his second season as a starter, quarterback Darron Thomas has completed 194 of 316 passes (61.4 percent) for 2,493 yards (207.8 per game) and 30 TDs, with six interceptions.
Receiver Josh Huff says that the Ducks' playmakers will be able to find open space for Thomas to deliver the ball to them against Wisconsin.
'We're capable of anything,' Huff says.
Oregon's ground game was usually a sight to be seen this season. LaMichael James carried 222 times for 1,646 yards and 17 TDs, and Kenjon Barner ran 145 times for 909 yards and 11 TDs.
James and Barner are only as good as the holes opened for them by the offensive line, though. The Badgers' defensive line is a classic Big Ten unit:big and good. Wisconsin has held opponents to just 3.9 yards per rush (Oregon has rushed for a 6.5-yard average and held its foes to 3.6).
'We'll be able to run the ball against whoever,' Barner says. 'The only thing that can stop Oregon is Oregon.'
• In Oregon's last two BCS games, the defense put the Ducks in a position to win. But defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti concedes that a dominating defense is not the norm in bowl games.
'Typically, they're high-scoring games,' Aliotti says. 'They weren't for us (the last two years). Hopefully, we can do that again.'
For the Ducks to hold down the Badgers' pro-style offense, which racked up 6,070 yards and 44.6 points per game, Oregon will have to contain perhaps the best quarterback-running back duo in the nation.
Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson has completed 206 of 284 passes (72.5 percent, third-best in the nation behind Northwestern's Dan Persa and Boise State's Kellen Moore) for 2,879 yards (221.5 per game), 31 TDs and three interceptions. Russell ranks second in the nation in pass efficiency (Oregon's Thomas is 14th).
The Oregon secondary played basically the entire season without suspended cornerback Cliff Harris, who on Monday was dismissed from the team. But cornerback Terrance Mitchell says that the DBs can get the job done without Harris.
'We've been doing a great job,' Mitchell says. 'We're young, but we've been stepping up, making plays, and we're not missing a step.'
The Ducks' defensive line may be the biggest question mark of the game. Wisconsin's offensive line is a group of monsters who average 6-5 and 323 pounds. The unit has opened up gaping holes for running back Montee Ball, who has 275 carries for 1,759 yards and 32 TDs and made the list of four Heisman Trophy finalists, ahead of Oregon's James.
Questions surrounding the Oregon defensive line are nothing new, though.
'Everybody has doubted our defensive line,' D-tackle Ricky Heimuli says. 'Our mindset is we'll go up against anybody, anywhere, anytime. As long as we prepare as much as we can, we're really not scared of anybody.'
• During the celebration after the Pac-12 title victory, Oregon players and fans took the opportunity to form an 'O' sign with their hands. Until the Ducks square off with Wisconsin, though, that 'O' might as well stand for zero -as in zero Rose Bowl wins since 1917, when quarterback Shy Huntington and coach Hugo Bezdek led the Ducks to a 14-0 victory over Pennsylvania.
After 94 years of trying to duplicate that feat, Mitchell says the Ducks could be poised to finally win the bowl game often called the 'Granddaddy of Them All.'
'We've got something stirred up,' he says.