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Another Duck Pac-12 title? It's theirs to lose

UO has formidable arsenal, led by its offense and passing


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Ducks receiver Josh Huff hurdles a Tennessee defender in the 59-14 win last week at Autzen Stadium.EUGENE — Barring unforeseen circumstances — and circumstances could be anything, such as injuries or breakdowns or internal stuff or even the other team — the Oregon Ducks should be in the running for the Pac-12 title.

Forget about the national title. Enjoy the ride. Circumstances in the form of bad kicks, Matt Barkley passes, and an athletic Stanford defense have derailed national title drives the past two seasons.

The college football season being only three weeks old, the Ducks have many more opponents to conquer. Things sure look good. Outscoring Nicholls State, Virginia and Tennessee a combined 184-24 can only be described as awesome, and eerily similar to the 2010 Ducks’ nonleague conquests of New Mexico, Tennessee and Portland State by a combined 189-13. The ‘10 Ducks played for the national title.

Coach Mark Helfrich, the guy who took over from program mastermind Chip Kelly, still sees room for improvement.

“Everything,” he says in a one-word answer about how the Ducks can improve, before listing answers about throwing-and-catching, protection, footwork and angles, kickoff coverage, penalties and tackling.

The defense has allowed seven points — against Tennessee — while the outcomes were still being contested.

“They’ve played well, but not perfect by any stretch,” Helfrich says. “Going forward, different teams will present different challenges. As long as we take it — boring — one game at a time ...”

Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu says: “We have a great defense, and sometimes we’re overlooked. We’re prepared to go against anybody in the country.”

The offense has run well with De’Anthony Thomas and QB Marcus Mariota. The Ducks lit up the Eugene sky against Tennessee, with Mariota going 23 of 33 for 456 yards and four touchdowns. No Kelly, no problem. The Ducks are averaging 672 yards per game — dominating with offense differently.

The Ducks dictated games with rushing under Kelly. Can they do the same with passing?

“Most definitely,” receiver Josh Huff says. “When teams key on the run and put guys in the box, it gives us receivers to feed on. It means they don’t respect our receivers, and we take that personally.

“We’re way much more balanced than we were before.”

“Our offensive staff has been really solid,” adds Helfrich, citing coordinator/playcaller Scott Frost. “Guys are working hard and players are playing with confidence. We know on different levels we’ll be tested differently down the road.”

So, the Ducks romped through three nonleague games, and now enjoy a bye weekend before facing the Pac-12 schedule.

“We want to go undefeated,” Ekpre-Olomu says. “But schools look really competitive this year; a lot more balance than the past couple years.”

A quick look at UO’s Pac-12 slate, with records entering this weekend and what circumstances the Ducks might find themselves in against each team:

• Sept. 28, Cal (1-2) — Expect a home rout, with possibly 60 points. The Bears’ passing attack, led by freshman QB Jared Goff, might do some damage, but not enough.

• Oct. 5, at Colorado (2-0) — Assuming the game’s played after Boulder flooding, the Buffs are better under coach Mike MacIntyre, but not better to stay within four TDs of Oregon.

• Oct. 12, at Washington (2-0) — OK, things get interesting at revamped Husky Stadium, with QB Keith Price leading an experienced team that hasn’t beaten UO in years. A losable game, given the circumstances.

• Oct. 19, Washington State (2-1) — The Cougs beat USC, not with good passing offense but with good defense. The Cougs usually play decently against Oregon; Mike Leach might make it interesting.

• Oct. 26, UCLA (2-0) — The Bruins upset the Ducks? Could happen. Good depth, winning mentality, stars on both sides of ball (QB Brett Hundley, LB Anthony Barr). A watershed moment for the UCLAns.

• Nov. 7, at Stanford (2-0) — The most anticipated Pac-12 showdown. Can the Ducks get revenge for last year’s 17-14 OT loss? Does Stanford have the O-line and D-line horses and skill players to beat the speedy Ducks? So many unknown circumstances for a game almost two months from now.

• Nov. 16, Utah (2-1) — QB Travis Wilson leads Dennis Erickson-coached offense, but OSU scored 51 points against Utes. The Ducks probably could do the same.

• Nov. 23, at Arizona (3-0) — Another losable game, on paper. Coach Rich Rodriguez might have the ‘Cats ready in the desert. Who knows the status of the Ducks by late November?

• Nov. 29, Oregon State (2-1) — The Sean Mannion-led Beavs would be hard-pressed to end their five-game Civil War losing streak, unless circumstances have led to Ducks’ demise.