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Q&A With the Enemy - Oregon

We try to do a Q&A with the opposing teams SBN blog before games during the season. This week with the Oregon Ducks on tap we are pleased to have the gang from Addicted to Quack with us. ATQ is probably the greatest name for a blog in the history of sports blogdom. The ATQ guys do a great job and are very hospitable to visiting fans just like we are.

Like our friends from the Oregon blog I think this game will be a lot closer than Oregon fans think. Once again I want to thank all the great Duck fans who came over here for some friendly banter.

John: Lets start this off with the usual Jake Locker question. What is the Oregon DC Nick Alioti's probable plan to contain Jake Locker?

jtlight: I covered this more in depth on ATQ on Wednesday, but the simple answer is pressure. Oregon has done a very good job the last few games in creating pressure. Not only has the D-line stepped up, but the versatility in Oregon's front 7 allows the Ducks to mix and match schemes, and Nick Aliotti, after years of being berated by the Duck fan base, is now a hero.

I would expect the Ducks to blitz frequently, but also drop into coverage at times. With all the linebackers possessing the ability to bring good pressure, and DE Kenny Rowe able to drop into coverage, I expect the Ducks to have a varied game plan to keep Locker flustered and (hopefully) confused throughout much of the game.

dvieira: I agree with JT. The gameplan should be to give Locker a ton of different looks, possibly even keeping a spy on him. One of the keys will be how often the D-line will be able to get to the QB with just 4. If that happens a lot, especially early in the game, the secondary will start taking more chances at turnovers.

John: The Oregon defense has exceeded expectations this year. Give us a rundown on the Duck front seven and what they have been doing to shut down opponents over the last three games?

jtlight: The first thing they've done is increased their penetration. In the first few games, pressure on opposing QBs was sparse, but as the games have progressed, all of the players on the D-line have really stepped up, and have brought consistent pressure. This has eased a large strain that was originally on the linebacking corp. With the D-line creating consistent backfield pressure, it was freed up the linebacker to not only bring pressure themselves, but to drop into coverage. And the speed and strength of the linebacking corp has been a delightful surprise to Duck fans. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the best linebacking group the Ducks have had in 15 years. It is talented, fast, and goes 6 players deep. This has allowed the front 7 to be incredibly versatile, which has led to the overall defensive success.

dvieira: I think we've also been fortunate to have gone up against relatively inexperienced quarterbacks. UCLA's offensive production isn't that great, Washington State is... well... Washington State and Cal had opportunities to make plays from the quarterback position and just didn't make them. When one aspect of the game isn't working so well the team has been able to belly up to the bar and shutdown the other aspect in convincing fashion. With some injuries hitting our secondary, facing a dual threat QB with the caliber of Jake Locker might make for some interesting battles defensively.

John: Who is going to start at QB for Oregon? What is the main difference between Costa and Masoli?

jtlight: My feeling is that Masoli will start. He's been taking snaps, his knee seems to be getting better, and he's getting used to his custom brace. I'd imagine that his mobility will be down, but I'm guessing he still has more mobility than Costa. At this point, the main difference with Costa and Masoli seems to be confidence. Costa still looks a bit tentative out there, which should be a surprise. After some intial problems, Masoli got on track in the Cal game, and became his decisive self again. While there is the worry he could revert, it sounds like he has been doing very well in practice.

While the Masoli/Costa angle has been talked about to great length over the past week, the Duck game plan will not change at all with Costa in the game. However, I don't think that we'll have to worry about that.

dvieira: To quote Jeremiah Masoli, "we'll all find out Saturday". He has been working with the first team all week in practice so I'm willing to bet we'll see Masoli in the game at some point. I think Costa is serviceable and if he has to go on Saturday, he should be able to move the ball and give the rock to the playmakers on offense. Masoli is much more aggressive in his play than Nate has been.

John: What type of impact will the loss of your starting corners Thurmond and Glasper have on the game now that you are facing probably the best QB team will see this season?

jtlight: Luckily for the Ducks, Glasper was Thurmond's backup, so 3 of the 4 members of the secondary have been playing together for almost the entire season. Glasper's injury, while unfortunate, is not all that significant for the Ducks, who have a lot of talent in the secondary. That said, the loss of Thurmond is definitely rough. He had been the best player on the football team, and had been making big plays all over the field.

Last week against UCLA, his backups did an admirable job. Anthony Gildon (redshirt sophomore) started the game, and didn't give up many big plays, but was flagged twice. He split time with true freshman Cliff Harris, who was the top player in the Ducks 2009 recruiting class, and he played a very strong game, was never out of position, and had good coverage every time the ball went his way. He definitely seems to be one of those players that has a feel for coverage. However, he lacks the bulk that many other CBs have (he's listed at 160 on the roster), and that can be attacked. I have confidence that either Gildon or Harris will give us competent play, but not up to Thurmond's level. They will definitely be tested by Locker and the UW receivers, so this will be a great test for the secondary. In the end, I think that UW will make some plays, but that the young UO secondary will also.

Thus far, young Oregon players have stepped up in the secondary, and I'm hopeful that will continue.

dvieira: I don't like the loss of both Glasper and Thurmond. Even though we have experience in the secondary, we would have a true freshman (who was late getting into camp) getting a lot of reps at that corner position. UCLA's offense is just not that good so having a pocket passer delivering balls to that side might be a weakness until Cliff Harris / Anthony Gildon can get more reps. If Oregon can get pressure on Locker with the front four, I would expect the defense to provide help on that side of the field to offset the weakness.

John: If you were the Washington offensive coordinator how would you attack the Oregon defense?

jtlight: I would steer clear of going off-tackle or trying to get into the flats, and instead try to pound the ball up the middle. While Oregon's front 7 does have great quickness, it is also undersized, and while the overall defensive effort has been a massive progression from last season, the rushing defense has regressed slightly. At times, Oregon has had issues with running the ball up the middle. Chris Polk has done an excellent job when he's gotten a hole, and I would look to continue that.

In the passing game, I would continue to throw a good number of quick passes, including the slants that have been so successful, though I would steer clear of WR screens, because the speed of the linebackers has kept these in check for most of the season. Lastly, I would take a number of shots down the edges of the field, in an attempt to get the UW wide receivers one-on-one with the Oregon cornerbacks. The play of John Boyett and Javes Lewis has been excellent this year, and has improved the Oregon pass defense greatly. They have done an excellent job partrolling the middle of the field, so keeping the UW receivers our of their vicinity will be key.

dvieira: I agree with JT. Running side to side just doesn't seem to work against Oregon. What Boise State did so effectively was mix up looks offensively, getting the matchups they wanted. I know the pro-style offense is relatively new but any sort of wrinkle that helps to throw off Oregon's reads should open things up. The other thing I would say is to stop forcing Locker into a certain mold and allow him to use his talent more. I understand that Sark has been trying to get him to stay in the pocket but he is the best weapon you have. Roll him out, get him on the move, allow him to make plays with his legs. That should keep Oregon's D off balance.

John: What is your prediction for the game? Let me think Oregon is going to win?

jtlight: Of course I think Oregon is going to win! I really think that this years Oregon team is one of the most balanced Duck fans have seen in some time. The offense is just itching to break out as it did against Cal, and the defense has been excellent. I just don't see UW having an answer for Oregon's offense. While there's been a lot of talk about the Huskies red zone defense, I don't think they'll be able to rely on that against the Ducks. Oregon has the best red zone threat in the conference in Ed Dickson, and are the 2nd best red zone offense in the Pac-10. And while UW's offense is a strong threat, I don't think it's consistent enough to keep up with the Oregon offense while going against a very good defense. If the turnover margin in even, Oregon wins by two scores.

dvieira: I think Oregon will win but I think it will be a lot closer than other people are predicting. Jake Locker is a special talent and the receiver corp at Washington is really coming into his own with him throwing the rock. Oregon's defense has been getting better but that has come in dealing with very average quarterbacks. Washington is going to score, no doubt about it and I think they can move the ball against Oregon's defense. As long as Oregon's offense continues to make good decisions and not turnover the ball, talent should win out. In big games however, it seems like UW is really good at getting that key turnover or causing a mistake by the offense. Oregon has been turnover prone, especially on special teams which could allow the Huskies to get some cheap scores. Oregon should win by keeping mistakes at a minimum and moving the ball offensively. 

ATQ:  Jake Locker has improved tremendously under Sark. In what area has this been seen the most, and what is his biggest weakness?

john: He has improved tremendously under Sark. Obviously the mechanics of simply throwing the ball accurately has been the biggest improvement. He has a cannon for an arm but the mechanics never improved under Willingham. He is a completely different QB this season who runs first and passes second. His biggest weakness has been decision making. It could be just learning a new offense but the facet of the game is still a work in progress. Jake makes great plays and other times you just have to shake your head. The more defensive pressure you can put on him the better it will be for Oregon on Saturday. 

ATQ:  The Huskies have typified "bend but don't break" on defense this year. What has been the key for their success in the red zone?

john: When the Huskies are in the red zone they don't have to worry about the long pass and that allows the defense to play with the front seven a lot more. We have problems in space in the secondary but when that space is limited we seem to do pretty well. Between the 20's we are rushing three or four against five or six to prevent the big play. Once a team gets down toward the end zone the schemes change and that works to UW's advantage. When our LB's aren't helping out with pass coverage they can really cause some havoc. 

ATQ:  The Huskies haven't yet faced a spread attack like Oregon's this season. How will the Huskies attempt to slow down the Ducks?

john: I don't think we will slow the Ducks down much between the twenties. Oregon is going to get its yards on Saturday. The key for Washington all season is having a plus turn over ratio and turning probable 7's in the red zone into 3's. Masoli if he starts won't be nearly as mobile as he was early in the season. Washington needs to take some chances to take advantage of that. When the Oregon spread is working I don't think there is a better offense in college football. The last time the Ducks were in Seattle the Dixon led offense just blew me away. Your offense of course has only worked that efficiently once this season if you take WSU out of the equation. 

ATQ:  There is a lot of heat on the Oregon side of the rivalry when the Husky game comes up, so much so that many Duck fans view Washington as a bigger rival than Oregon State. How does Husky Nation view the rivalry, especially in terms of Washington State?

john: It is a big game for Washington but not as big as Washington State for some reason for most Husky fans. I personally think it is a big game and I consider Oregon to be the more important rival. I would much rather go to a game in Eugene than in Pullman. I think what really bothers Oregon fans is that the Washington program and its fan base has historically looked down on Oregon. That old Washington arrogance that Duck fans complained about for so many years is very real. Oregon on the other hand cares a lot more about Washington than Washington cares about Oregon.

Washington cares...but they are never going to give Duck fans the satisfaction of it being more important than any other Pac 10 game. I found it amusing when the Pac 10 went without a round robin schedule and Oregon wanted to schedule the Huskies as an OOC game in years when they were not scheduled to play. The tradition was more important to Oregon than it was to Washington who said we would rather take the year off. That rubbed a lot of Ducks the wrong way. Of course everything we do does that. Part of the charm of the rivalry. 

ATQ:  What is your take on Jake Locker going pro? If he does decide to go out this year, what can we expect out of Washington in 2010?

john: Jake needs another year under Sark to refine his craft. That is complicated by the fact that this is a very weak year for QB prospects. Jake has the most potential of any college QB out there but if he was drafted he would have to sit on the bench a couple of years. He is not close to being ready for the next level. That being said since there isn't a draft eligible QB this season that is ready his value has increased in the eyes of NFL scouts. 

ATQ: Lastly, while UW isn't favored to win, they definitely have a shot. Who (outside of Locker) is going to need to have a big game for the Huskies to win?

john: Chris Polk needs to run the ball well on Saturday. Polk is an excellent running back but the key will be how well the offensive line clears room for him. Washington or any team for that matter plays better when they have a balanced offense. In Washington's pro-set offense the run sets up a lot of play action which is really the key to making Washington's offense a lot more productive. Washington is deep and talented at the wide receiver position. Keep an eye on James Johnson, Jermaine Kearse, and Devin Aguilar. All three have been very solid this season. Aguilar is coming off a career game against ASU.