Running With The Pac '12 - To Be The Man, You've Gotta Beat Oregon

EUGENE OR - SEPTEMBER 04: Running back Kenjon Barner #24 of the Oregon Ducks heads for the endzone past safety Bubba Forrest of the New Mexico Lobos and a touchdown in the second quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on September 4 2010 in Eugene Oregon. Barner had 225 total yards and 5 touchdowns as Oregon won the game 72-0. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Hold your orders on cardinal-and-gold confetti. As fast as some are to crown USC king of the Pacific 12 Conference, Oregon is faster. Heck, it's the Ducks' 2012 tagline. And until USC dethrones UO, the Trojans are playing

Some of you reading might ask if this is an Oregon preview, why devote so many words to USC? The truth is that in the '12 Pac-12, you can't have one without the other. It's like discussing the Batman without Joker, Ishmael without his white whale, Dusty Rhodes without Ric Flair. And like Flair famously quipped, to be the man you've gotta beat the man.

USC has beaten The Man. The Trojans' 38-35 defeat of UO, ending a 21-game win streak in Autzen Stadium, has been the trump card pundits use to justify irrational exuberance for USC. But USC hasn't beaten The Man. Not yet.

UO remains the standard bearer of the Pac-12 until someone can slow its hyperdrive attack.

One can trace the Duck dynasty's roots to Tucson. It was there in 2009 that Jeremiah Masoli engineered a final minute, fourth quarter drive to send UO and Arizona to overtime. The Ducks won and punched their Rose Bowl tickets. It was the first of three consecutive BCS bowl appearances for them, and the unofficial beginning of a downslide for UA from which the Wildcats have yet to recover.

UA's shot at slowing the offensive machine that is UO comes Sept. 22 in Eugene, but the game everyone nationwide has on the mind is the Ducks' trip to Los Angeles on Nov. 3. You just know Chip Kelly and his players have been thinking about revenge since that failed missed last November.

Some of the more notable Ducks involved that defeat are gone: starting quarterback Darron Thomas, the nation's leading rusher LaMichael James and leading receiver Lavasier Tuinei. A drop-off would seem inevitable on the offensive end, but Kelly's had an uncanny knack of plugging holes without missing a beat.

To wit, when Jeremiah Masoli was ousted in the summer of 2010, it was supposed to be a huge blow. But Thomas stepped in and UO became the best team in the nation. The season prior, James made his name with LaGarrette Blount suspended. Tuinei became the leading end zone target in Jeff Maehl's absence.

Don't except a significant dip with Kenjon Barner taking James' place as featured back -- Barner already showed his stuff when James was nursing a shoulder injury midway through 2011. De'Anthony Thomas was already one of the most explosive pass catching threats in the nation, operating as the Ducks' slotback and should see increased opportunities. Of all the skill positions, David Paulson should actually prove the toughest to replace, but Kelly has a bevy of tight ends to test.

Marcus Mariota was named the starting quarterback this week. UO has proven to be so much about the system. He should be fine if he's mastered the nuances of calling plays at the line and operating fast. That's more important to an effective UO quarterback than a cannon arm out of the pocket, or even blazing speed. Remember, while Thomas rushed he wasn't necessarily a rushing quarterback, accruing over 200 yards last season.

But while its offense that piques everyone's curiosity when discussing the Ducks, what has made them successful is the meddle of the defense. No defensive unit spends more time on the field than UO's. The Ducks have the worst time of possession differential, the drawback of operating so quickly. That requires a supremely conditioned, and deep, defense.

I asked linebacker Michael Clay during Pac-12 Media Day just how the defense gets prepared for playing close to 36 minutes a night. Clay credited the offense.

"We go against the fastest offense in the country four times out of the week," he said. "We're mentally and physically prepared to go 60 minutes with any team because we go against our offense for ten minutes throughout the day, but you're pulling out 40 plays [in that time]. That's unheard of right there."

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