It is hard to imagine Oregon’s opening game against the Southern Utah turning out to be anything more than a glorified scrimmage. No disrespect to the Thunderbirds, they’ve reached the FCS play-offs twice in the past four years and have an offense that will test Oregon’s revamped defense in interesting ways.
The Thunderbirds will start either senior Patrick Tyler or sophomore Aaron Zwahlen – a decision that may be forestalled until game day though in Autzen’s raucous atmosphere the safe bet would be to go with the senior.
Regardless of who takes the snaps, Southern Utah will operate a high tempo offense with head coach Demario Warren telling the Salt Lake Tribune that “whether it’s a good or bad drive, it usually goes pretty fast. “
After yielding 500 yards a game last year, if the Oregon defense can force the Thunderbirds into more of the latter it will be an encouraging sign that the switch back to a 3-4 defense and the new coaching staff is paying early dividends.
Stalwarts Henry Mondeaux and Troy Dye will anchor a front seven for the Ducks with a mix of experience and youth that should have the best of it at the line of scrimmage. It will be in the secondary where senior safety Arrion Springs will be in charge of a flock of new faces. Freshmen Thomas Graham, Deommodore Lenoir, and Billy Gibbon along with Martell McGraw – a red shirt junior who leapt up the depth chart this fall – will see playing time in a revamped defensive backfield for the Ducks.
Any success Oregon hopes to achieve this season won’t happen unless all of those moving parts can find a way to effectively communicate with one another on the field and faithfully execute defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s game plan.
If they are able to running back James Felia untracked it would allow the Thunderbirds to go to the air selectively and when Southern Utah is able to do that they will put up a respectable number of points.
With eight returning starters the Thunderbirds will look to their defense to hold teams close while the offense gets its wings. That’s a luxury that likely won’t play out against the Ducks however.
The Oregon offense will be operating with a new playbook and some earlier hiccups are to be expected.
Close attention will be paid particularly to the wide receiver where the Ducks have sophomore Dillon Mitchell and freshman Johnny Johnson III listed at the top of the depth chart at WR and sophomore Jacob Breeland at TE. There is not a lot of game experience in that group but with a full spring and now fall camp under their belts any glitches should be short lived and resolved well in advance of the fourth quarter.
On a day when the forecast calls for temperatures near 100 degrees the deeper, more talented team has an overwhelming advantage if only in terms of attrition. Should Oregon put the pieces together on both sides of the ball coming out of the tunnel the contest will be over quickly and all attention will turn to a more telling date next week against Nebraska.
~ Rick Morgan