NOTE: This is a column from Gary Horowitz of the Salem (Ore.) Statesman Journal, one of our Gannett partners. Here is a link for more coverage of the Ducks from the newspaper.
EUGENE — It’s measuring stick time for Oregon. The 10th-ranked Ducks will be at Arizona on Saturday night in a nationally televised game (ESPN2). No. 5 Stanford faced the same scenario last Saturday and came away with a 37-10 victory behind Heisman Trophy candidate Andrew Luck’s 325 yards passing and two touchdowns.
We should know a lot more about Oregon after this game. It will be the Ducks’ first road test, although a neutral-site matchup against LSU in the season opener in Arlington, Texas, essentially was a home game for the Tigers.
“Winning on the road is a difficult challenge, especially in this conference,” coach Chip Kelly said. “Winning on the road’s the big thing.”
While capturing back-to-back Pac-10 titles in Kelly’s first two years as coach, the Ducks have gone 8-1 on the road. The lone defeat came late in the 2010 season at Stanford.
Because Oregon and Stanford are expected to battle for the Pac-12 North Division crown, how the Ducks perform against Arizona will be a barometer of sorts.
A dominating performance suggests the Ducks and Cardinal are comparable as they move toward a Nov. 12 showdown at Stanford Stadium.
A close win by Oregon would raise a few red flags.
A loss against an Arizona team that has been blown out the past two weeks by No. 7 Oklahoma State and Stanford, and has lost seven consecutive games to Football Bowl Championship Subdivision opponents, would indicate the Ducks are not among the national elite.
How much do we know about Oregon at this point?
A 40-27 loss to No. 2 LSU showed again that in recent games against major college powers, Oregon has difficulty matching up in the trenches and the Ducks’ vaunted running game struggles.
Sure, Oregon amassed 416 rushing yards against Missouri State last Saturday in a 56-7 victory and LaMichael James ran for 204 yards and three scores, but the Bears of the Missouri Valley Conference are a lower-division team.
A 69-20 rout of Nevada on Sept. 10 might look impressive, but the Wolf Pack are in rebuilding mode and have little resemblance to last season’s 13-1 squad that ended Boise State’s national championship dreams.
Nevada and Missouri State amounted to tune-up games at Autzen Stadium, although it did provide Oregon with an opportunity to utilize the depth it will need in a long season. To borrow coaching vernacular, the Pac-12 race isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
The Ducks already have played six true freshmen including tailback De’Anthony Thomas, who is tied for 21st nationally in all-purpose yards and looks like Oregon’s next impact player.
When Kenjon Barner returns to the field — he missed the past two games with an ankle injury and is expected to play at Arizona — the tailback combination of James, Barner and Thomas could be the most explosive in college football.
Darron Thomas has thrown nine touchdown passes in the past two games without a turnover, so he appears ready to lead Oregon’s bid for a third consecutive conference crown.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the Ducks is run defense. Oregon is allowing 214.3 yards per game on the ground to rank 107th among the 120 FBS schools.
The schedule works in Oregon’s favor with five of the nine conference games at Autzen, where the Ducks have an 18-game winning streak.
Conference championships are not won in September, but Oregon has arrived at one of those telling games. Will the Ducks measure up to Stanford?