Oregon's mission: Defy first impression
EUGENE — No. 10 Oregon has made a mission this season of defying first impressions.
After a disastrous opener, the Ducks regrouped and now sit atop the Pacific-10 standings, with a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line next Thursday in the Civil War game against No. 16 Oregon State.
Although the game is billed as the biggest in the annual rivalry's lengthy history, it could be argued that Oregon has already played its most important game of the regular season — the 38-36 victory over Purdue in Game 2.
With the win against the Boilermakers, the Ducks proved that they could put aside the disappointment of a 19-8 season-opening loss to Boise State and the turmoil caused by LeGarrette Blount's punch afterward.
And they've been proving it ever since, the players say.
"We're one of those teams that handles pressure well and we've proved that time and time again," backup quarterback Nate Costa said. "Hyping up the Rose Bowl is only going to help us."
Oregon was ranked No. 16 going into the season with what was believed to be one of the most potent and innovative offenses in the country.
But the Ducks fell flat in the loss to then-No. 14 Boise State, with no first downs in the first half and only 31 yards rushing. Afterward Blount threw the infamous punch that resulted in his suspension.
Without Blount and embarrassed by the loss on national television, Oregon went on a seven-game winning streak what included routs of ranked opponents Utah, California and USC.
Oregon's lone stumble in Pac-10 play came on the road against Stanford.
"We've had our share of big games this year. I think we're pretty prepared in all aspects of football right now. We've been through all situations," safety T.J. Ward said.
While the drama of that first game might have dogged the Ducks on a national stage, Oregon has clearly moved on.
Blount, suspended for the season but allowed to keep his scholarship and practice with the team, returned to active duty when the coach Chip Kelly said he had met certain behavioral and academic conditions.
After rushing for 1,002 yards last season, he returned from an eight-game layoff as the team's fifth-string running back. He has yet to play in a game.
LaMichael James has stepped up in Blount's place. The redshirt freshman has averaged 119.1 yards rushing this season, ranking him ninth in the nation. His 1,310 total rushing yards have set a Pac-10 freshman record.
Oregon has also seen exponential improvement this season in quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who, earlier this season, was booed because of what fans saw as a weak passing game.
Masoli has thrown for 14 touchdowns and run for 12 more. He accounted for all six of Oregon's touchdowns in last weekend's 44-41 double-overtime win at Arizona. He ran for 61 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner. And he passed for 284 yards and three touchdowns, including the one that tied the game with 6 seconds left in regulation.
Oregon (9-2, 7-1) hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since the 1994 season, and Oregon State (8-3, 6-2) hasn't been there since the 1964 season.
It is the first time in the history of the rivalry game that both teams are playing for a trip to Pasadena.
"We don't need anybody to tell us how important this game is, because that's the way this team practices every day, no matter who we're playing, whether we're playing Oregon State or whether we're playing Purdue," coach Kelly said.
"Every game we play is important, there's not one that's more important than the other."