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November 21, 2012

Behind Enemy Lines: Biggest Game of the Year

Last Saturday's stunning 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford at Autzen Stadium damaged Oregon more than just snapping its Division I (FBS) record streak of scoring 30 or more points at 23 games.

It may have also cost Oregon a chance at a Pac-12 championship, let alone the BCS national title.

Currently at No. 5 in the BCS standings behind Notre Dame and three SEC schools, the Ducks could find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being on the outside looking in when the BCS bowl games get underway in January.

Before grumbling about what-might-have-been, Oregon has an important domestic matter they must first deal with - the 116th Civil War at Reser Stadium.

"It's the last game of the year and the biggest game we play," Oregon head coach Chip Kelly said Tuesday during his weekly press conference in Eugene.

The Ducks must first beat Oregon State on Saturday (noon, Pac-12 Networks) and then hope UCLA defeats Stanford later in the day at the Rose Bowl in order for Oregon to return to the conference championship game.

"Both teams are playing at a high level right now," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said Tuesday. "That makes it exciting. We're playing for something. It's meaningful."

Kelly realizes the Beavers have equaled the best improvement from one season to the next of any team in the nation - and are one of the top 'feel-good' stories in college football this season - for a reason. It starts with a much improved offense.

Kelly compared Oregon State wide receiver tandem Markus Wheaton (69 receptions for 986 yards) and Brandin Cooks (58 receptions for 1,039 yards) favorably to Southern Cal duo Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

"Both have outstanding speed," Kelly said Tuesday. "And not only are they great route runners and catch the ball, but they're extremely dynamic after the catch. They can gain a lot of yards after. We have to make sure we wrap them up and tackle them."

Trying to contain two great receivers like Wheaton and Cooks will present the Oregon secondary with a dilemma because it's virtually impossible to focus on one and let the other run free, Kelly said.

"They're similar to (Southern Cal receiver) Marqise Lee in that aspect," Kelly said. "It's not a catch and that's what you're getting. They can six into 60 real quick. It's the same situation when we faced Lee and Woods. When you have two great ones, you can't roll coverage one way.

"If you roll to Wheaton, Cooks will beat you. If you roll to Cooks, Wheaton is going to beat you. You have to really be aware. And it makes your defense spread out when you have two great ones like that on the outside."

While Wheaton and Cooks have played significant roles in Oregon State's turnaround from 3-9 last season to a potential 10-win season in 2012, Kelly maintained there are additional factors working in the Beavers' favor, especially defensively.

Oregon State is second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (18.6 points per game), setting up a Clash of the Titans scenario with the prolific Oregon offense, which, despite scoring just a pair of touchdowns against the physically dominant Stanford defense, remains atop the Pac-12 rankings in scoring offense (51.1 ppg) by a wide margin.

"It would be kind of silly to just think that two receivers changed them from a 3-9 team to a 8-2 team," Kelly said. "They've gotten great contributions on the defensive side of the ball. They're running the ball a lot better right now. Their offensive line is probably playing better than they did last year.

"The defense isn't as banged up as it was a year ago. They're a lot healthier than they've been in a long time. There are a lot of components throughout that team that has allowed them to win as many games as they have so far."

One of those key components for OSU is tight end, where Connor Hamlett and Colby Price have combined for 38 receptions, 406 yards and four touchdowns. Hamlett had six receptions for 80 yards (both career highs) and one touchdown in the 62-14 rout over California that served as Jeff Tedford's final game as head coach of the Golden Bears.

"We've faced some good tight ends so far. We faced two great ones last week," Kelly said. "It's not like you can say take care of Cooks and Wheaton and we'll be fine. Their tight ends pose a threat, their running back pose a threat and it looks like Sean Mannion is back to the form he showed earlier in the season.

"It's an offense that's got more than one weapon and when you have that, that makes it difficult to defend because you can't just concentrate on one guy."

Mannion tied the school record for most touchdown passes in a half when he threw four TDs in the first half against California, and is now sixth in Oregon State history in two major categories despite being only a sophomore - career passing yards (5,232) and career touchdown passes (28).

"I thought he was one of the top young quarterbacks in the league last year," Kelly said. "He was on track to be that again. He was really playing at a high level when he got hurt (in the Washington State game). He looked pretty good to us last week.

Mannion, ready to make his 17th career start and second in the Civil War, has completed 62.6 percent of his passes (149-of-238) for 1,904 yards and 12 touchdowns with nine interceptions in seven games this season.

"He has a great command of their offense and is an extremely accurate thrower," Kelly said. "He doesn't zone in on one receiver and if he's covered, he scrambles. He has a great understanding of his progressions and where he's going. He makes quick decisions out there."

As always, turnovers will play an integral role in determining the outcome of this edition of the Civil War. The Ducks (plus-13) and Beavers (plus-12) are 1-2 in the Pac-12 in turnover margin, comfortably ahead of the rest of the conference. The third place teams (UCLA and Stanford) are just plus-6 in turnover margin.

Usually, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game. But that wasn't the case for the Ducks against Stanford. Oregon committed two fewer turnovers than the Cardinal, but was stopped twice on downs and missed a field goal after penetrating into Stanford territory.

Marcus Mariota has taken some of the blame for the unexpected loss even though the freshman quarterback connected on 21-of-37 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown, and was Oregon's leading rusher with 89 yards on 12 carries. Heisman Trophy contender Kenjon Barner found few open running lanes against the tough Stanford defense with only 66 yards on 21 carries.

"It's one thing you love about the kid (Mariota), he takes everything to heart," Kelly said. "He has put a lot into it and done everything our staff has asked. You watch how well he has practiced the last few days and you get excited about the next opportunity to go out there and try to straighten the ship out."


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