The Pac-12 championship game looks like a mere trifle for Oregon against UCLA. But is it?
The Pac-12 blog decided to check in with Peter Yoon of ESPN Los Angeles, who's with the Bruins on a daily basis, to get his take on a game that has a 31-point spread and little seeming intrigue.
Is there something we're not seeing here? Read on.
Ted Miller: Well, Peter looks like we’ve got an EPIC CLASH! with Oregon and UCLA. The irresistible force against milquetoast. We’ve read plenty of analysis this year on what went wrong with UCLA during Rick Neuheisel’s tenure. But let’s talk about now. You’re around the team a lot. Where are they mentally? How did Neuheisel’s firing play in the locker room? Are guys upset or do they feel change was needed? Will they be up for this game? And do they have any interest in playing in a bowl game if they lose?
Peter Yoon: I think when you have a team of 90-plus guys, the reactions are going to be scattered. No doubt some players wanted Neuheisel gone and others fully wanted him to stay. I think the uncertainty of Neuheisel's situation contributed to the team's inconsistent, win-blowout loss pattern this season. Now, it seems as though since everything is settled with Neuheisel, they've got a nothing-to-lose attitude because they really have nothing to lose. Their coach is gone and nobody gives them a snowball's chance to win. The mood around practice has been remarkable relaxed this week, but they are definitely getting work done and even the guys who might be secretly happy that Neuheisel has been fired realized that this is his last game and want to try and make it special for him. The players definitely want to play in a bowl game. They clearly realize they probably aren't going to win on Friday so they see going to a bowl as their best shot at ending the season with a win. Plus there are all kinds of perks and bowl swag.
What about Oregon, Ted? How are the Ducks approaching this week? Any chance they look past UCLA because the result is painted as a foregone conclusion? How have they handled games in which they been overwhelming favorites in the past? Are they disappointed that they have to play UCLA, which is in the title game by default? How up for this game is Oregon? And do you think they will run up the score to try and make a statement before the final BCS standings come out?
Ted Miller: The “taking an opponent lightly” deal hasn’t yet been a problem for the Ducks under Chip Kelly. All of his six losses over his first three seasons were to quality teams – five, in fact, were against teams that finished ranked in the top 10 and four in the top five. The Ducks should be expected to approach this week as they always do, employing one of Kelly’s mantras: Preparing as if every week is a Super Bowl against a nameless, faceless opponent. That said, the Ducks aren’t living in a shoebox. They know the circumstances of this game. And there’s always a first time for a coach suffering a major upset. The potential for taking the Bruins lightly is there, even if it doesn’t fit the Ducks' typical MO.
Disappointment? I suspect that the Ducks would have liked another crack at USC, but they knew that wasn’t going to happen. They also know the stakes are high: Win and they go to the Rose Bowl. Lose and they go to the Alamo Bowl. As for running up the score, that would be a graceless thing to do to Neuheisel, so I’d think Kelly would avoid trying to make the final count humiliating. And seeing that they are out of the national title hunt, there’s no reason to do it.
OK, Peter, let’s imagine the unthinkable: A UCLA win? How do the Bruins and Neuheisel pull a rabbit out of their collective hat?
Peter Yoon: Neuheisel said this week that it would take a perfect game in order for UCLA to win. I'm not exactly sure what that entails seeing as how UCLA's traditional ball-control game plan really has no impact against the quick-strike Oregon offense. Let's face it, UCLA's defense isn't going to suddenly turn into the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, so the only chance UCLA will have is to keep pace with Oregon. Their offense isn't really designed to put up big point totals, so UCLA will have to get points on defense and special teams as well. They've got a dangerous return man on kickoffs in Josh Smith. He doesn't have a return touchdown yet, but has been close and figures to get several opportunities. UCLA's punt-return game is basically nonexistent, but so is the possibility that Oregon will punt. Forcing a few turnovers will be crucial, as will not committing any. I guess what Neuheisel means by a perfect game is scoring every time they have the ball and a few times when they don't.
Turning that question around, Ted, is there any way possible that Oregon could throw this one away?
Ted Miller: The only way I see Oregon losing is if they play a sloppy, uninspired game and then panic at the end. Keep in mind that this is a team that was able to nearly overcome a 24-point deficit to USC. The Ducks could start slowly, fall behind by a couple of scores and then – wham! – light the Bruins up.
Oregon could only lose with a perfect storm of miscues, turnovers and big plays from UCLA. I just don’t see it happening.
Seems like we are in an accord who will win. So let’s give predictions. How do you see this one going down?
Peter Yoon: I'm sure UCLA will come out pretty fired up and might be able to stay within a touchdown or two for a the first quarter or maybe even go into halftime within striking distance, 31-17, or something like that. But Oregon will prove to be too much as the game goes on and simply wear out UCLA like they wear out everyone. I agree that they will probably ease off the gas pedal late, though, out of respect for Neuheisel. Final score: Oregon 54, UCLA 24.
Ted Miller: Similar to my thinking. Ducks may sputter early and UCLA may make some plays, but the Ducks will pop it into overdrive and run over the Bruins. My guess: 45-17.