Trouble ahead?

Nonconference struggles for Oregon offense

By any measure, the Oregon Ducks have enjoyed virtually unparalleled success under coach Chip Kelly.

Spearheaded by what may be the nation’s most potent big-play offense, the Ducks have gone 22-4 in Kelly’s first two seasons.

That includes a glittering 17-1 record in Pac-10 (now Pac-12) play, a pair of conference championships, a school-record 12-game winning streak in 2010 and a berth in January’s BCS national championship game.

While the Ducks have looked like Superman in almost all of their games - and who knows, maybe something with blue tights and a red cape will be one of Oregon’s many uniform combinations this season - they’ve struck Kryptonite in their last three major non-conference encounters:

• Sept. 3, 2009: Boise State 19, Oregon 8 - An Oregon team breaking in new offensive linemen (similar to this year’s squad) goes to Boise State for its season opener and gets completely bottled up. The Ducks manage just 31 net yards rushing and six first downs in a loss that is remembered more for LeGarrette Blount’s postgame punch than Oregon’s in-game offensive woes.

• Jan. 1, 2010: Ohio State 26, Oregon 17 - The Ducks score under 31 points only once the rest of the way and lose only one more time (51-42 at Stanford) en route to the Pac-10 title and their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1995. But it’s a similar story to the Boise State game as the Ducks are rendered one-dimensional by Ohio State’s hard-hitting defense. Jeremiah Masoli passed for just 81 yards and LaMichael James rushed for 70 as the Buckeyes outscore the Ducks 10-0 in the fourth quarter.

• Jan. 10, 2011: Auburn 22, Oregon 19 - The offensive line score belies the final score in the BCS National Championship Game as the Tigers outgain the Ducks 519-449. Oregon passes for 374 yards (Darron Thomas goes 27 of 40 for 362), but again the Ducks’ vaunted ground game gets caught in a web of dominant defense. Oregon nets just 75 yards on 32 carries and the offense watches helplessly as Wes Bynum’s 19-yard field goal sails through with no time remaining to give the Southeastern Conference its fifth straight national title.

The Ducks will likely start a pair of first-time starters at the guard positions: senior Ramsen Golpashin (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) and redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu (6-3, 274).

“That spells trouble,” predicted Aaron Fentress, an Oregon beat writer for The Oregonian in Portland.

Oregon employs a zone blocking scheme in which one defender is supposed to be left unblocked. The Ducks’ advantage comes when Thomas puts the ball in James’ belly, getting the unblocked defender to commit.

Once that is done, Thomas either decides to let James keep the ball or run it himself, usually with devastating results. Oregon ranked fourth in the nation last season averaging 286.2 yards per game rushing, while James led the nation with 144.3 yards per contest.

Oregon’s problem against Auburn was that the Ducks often let a couple of defenders go unmolested.

James said he felt Oregon’s offensive line was simply overpowered by All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and the rest of Auburn’s front.

“We made mistakes,” offensive tackle Darrion Weems told The Oregonian. “We turned a couple guys loose. We made some people look good. A lot of times, it was just them going unblocked.”

The Ducks have spent the offseason stewing on and working to correct their mistakes from that BCS meltdown with Auburn. Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood insists his team was mentally muddled, not manhandled.

“To take nothing away from Auburn, we messed some things up in that game that cost us big-time,” he told The Oregonian. “It wasn’t as much physical as it was some mental things, which there are no excuses for.”

LSU will also be breaking in new starters at defensive tackle, although the experience factor still tilts to the Tigers’ side of the ball.

In the depth chart released Wednesday, sophomore Michael Brockers (6-6, 300) will start at left tackle and junior Josh Downs (6-1, 278) will start at right. Sophomore Bennie Logan (6-3, 280) will back Brockers while true freshman Anthony “Freak” Johnson (6-3, 294) is expected to get significant playing time as the backup right tackle.

LSU’s other edge is expected to come in its defensive strength - the secondary - against Oregon’s green wide receiver corps. The Ducks lost their top two receivers from last season - Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis - and one of their top returners (Josh Huff) is slowed by a leg injury.