Eugene, OR – Coming off a deflating loss in a clash of top- ranked Oregon Ducks return to Eugene, as they play host to the Nevada Wolf Pack this weekend.
Chip Kelly's Ducks were supposed to vie for the national title once again in 2011, but that dream could be a distant memory, following last weekend's humbling 40-27 loss at the hands of LSU in Arlington.
Chris Ault's Wolf Pack may be playing with a target on their backs this weekend, as they get a frustrated Oregon squad right out of the gates. This is the 2011 season-opener for Nevada, which had a strong 2010 season at 13-1, finishing 11th in the national polls, having won seven straight games to close out the year. However, the loss of an All-American under center, along with other key personnel, will make it extremely difficult for Ault's squad to post similar results in 2011.
Oregon leads the all-time series by a count of 5-1 and has won five straight against Nevada. The last meeting resulted in a 31-23 OU win in Eugene in 2003.
For the first time since the spring of 2007, Nevada had to deal with a quarterback battle as the Pack had to replace four-year starter Colin Kaepernick (now with the San Francisco 49ers). Senior Tyler Lantrip has earned the nod with the most experience, having been around the system for awhile.
"Tyler Lantrip is the guy that will be penciled in to start for us," coach Ault said of the change at quarterback. "Tyler Lantrip is a guy that grew up with Kaepernick, he knows the system, he understands what we're trying to do, how we're trying to do it...he's not as fast as Kaep, but he can run the football."
Lantrip appeared in six games last season, converting 8-of-13 passes for 155 yards and a score. Where Lantrip must prove himself is in the running game, where Kaepernick excelled. Juniors Nick Hale and Mark Ball and senior Lampford Mark will certainly help out in the ground game.
There is a real opportunity for Lantrip to improve on the passing game. Last season Rishard Matthews led the way with 56 catches for 879 yards and five touchdowns. He has a chance to improve on those numbers in 2011.
While the big men up front are often overlooked as far as their importance when compared to the skill players, Nevada has to be pleased with that aspect of the offense heading into the campaign.
"We're fortunate, we have four out of the five starters back," coach Ault said of his offensive line. "That to me in our Pistol Offense is probably our most critical factor."
Obviously the offense for the Pack will be taking a step back this year after losing Kaepernick, but on the other side of the ball Nevada has to be pleased with the fact that they bring back seven starters from a year ago, including four of the top six tacklers.
Linebacker James-Michael Johnson, an all-conference player in 2010 and the top tackler for the unit with 88 stops through 14 games, is back to patrol the middle of the field for the Wolf Pack. Johnson managed to make eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, numbers that will need to increase if he's going to be looked to as a leader of the group following the departure of standout Dontay Moch who always seemed to be involved in the action with 22 TFLs and 8.5 sacks last season.
Senior tackle Brett Roy is a playmaker up front, after recording 14.5 TFLs and eight sacks a year ago.
The most experienced member of the Nevada secondary, senior CB Isaiah Frey brings with him 104 career tackles and the honor of being a Second-Team All- WAC selection in 2010 when he led the program with 14 pass breakups.
A couple of miscues early on led to a swing in momentum and Oregon was never able to recover against a tenacious LSU squad.
Offensive stars Darron Thomas and LaMichael James were rendered inconsequential in the loss. James, who led the nation in rushing a year ago as a Heisman finalist, had his 2011 Heisman campaign derailed a bit, rushing for a mere 54 yards and one TD on 18 carries, although he did become Oregon's all-time leading rusher with the effort.
Thomas passed for 240 yards, but was 31-of-54, with one TD and one INT. His lack of numbers was a direct result of a ground attack that never materialized. One of the most potent rushing games in the country last year, Oregon managed a mere 95 yards against the Tigers.
While the Oregon defense allowed just 273 yards of total offense, LSU put up 40 points on the Ducks. The rush defense was particularly vulnerable, allowing 175 yards and three scores in the game.
There wasn't a whole lot of plays being made upfield either for Oregon, which finished with just five TFLs and only one sack.
Junior safety John Boyett will be called on to provide leadership this year for a unit that lost a great deal of that from 2010. Boyett was all over the field against LSU, finishing with a team-high 14 tackles. The team will still be without its top defensive star in CB Cliff Harris, who is suspended indefinitely.