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November 10, 2010

Defending the Ducks

BERKELEY-There are plenty of reasons that Oregon is the No. 1 team in the land, but the biggest one is the Ducks' innovative warp-speed offensive attack.

On Saturday, the Cal football team's defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast will try his best to, at the very least, slow Oregon down.

"They're a very unique scheme," Pendergast said. "The things that they do, all the way from the tempo to the style of run-blocking schemes that they have, to the variations of pass routes and the combinations that they have, I would describe their offense as being very unique."

The Ducks are tops in the nation in total offense, gaining a total of 5,105 yards (567.22 per game) and scoring 65 touchdowns-11 more than second-place Nevada, which gashed the Bears for 52 points on 497 yards on Sept. 17 in Reno. While the two offenses are similarly explosive, Pendergast sees little similarity between the two units.

"There's different placement of the skilled athletes in that particular offense compared with this one," Pendergast said. "I don't see a lot of similarities."

Last season, Oregon ranked No. 28 in total offense with 5,356 yards, averaging 36.1 points per game. The increased tempo has done quite a lot to rocket the Ducks up the charts on their way to an 8-0 record this season and a possible date with the BCS title game on Jan. 10 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

"They're a little more efficient, the veterans in their offense know it and it's going to be one heck of a battle," said Cal's senior defensive end Cameron Jordan. "They're registering 80, 90 plays a game. It's ridiculous. That's what they expect: they expect you to get tired and do a lot of things out of the ordinary. That's what we're focusing on this week: being in good condition for them."

That frenetic pacing relies on knocking defenses back on their heels, a strategy which has felled plenty of stout foes this season. En route to securing the top spot as the nation's leading scoring offense, Oregon has hung 52 points on No. 6 Stanford and 53 on USC and Washington. The Ducks average 54.67 points per game and hold opponents to just 17.67.

"I figure we've all been playing football, and sometimes it can get a little bit hectic and you can get razzled out of it, but you've just got to look your teammates in the eye one time and say, 'Just breathe and realize you know what you're doing,'" Jordan said. "I knew they were good, but for them to be No. 1 in the nation is pretty impressive in itself. They have a lot of athletes and a lot of speed coming out. It's going to be one fun trip for them to come down here. They're going to have to face us at home, and we're pretty powerful ourselves at home. I love it at home. The crowd is always into it, and it helps out a lot. It's an advantage to us. For some reason, it's magical."

The Ducks utilize a stout offensive line not only to plow the way for all-universe running back LaMichael James, but to provide Brinks-level security for quarterback Darron Thomas. Oregon's big uglies-and they are big, averaging 6-foot-4, 296 pounds-have allowed a paltry five sacks, second in the conference only to the Cardinal.

"Their O-line does a good job of positioning-not so much knocking people off the back, but creating holes for LaMichael," Jordan said.

The Heisman-candidate James has run wild behind that line, rushing for 166.38 yards per game and 17 touchdowns-both tops in the nation.

So, how can the Bears stop him?

"Just a rallying defense," Jordan said. "When you have a shifty, fast running back, everybody's got to make tackles, everybody's got to have their feet moving."

After rushing for 1,546 yards last season and 1,331 this year, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore is just 15 yards away from taking over the all-time school rushing title. Halting James down will require plenty of discipline.

"The assignments, the gaps and obviously, it's just like any other offense," Pendergast said. "If you don't do the basics in football, you're not going to have a good day, and it doesn't really matter what style of offense you're playing. If you don't read your keys, you don't line up correctly and you don't look at the right things on a consistent basis, then you're not going to have a successful day."

The Oregon rushing attack as a whole is ranked No. 5 in the country, ripping off 2,749 yards on 436 plays, averaging a fourth-best 6.31 yards per carry and averaging 305.44 yards per game on the ground. Thomas is no slouch himself when he decides to pull the ball down, tallying 400 rushing yards on 62 attempts and scoring four touchdowns.

Trying to halt that attack will be the No. 25 rushing defense in the country. Cal allows 119.89 yards per game on the ground and lead the conference in sacks with 28 for 185 yards.

"We always take our blinders off when we rush," Pendergast said. "When we're rushing, we're looking at the quarterback. Anytime somebody scrambles out there and gains yardage on us, it's something we address each week. This week, we'll really have to make sure he doesn't get out, unlike last week, when we let their quarterback out a few times."

With backup signal-caller Nate Costa out for the season, Thomas will have a little added pressure to avoid getting hit by a blitzing defensive line which features the Pac-10's third-most prolific sack machine in Jordan, who has dropped quarterbacks 5.5 times this season, tied with emergent Bears linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Trevor Guyton isn't far behind with 4.5 of his own.

"They do some different things up front from a protection standpoint that makes it difficult," Pendergast said. "They do a nice job of protecting and they've got various ways to open up windows for him to throw into."

Thomas took over the starting job from Jeremiah Masoli, who departed under a cloud of legal trouble.

"The difference between the two quarterbacks is that this one is faster," Jordan said. "He's a little bit shorter, he's a stronger runner and the guy's quick."

Thomas is 15th in the country with a 158.39 passer rating, completing 62.3% of his passes for 2,070 yards and 22 TDs to only six interceptions.

"I think he runs the system very well," Pendergast said. "He makes very good decisions when he elects to hand the ball off or keep it, and in their reads in the running game. I think he sees the field well, he throws the ball not only stationary in the pocket, but on the move, so you've got to be really good at containing him, because he's very dangerous when he does have the ball in his hands from a running standpoint and throwing it."

Facing the top offensive unit in the country hardly phases the unflappable Jordan, who just sees the Ducks as another test.

"We've played them before-it's my third year playing these guys with LaMichael there, anyways-and they're dynamic, but we should know what to expect," Jordan said.

Pendergast took a more philosophical approach to how he goes about trying to stop an offense as prolific as that which he'll be dealing with on Saturday.

"Every week has its own difficulties, but this one, with the variety of things that they like to do, as wide-open as they are in the run or the pass, it's obviously a big challenge," Pendergast said. "We approach each week with the attitude that it's more about us than about the opponent. We're a defense structured on accountability and trust, so it's more about what we do and how we feel like we can run these things and stop somebody."

Stopping Oregon could involve the entire depth chart on defense, but for Cal, depth won't be much of a problem on the line or in the secondary. The biggest challenge will be getting all players enough snaps this week in practice.

"We feel like we're going to use a lot of people just because we want to play with fresh bodies," Pendergast said. "The biggest concern I have is the amount of reps, with those backups, when they get in there, that they got in practice. So, we'll be monitoring that as the game goes."

Aside from Jordan and Guyton up front, the Bears also have Aaron Tipoti, Ernest Owusu, Deandre Coleman, Derrick Hill, Kendrick Payne and the cleared-for-game-action Keni Kaufusi, who is itching to get his first licks in.

"You hope they learn as much as they can from watching the practice film and in the meeting room, but you can't ever simulate the full speed until you get out there," Pendergast said. "We're going to have to play a lot of guys, but that is a big concern of mine, going into this game."

The coaching staff on the sidelines will monitor the performance of the Bears' defenders, looking for any signs of fatigue that would necessitate a substitution.

"You've got to monitor that and you've got to be able to play people, and it's even tougher during the course of the week practicing, because I'm big on being able to get guys reps in practice in order to be able to play in the game, so getting everybody reps during the week when you know you're going to play a lot of guys makes you a little uncomfortable," Pendergast said. "You have to be very pointed and use your time wisely in the meeting room and on the practice field, to prepare for the individual things that you feel they may try and do to attack you."

Asked if there could be anything new in store as far as scheme is concerned, Pendergast hesitated for a moment.

"You'll see guys hopefully playing with good technique, playing their gaps and reading their keys," he said finally. "Some games we've done that this year, and some games we haven't."

This week, senior inside linebacker Mike Mohamed will be a full-go for Oregon despite still dealing with a broken thumb. He played with the injury last week in Pullman, Wash., but Pendergast said that his defensive captain is now used to dealing with the heavy wrap and should see some improvement come Saturday.

"He got stuffed on a couple blocks last week against Washington State, and on a couple of those runs-if he had two good arms-he'd have gotten off the block," Pendergast chuckled. "He had some limitations in that game, and I think it was more of a feel-type thing, to get through it, so now he's had it on for a week, and I anticipate him to be better than he was last week."



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