Defensive Line: The Beaver defensive front four (No.14 against the run) possesses more raw physical talent than that of the Ducks' front four. But speed and agility off the snap comes at a price against the Ducks' potent run oriented offensive approach. The defensive line for OSU has fought tooth and nail to contain mobile QB's and have had a generally miserable time doing so. They happen to be going up against the best scrambling QB in the Pac12, who has two Colt-45 pistols latched to his sides in Barner and Thomas -- it could be a long day for the Beaver defensive line. The same starting front four for the OSU defense has started in all 10 games. Sophomores Dylan Wynn (45 tackles, two TFL and one sack) and Scott Crichton (37 tackles, 15 TFL and nine sacks) will need to be kept fresh with healthy doses of Rudolf Fifita and Rusty Fernando in order to ensure their vitality in the latter stages of the contest. Seniors Andrew Seumalo and Castro Masaniai are in the last Civil War of their college football careers. If they can gain enough traction over the line of scrimmage enough times, they can win the war. But executing that for a full 60 minutes against the Ducks is a tall order – only one team has done it this season against UO.
Chip Kelly's run stoppers are ranked 49th in the nation, allowing 151.8 yards a game on average. There have been injuries and substitutions on the defensive line and for defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, many of those have occurred late in the season. Wade Keliikipi has been on crutches - Dion Jordan and Isaac Remington still have some question marks. Taylor Hart may come back, but to what end? Is it better to have a banged up, maybe 75 percent healthy line of guys with experience, or a young but fresh line of players that may be able to last for more than a half? Three true freshmen started on the Oregon DL against Stanford. One more thing to ponder looking ahead to Saturday's matchup – OSU on paper should be able to put together long drives on this d-line and keep Oregon's offense off the field. But having it on paper and doing it in the game are two different things.
Edge goes to OSU.
Linebackers: This game will be the ultimate test for Michael Doctor, Feti Unga Taumoepeau and D.J. Alexander. The trio have combined for 142 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 14.5 TFL. They may not be the most aggressive to the QB, but they are some of the fastest linebackers in the Pac12 and are quicker in closing speed than most members of the UO secondary. Early in the season, the OSU linebacker corps struggled mightily to establish solid protection against short screen plays and dump routes into the back field. Now they face the embodiment of a screen oriented offense in the Duck passing attack, and will be forced to play close to the line. But playing close to the line is exactly what Kelly wants them to do.
UO's linebacker platoon has been in the midst of a brute force method of learning how to play tough football. The lack of a consistent defensive line has pushed a lot of work onto the shoulders of the Duck linebackers. How quickly will they tire out Saturday? Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Boseko Lokombo have combined for 180 tackles and five sacks, and they have the ability to route opposing blockers.
Edge is tied.
Secondary: The main ingredient in the secondary stew for Chip Kelly and Co. is Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a sophomore out of Chino Hills, C.A. Ekpre-Olomu has 53 combined tackles, three picks, six forced fumbles and one fumble recovered. He is lightening quick, and hits similarly to Rashaad Reynolds, hence the high rate of opponent fumbles against him. However, Ekpre-Olomu won't be able to tie down Wheaton and Cooks by his lonesome. Brian Jackson (S) and Terrance Mitchell (DB) have had a rough go of holding their own against speedy receivers this year, and they face one (maybe two) of the fastest on Saturday. UO lets loose an average of 228.9 yards per game and is ranked No.52 in the nation in terms of defending the aerial attack.
On the orange and black side of the ball, Reynolds and Jordan Poyer have lit up offenses all season long -- Poyer gets the picks, Reynolds gets the hits. And that could be the recipe for success against a UO team who uses their wideouts in "façade formations" half the time and whose main priority is to block. OSU's secondary (which includes sophomore standouts Ryan Murphy and Tyrequek Zimmerman) may rank lower than the Ducks in terms of pass defense (No. 59 nationally) but possesses more big play capabilities, not to mention that they aren't facing deep threat wide receivers. OSU is the clear cut favorite here, both on paper and in terms of strength/skill.
Edge to Oregon State.
Coaching: Whether you prefer Mike Riley or Chip Kelly a matter of tastes. Mike Riley is a laid back, low key, lunchpail type of coach that still leads his team in a chant of "Hip-Hip, Hooray" at the end of every victory. But underneath that is a highly competitive man when it comes to winning games with whatever weapons he's got. Riley sticks to his game plan and it's both what's made him as successful as he is, and in hard times has displeased the fan base. But he is the winningest coach in Oregon State history. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. He will play slow methodical football until it kills an opponent, and occasionally even the fans.
Chip Kelly on the other hand, is like an ADD kid on too many bennies who just hit the mother-load at Christmas. If there was a hurry mode of the hurry up offense, Chip Kelly would find it, punch it in the face and tell it to move faster. There is little arguing with his win-loss results (though some will vehemently argue that those results are tainted and the NCAA investigation/decision will reflect that.) He has taken the Ducks to a level never before thought possible. The big prizes, however, have eluded the Ducks in his tenure and a good defense has made a previously unstoppable offense look ordinary. On paper the edge goes to Kelly. But there is no fair comparison of these two coaches, for they are both so entirely different.
Edge is tied.
Intangibles: OSU has three things weighing in their favor - home field advantage, the Ducks recent loss to Stanford possibly easing Ol' Mo over to OSU heading into the bout, and the unstable nature of the Ducks defense. Those three items will most certainly give OSU a bit of an edge. The question is, for how long. If the Beavers can hit the UO weak points (i.e. outside edges for the DL and the middle of the secondary) early in the contest to establish some momentum and breathing room in the first half, I see the game shifting in OSU's favor. Also, Mannion is back and quite frankly his style of play is better suited for a game against the Ducks. But if OSU outplays the Ducks for 25 minutes, and then Oregon scores three quick times, all that good work could go for naught.
Final Thoughts: The Oregon Ducks, for all that they are and could have been this season, have yet to play a complete game this season. The majority of games the Ducks have played have been shutout victories, this is true. However, all those games, especially the Stanford and Cal matchups, proved that the Ducks were weakest when they were asked to stretch their valuable resources throughout the entire game. The Ducks are not an all day long team – they are a first or second half team, but never both. Hell, sometimes they are a one quarter team that does virtually nothing productive the rest of the game, but still wins. The mentality? Kick em' when they are down, and kick em' so hard they can't get back up. If Riley and Co. can avoid going down by 14 or more points in the first half, the will have a real shot at the W, and a chance to shake up the BCS one final time.