From The Sports Network
By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 11th-ranked Oregon Ducks get their 2010 campaign started this weekend, when the New Mexico Lobos visit Eugene for a non-conference affair at Autzen Stadium.
Chip Kelly took over an already successful Oregon program last season and exceeded expectations by leading the Ducks to their first outright Pac-10 title since 1994. Oregon finished the campaign 10-3 overall following a loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, as Kelly proved too be the right man for the job. The stakes are even higher now however, as Oregon is favored to win the Pac-10 and anything less could be deemed a failure. The reason for optimism is a wealth of returning talent and speed that is unmatched by most teams around the nation.
As for the Lobos, they were guided by a new head coach last year as well, although the results were vastly different. UNM stumbled to a 1-11 finish under Mike Locksley, who had issues of his own, including serving a 10-day suspension for an altercation with a former assistant. Locksley and the Lobos are hoping to clean things up this season, but are likely to find themselves near the bottom of the Mountain West Conference again.
This is the first-ever meeting between the Lobos and Ducks on the gridiron.
The Lobos averaged a measly 16.3 ppg last season, so a dramatic improvement is needed on the offensive side of the ball. B.R. Holbrook was recently tabbed as the starting quarterback for UNM, as the 6-3, 195-pound sophomore showed a good grasp of the offense this preseason after seeing limited action a year ago.
"B.R. has earned the right to be our starting quarterback," said Locksley, in his second year at the UNM helm. "They guy who starts for us will be the guy who gives us the best chance to win; the guy who is the most productive; the guy who best takes care of the football."
Holbrook has some experienced receivers to work with, but his main target will likely be Ty Kirk, who led the team with 36 receptions and 427 receiving yards in 10 games as a freshman last season.
In the backfield, the Lobos welcome back their top three rushers in Demond Dennis (427 yards), Kasey Carrier (269 yards) and James Wright (291 yards). Each back brings something different to the table and should help UNM improve on its mere 100.3 rushing ypg for a season ago.
Much like the offense, the Lobos' defense struggled greatly last season and permitted 35.9 ppg. An improvement isn't a given, even though UNM returns the nation's leading tackler in Carmen Messina. The junior linebacker logged an incredible 162 stops last year and will once again anchor the defense.
Another player to watch is defensive end Johnathan Rainey, who was terrific off the edge, leading UNM with 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 2009. Jaymar Latchison added 8.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks at the opposite end, so putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks won't be a problem for this defense.
The Lobos were torched for 253.7 ypg through the air last season, but return four corners with experience, including both starters, and hopefully they can improve from a year ago.
Jeremiah Masoli was a big part of Oregon's success last year and would have been considered a Heisman Trophy candidate entering the 2010 campaign. Unfortunately, Masoli was suspended for the season after being involved in a theft and he elected to walk-on at Ole Miss instead. That opened the door for a quarterback battle this offseason, with sophomore Darron Thomas beating out senior Nate Costa for the starting gig.
The 6-3, 212-pound Thomas was involved in five games as a true freshman in 2008, throwing for 268 yards and three scores, but redshirted in 2009. This game will represent the first collegiate start for Thomas, who can beat teams with his arm or legs.
A strong supporting cast, including an electric ground attack, should help take some of the pressure off Thomas. The Ducks rushed for 231.7 ypg last year, the sixth best mark in the nation, and they have an abundance of players that can flat out fly. LaMichael James rushed for a Pac-10 freshman record 1,546 yards, to go along with 14 touchdowns last season, but won't be available for this game due to a suspension. Fellow sophomore Kenjon Barner, who is also a dynamic kick returner, is another burner and he will get the start this weekend after averaging 6.0 yards per carry in '09.
Plenty of options also exist at wide receiver, with Jeff Maehl being the go- to-guy. Last season, he paced the team with 53 catches for 696 yards and six touchdowns.
Defensively, the Ducks lack some size, but they more than make up for that with their speed. Up front, two big time starters are welcomed back in end Kenny Rowe and defensive tackle Brandon Bair. Rowe is a tenacious pass rusher that racked up team-highs of 11.5 sacks and 15 TFLs, while Bair clogged the middle with 45 stops and eight TFLs.
"You have to have guys who are athletes," said Bair. "We have to know every position on the field so we can be put in any of those spots."
The linebacking corps is talented enough to allow Eddie Pleasant, who had 54 tackles and 4.5 sacks, to move to the secondary and not miss a beat. Casey Matthews enters his third season as a starter and the senior is not only productive (81 stops), but he is also looked upon as a leader. Spencer Paysinger is another experienced returnee, as he also logged 81 tackles in '09.
As mentioned earlier, Pleasant will now be at the one safety spot and will be teamed with John Boyett, who racked up a team-high 90 tackles and three interceptions last year.
The Ducks are the clear pick here, as their speed and athleticism should lead to a rout of the Lobos this weekend.