Lieberman: Oregon headed to Palo Alto with much different team than they took to Dallas

Posted by David Lieberman on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 5:33 pm.

When Oregon’s magical run to the BCS Championship Game ended in sour fashion last January, most fans were content to reflect on the year in a positive fashion. The Ducks had posted their first undefeated regular season ever and came within three points of taking down a Southeastern Conference juggernaut boasting one of the most dynamic offensive players in NCAA history.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but look forward. Unlike past seasons, the program actually had a September worth getting excited for. Oregon had scheduled a first-class opponent, preseason-No. 4 LSU, to take on during their nonconference slate in 2011. I enjoy watching Oregon dismantle a hapless team like New Mexico as much as the next guy, but starting the season with a verifiable challenge was a welcome shift in my mind.

As soon as possible, I went all-in on the Cowboy Classic and bought airfare to Dallas so I could cover the game. I simultaneously fell for the same trick that deceived most Oregon fans as they tried to project Oregon’s performance against Les Miles’ boys. I fully expected to see a revitalized, razor-sharp Oregon team do their best to reestablish the honor of the Pac-12 in a neutral-site game against top opposition from the SEC.

So much for that. Cowboys Stadium was full of fans decked out in yellow — just not in support of Oregon. Once the two teams took the field, the matchup felt like an ambush. Hordes of polo-clad Louisianans drowned out the Oregon faithful with chants of “Tiger Bait!” To make things worse, Oregon looked awkward, careless and absent-minded on both sides of the ball. Four backbreaking turnovers made the game a relative coup for a ball-hawking squad from Baton Rouge.

Why would I rehash Oregon’s nosedive so vividly more than two months later? Because this weekend the Ducks are taking on another top-five opponent away from Autzen Stadium. And if you’ve had a chance to watch the team play in recent weeks, you’ve probably noticed that the team has changed since then. A lot.

Let’s start with, arguably, Oregon’s most potent offensive weapon: De’Anthony Thomas. Sure, Oregon fans expected to see a great deal from the Black Mamba during his inaugural season. But did anyone anticipate the roller-coaster ride that we’ve have gone through? De’Anthony Thomas came out in Dallas and essentially laid an egg with two costly fumbles. Since then, his performance has pretty much been unfathomable.

Who would have guessed that Thomas — nine games into the season — would be Oregon’s leading receiver? And who would have projected him as the team’s most electric special team player as well? De’Anthony has done more than make up for his gaffes in Dallas — he has established himself as the most compelling freshman (redshirt or not) to ever take the field for the program. Considering the bevy of talent that has come through Eugene in recent years, that distinction is pretty special.

A less-heralded aspect of Oregon that has altered drastically since Dallas, is the play of the team’s secondary. In the season’s first game, the Ducks’ defensive backs did relatively well against LSU’s docile (but reliable) Jarrett Lee, holding the senior backup to 98 yards and one touchdown on 22 attempts. But with preseason All-American Cliff Harris and a collection of seniors absent from Oregon’s swarming defense from 2010, Oregon simply lacked the play-making flare that made them so unexpectedly effective last season.

Any doubts about Oregon’s cornerbacks and safeties have been put to rest during the last few weeks. Freshmen Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu have established themselves in the college ranks and come into their own, holding down starring roles in Harris’ absence and putting up more than respectable numbers.

Last weekend in Seattle, facing one of the more dangerous quarterbacks in the conference (if not the nation) in Keith Price, the Ducks held Washington to 17 points and 278 yards. Earlier this year, that same Huskies offense scored 38 points and piled 420 yards at then-No. 11 Nebraska and had tallied at least 30 points in every game, save a trip to Palo Alto in October, when it gained 430 yards while scoring 21. Last weekend, when Mitchell wrestled the ball from Washington tight end Michael Hartvigson to silence Husky Stadium and swing the game’s momentum in favor of Oregon, I couldn’t help but think back to the enterprising Ducks of yesteryear.

Even better for Oregon, one of the team’s most versatile defensive players, rover Eddie Pleasant, had his best contest of the season against Washington. Pleasant’s two interceptions in the first two quarters were game-changers. But his effect may have been just as stated in the second half, when Price’s reluctance to throw the deep ball was palpable. After the game against the Huskies, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said it has certainly taken time for the former linebacker to adjust to his hybrid role in Oregon’s defense but that he has adapted admirably in recent weeks. More than halfway into 2011, Pleasant looks to be completely at ease alongside 2010 All-Pac-10 first-team selection John Boyett.

As a result, don’t be surprised if Oregon’s defense emerges as the surprise darling on Saturday against the Cardinal. Oregon ranks 26th in the nation in scoring defense (20.78), buoying an offense that ranks last in the nation in time of possession by a full 90 seconds per game. The Ducks’ defense may not put up the eye-popping statistics that are a trademark of Oregon on the other side of the ball. But their effort — combined with a more effective and seasoned De’Anthony Thomas — could be the catalyst to an inspired effort by Oregon against Andrew Luck and Stanford.