New Mexico-Oregon Preview

Last year’s surprising run by Oregon to a Pac-10 title may have

been overshadowed by a trying offseason. New Mexico’s troubles

stemmed from its coach.

With their star running back suspended, the 11th-ranked Ducks

begin their quest for a second consecutive conference championship

when they face the Lobos for the first time Saturday.

Oregon went 10-3 last season, ending Southern California’s

seven-year reign as Pac-10 champion and advancing to the Rose Bowl

for the first time since 1995. The Ducks, however, were beaten

26-17 by then-eighth-ranked Ohio State.

The offseason was marred with misdeeds by several players,

including LaMichael James who set a Pac-10 freshman record with

1,546 rushing yards while scoring 14 touchdowns.

He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment in February after an

altercation with an ex-girlfriend. Coach Chip Kelly suspended James

for the season opener and he was sentenced to 10 days in jail and

24 months of probation.

“You have to fly straight and narrow – that’s just what you have

to do,” James said.

Kelly found himself spending a lot of time disciplining players.

He dismissed defensive end Matt Simms for his alleged involvement

in an assault and receiver Jamere Holland for posting vulgar

comments on Facebook.

Even kicker Rob Beard was suspended one game after pleading

guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge for his role in a January

street fight that left him seriously injured.

Jeremiah Masoli’s numerous indiscretions eventually had the

quarterback transferring to Mississippi.

Expected to be a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, Masoli

pleaded guilty to charges connected to the theft of two laptops and

a guitar from a campus fraternity house in January, leading to a

season-long suspension.

Masoli was then stopped for a traffic violation while marijuana

was found in the car a few weeks later and Kelly kicked him off the

team.

The absences are a major blow to the Ducks, who were eighth in

the nation with an average of 36.1 points while ranking sixth with

231.7 rushing yards per game thanks to James and Masoli, who was

second with 814 rushing yards and 13 scores.

Oregon now tries to win consecutive conference titles for the

first time since 2000-01, and Darron Thomas will take over at

quarterback.

Thomas, who was named the starter ahead of senior Nate Costa,

redshirted last year. The sophomore played in five games in 2008,

completing 16 of 33 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

“I feel like I’m ready to go,” Thomas said. “I hope it’s my

time. I’ve been out here two years and gotten comfortable with the

offense and I’m just building confidence.”

Kelly isn’t concerned with turning the offense over to the

inexperienced Thomas.

“If you look at this team on paper, offensively and defensively,

we’re stacked,” he said. “It’s a great team and we have a lot of

seniors and a lot of returners and a lot of talent across the

board. For a quarterback, this is an ideal situation.”

Defensively, Oregon will try to improve after allowing an

average of 34.4 points over its final five games last year.

While the Ducks were dealing with transgressions from players,

New Mexico coach Mike Locksley was at the center of his own

controversies last year.

There was a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former

administrative assistant followed by ugly altercation with a former

assistant coach, which led to Locksley serving a 10-day

suspension.

Things weren’t much better on the field as the Lobos finished

1-11. This year, they’re picked to finish last in the Mountain

West.

Locksley has taken action to repair his tarnished reputation by

speaking with fellow coaches Kevin Sumlin at Houston, Larry Fedora

at Southern Mississippi and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy.

He also started to communicate regularly with Tony Dungy, the

well-respected former NFL coach and Super Bowl winner. They talk

about management philosophies or dealing with family in a

profession known for long hours.

Locksley has named B.R. Holbrook as the Lobos’ starting

quarterback, saying he “earned the right” because he showed a

better knowledge of the offense and sharper decision-making

skills.

Holbrook, a sophomore, beat out talented freshmen Tarean Austin

and Stump Godfrey. He played four games last season, completing 19

of 34 passes for 170 yards with one touchdown and two

interceptions.

New Mexico gave up 35.9 points per game last season for the

eighth-highest average in the Football Bowl Subdivision.