No. 7 Oregon, Tennessee meet for 1st big test
Justin Wilcox had to stop and rewind the tape on Oregon running back LaMichael James a few times to make sure it was playing at regular speed.
''It's like watching on fast-forward,'' the Tennessee defensive coordinator said. ''He's really, really fast and very elusive. He's as good of a back as there is.''
After a one-game suspension for a misdemeanor harassment charge, James, the Pac-10's leading returning rusher, returns to the field on Saturday when he and seventh-ranked Oregon visit Tennessee for the first meeting of the two teams.
It's also the first serious test for both squads after the Ducks (1-0) dominated in a 72-0 win over New Mexico and the Volunteers (1-0) cruised to a 50-0 victory over Tennessee-Martin last week.
''There's a lot of things you can get better at as a team,'' Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. ''We had a lot of guys contribute and that was special for us. But we've still got a long ways to go to being a really good football team.''
The Ducks' rushing game is already pretty close to perfect. James' backup, Kenjon Barner, ran for 147 yards and four touchdowns and added a reception for another TD to tie Oregon's modern scoring record before halftime against the Lobos.
Add to the backfield James, who ran for a Pac-10 freshman record 1,546 yards last season and was voted the league's freshman of the year, and its one of the country's most explosive tandems.
''Let's hope they're not in at the same time,'' Vols coach Derek Dooley said.
With a spread offense like Oregon's, there's a good chance James and Barner will be on the field at the same time with quarterback Darron Thomas, who's as much of a threat on foot as he is in the passing game.
Thomas was calm and collected in his first start last week as he completed 13 of 23 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns and even added a tackle. But now the sophomore must prove he can be just as effective in a hostile environment - and not just any hostile environment, but the 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium.
''If they're going to force (Thomas) to make plays, then he's going to have to make them,'' Kelly said. ''If they're going to force him to make good decisions, he's going to have to make decisions.''
The Vols have their own expert in Wilcox, who worked in the same role at Boise State for two wins over the Ducks. Wilcox, who played defensive back at Oregon, took over Tennessee's defense this season.
Dooley said he hired Wilcox in part because of his experience stopping a variety of offensive schemes, including the spread that's so common with teams in the West. In 2009, the Broncos limited Oregon to six first downs while winning 19-8, for the Ducks' lowest score of the season.
''Obviously, coach Wilcox had a great game plan against them last year so we feel really confident with the game plan we're coming into, and hopefully we can shut them down,'' Vols linebacker Austin Johnson said.
On offense, Tennessee likely will turn to its running back tandem of Tauren Poole and David Oku, who combined for 170 yards rushing on 23 carries against the Skyhawks last week.
The Vols will need every yard they can get from the tailbacks as they break in a few young wide receivers. Senior starting wide receiver Gerald Jones, who's led Tennessee in receiving for two seasons, is out with a broken bone in his left hand. Sophomore Zach Rogers, who has four career receptions, will start in his place and get help from freshman Da'Rick Rogers.
''They've got some big guys up front and they're a downhill running team, so as long as we know our gaps and get penetration, we should be fine,'' Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews said.
Though it's the first meeting between the two teams, Tennessee has had its share of Pac-10 opponents lately. The Vols upset 12th-ranked California at Neyland Stadium to open the 2006 season, but lost the following year at Berkeley, Calif. Tennessee also dropped close contests to UCLA in 2008 and 2009.
Oregon is 3-4 all-time against members of the Southeastern Conference, but has a two-game winning streak after consecutive victories over Mississippi State in 2002 and 2003.
''The SEC gets a lot of praise by the media, and the Pac-10 and some other conferences are often overshadowed by them,'' Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl said. ''So we're looking forward to going down there and have some fun.''