Heading into the 2008 season, Oregon already faced a challenge in trying to replace quarterback Dennis Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart. This year’s projected starting signal-caller being out for the season just makes things more difficult for the Ducks.
The 21st-ranked Ducks will look to sophomore quarterback Justin Roper to lead them to a victory when they open their season against Pac-10 rival Washington on Saturday in Eugene.
Roper was picked Monday to start this game after Oregon announced sophomore Nate Costa - the presumptive starter when fall camp began - needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee and was likely to miss eight to 10 weeks. The diagnosis got worse Thursday, though, as surgeons found a torn anterior cruciate ligament that will keep Costa out for 2008.
Roper played in four games last season, including a start in the Sun Bowl against South Florida when he threw four touchdown passes in Oregon’s 56-21 victory.
Roper’s backup is junior college transfer Jeremiah Masoli, who led City College of San Francisco to the junior college national championship last season while throwing for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Whoever is Oregon’s starting quarterback has some big shoes to fill.
Dixon was a Heisman Trophy candidate last season before tearing his ACL. The senior quarterback suffered the injury during Oregon’s Nov. 3 victory over Arizona State, but felt well enough to play two weeks later at Arizona, where his knee buckled and then-No. 2 Oregon lost 34-24.
Dixon completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 2,136 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2007. He also ran for 583 yards and nine scores, combining with Stewart to help pace an Oregon offense that led the conference with 38.2 points per game.
Stewart ran for a school-record 1,722 yards and 11 touchdowns in his junior year and then opted for the NFL draft, where he was taken by Carolina with the 13th overall pick. Dixon was selected in the fifth round by Pittsburgh.
Oregon returns six starters from an offense that averaged 467.5 yards per game en route to a 9-4 record last season, including 5-4 in conference play. Max Unger is considered one of the top centers in the nation, and receiver Jaison Williams - a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2006 - and tailback Jeremiah Johnson will be featured players in coordinator Chip Kelly’s offense.
Oregon also returns seven starters on defense, including end Nick Reed, who led the Pac-10 in 2007 with 12 sacks.
“I think we’re a great football team, if we don’t beat ourselves there are very few teams out there that can beat us,” coach Mike Bellotti told Oregon’s official Web site.
While Bellotti hopes Washington is one of those teams that can’t beat his Ducks, Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham needs all the wins he can get.
Washington went 4-9 overall and 2-7 in the Pac-10 last season to fall to 11-25 in three seasons under Willingham, whose job is rumored to be in jeopardy if the Huskies stumble again this year.
“It’s kind of hard to restrict them from all the things they hear and read, and what people are saying around them,” Willingham said. “The real key for anyone who wants to achieve is your ability to focus on your task and not let the outside influences dominant your mind-set, your thinking, your ability to get done what you need to get done.”
Willingham is hoping Jake Locker can get it done. The talented dual-threat sophomore quarterback broke the Pac-10 record for rushing yards by a quarterback, finishing with 986 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns last year. He added 2,062 yards passing and 14 TDs, accounting for 59 percent of Washington’s total offensive yards in 2007.
Locker is among 10 sophomores or freshmen who will likely start for Washington in this game.
“The backdrop for this one is kind of special. It is one of our major rivals … and there really is no real way to prepare those guys for that kind of environment,” Willingham said. “I think they will be primed and eager to play and play well in this environment.”
Oregon extended its winning streak in this series to four games with a 55-34 victory at Washington last season. The Ducks have outscored the Huskies 110-41 in winning the last three meetings in Eugene.