James-Michael Johnson has seen enough of LaMichael James already.
“Oh, yeah,” the Nevada Wolf Pack linebacker said this week. “We’ve been studying him all summer long. I watched every play of that LSU game. I‘m tired of watching him.”
The Wolf Pack will open its 2011 football season Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m., 630-AM, FX television) at a sold-out Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., against James and the Oregon Ducks.
All Wolf Pack Silver and Blue eyes will be on the Oregon running back.
“He’s as quick a running back as you’ll find in the country,” said Chris Ault, who will open his 27th season as Pack head coach. “His ability to change direction makes him very dangerous.”
James led the nation a year ago with 144 yards a game. He finished with 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns in 12 games as Oregon advanced to the BCS title game against Auburn.
“He’s unbelievable,” Pack cornerback Isaiah Frey said. “You have to game plan around him.”
The last two teams that have faced James have actually done a decent job of controlling the 5-foot-9, 195-pound speedster. James had just 54 yards on 18 carries last week in a 40-27 loss at LSU. And that was after getting just 49 yards on 13 carries in a 22-19 loss to Auburn in the BCS title game last Jan. 10.
James, though, is ready to show everyone why he was a preseason favorite for this year’s Heisman Trophy.
“I need to start doing me,” James told The Oregonian newspaper this week. “The coaches tell you where to run a lot of the times but I need to start running where I want to run and doing what I want to do,.”
The Pack can expect an extra motivated James on Saturday.
“I think this week I’ll be more physical,” said James, who has bulked up 15 pounds from his 180-pound playing weight a year ago.
James, despite playing just two years plus one game, is already the second leading active career rusher in the NCAA right now with 3,331 yards. The leader is Boston College senior Montel Harris (3,600 yards), who missed the Jan. 9 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Nevada last winter because of an injury.
“The key is everybody has to run to the ball,” said Johnson, who will start his fourth season as a Pack starter. “One man can’t bring that guy down. We have to take the proper pursuit lanes because when that team catches you out of position, that’s when you are in trouble because of their speed.”
Chip Kelly has gone 22-5 as Oregon’s head coach since 2009 with James as his big weapon.
“He just has a rare combination of power and speed,” Kelly said. “He’s not the biggest back but he can run between the tackles and get those tough yards.”
James rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns last year against Stanford and followed that up with a 239-yard, three-touchdown effort against USC.
“That young man is the ideal kid,” Kelly said. “He’s a team first guy that’s not about individual accolades. He’s just a great description of what we want an Oregon football player to be like.”
Oregon averaged 47 points and 530 yards a game a year ago in finishing 12-1.
“I watched absolutely every single play of that (Oregon-LSU) game and I saw that if you get them in situations where they are uncomfortable, they struggle,” Pack defensive tackle Brett Roy said. “If we get them out of their rhythm we have a good chance of having an upset.”
The Pack has faced prolific offenses in the past in Texas Tech, Missouri and Boise State. They were able to upset Boise State, 34-31, in overtime last Nov. 26. The Pack defense also practices each day against a nationally-ranked offense in the Wolf Pack’s own pistol attack.
“Our offense is the best practice you can get when you are getting ready to play Oregon,” Johnson said. “They try to do a lot of the same things that we do with a quarterback who can run. So we’ll be ready.”
The Ducks, it seems, are also ready for the Pack. The Wolf Pack, after all, received a lot of national attention last year by going 13-1 and finishing 11th in the final Associated Press rankings.
Oregon is currently ranked 13th while the Pack is not ranked in the Top 25.
“I’m real impressed by Nevada,” Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “I really am. I’m not just saying that because they are our next opponent. I’m saying it because they have a very impressive offensive scheme, I’m saying it because they went 13-1 last year and I’m saying it because I know Coach (Chris Ault). They’ll be tough. They’ll be hard-nosed and they will play their tails off. We have to be ready to play. I told my guys and I hope we understand that we have to get ready to play one heck of a football team.”
The Wolf Pack is a 26-point underdog heading to Eugene.
“This is just a great opportunity,” said Pack quarterback Tyler Lantrip, a fifth-year senior who will be making his first career start. “But if we want to be the best we have to beat the best. We want to show the nation what we can do.”
The Wolf Pack won’t be able to sneak up on the Ducks, a hungry team in search of its first victory.
“That is a very tough, physical offensive football team,” Kelly said. “They really take on Coach Ault’s personality.”
The Ducks played two pistol teams a year ago in Portland State and UCLA. They beat Portland State 69-0, allowing just 140 total yards. They beat UCLA, 60-13, and allowed the Bruins just 290 yards.
“No disrespect to UCLA and Portland State,” Aliotti said. “But those teams at that time were just learning that offense. Nevada has majored in it.”
Kelly gives all the credit to Ault.
“When you play someone like Coach Ault, he has answers to questions before you ask the questions,” Kelly said. “He’s seen every different style of defense you can have to defend him and he has an answer to all of those styles.
“The big concern for us (this week) is him.”
Ault will have to guide an inexperienced offense against the Ducks. The Pack, after all, lost senior quarterback Colin Kaepernick and senior running back Vai Taua off last year’s team.
Kelly, though, said he doesn’t expect to see much of a drop in production by the Wolf Pack offense.
“I’ve seen Tyler on film,” Kelly said. “He’s big like Colin and he can run and throw the ball real well. I don’t think they’ll change much. Tyler reminds me of the type of kid you want running that offense. He’s a big, strong kid who can hurt you with his feet and he can throw the football.”
Lantrip, who will turn 23-years-old on Sept. 28, was 8-of-13 for 155 yards and a touchdown through the air last year and also gained 46 yards and scored a touchdown on the ground.
“I was hoping he was going to be a stiff,” Aliotti said. “I was hoping he was going to be a bad player. But he’s good. I hope he’s not Kaepernick but he doesn’t look too far behind.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Lantrip has prepared four years behind Kaepernick for his first start.
“We just have to play as fast and as physical as they do,” he said. “If we play fast and physical we can move the ball. Oregon is one heck of a football team. They have a ton of athletes and a ton of speed. But our confidence comes from knowing what we can do.”
The Wolf Pack, who has won seven games in a row, will bring the third longest winning streak in the nation to Eugene this weekend. They’ll be faced with the 75rh consecutive sellout at Autzen Stadium, one of the loudest stadiums in the country.
“We just have to remain poised,” Lantrip said.
Oregon has won 17 of its last 18 home openers, is 5-1 in its all-time series with the Wolf Pack, has won 16 games overall in a row at home and is 11-0 since 2000 against Western Athletic Conference teams not named Boise State.
“We’ll have our hands full, no question about it,” Ault said. “This is our first game. They have played a game already. They have one more week of practice under their belt than we do. Those things add up.”
The Oregon game is the start of a four-game stretch on the road to open the season for the Pack. The Pack, which goes to San Jose State next week followed by trips to Texas Tech and Boise, is starting a season with four
consecutive road games for the first time since 1949. The Sept. 10 start to the season is also the latest the Pack has opened a season since a 35-26 victory over Northwestern State at Mackay Stadium on Sept. 10, 1988.
“The most important thing we need to do is to stay within ourselves,” Ault said. “We just have to do what we do best.”