SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — One is the veteran linebacker with the last name that says “football.” The other is the young, boisterous and sometimes spectacular playmaker who earned All-American honors despite not earning a starting job until midseason.
Oregon’s senior linebacker Casey Matthews and sophomore cornerback Cliff Harris are different sorts in more ways than one, but they will be two of the key pieces in the Ducks most challenging chess game on defense this season: How do you slow Auburn and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cameron Newton?
[+] EnlargeMatthews, who earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors after being second-team a year ago, will lead the charge against Auburn’s rushing attack in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10. The Tigers rank fifth in the nation with 287 yards rushing per game.
Harris, who earned All-American recognition as both a corner and return man, will be at the center of a secondary trying to contain Auburn’s downfield passing attack. The Tigers lead the nation in passing efficiency.
In both instances, the focus will be on Newton, who is extremely efficient and productive — 28 touchdowns and six interceptions — and one of the best running quarterbacks in recent memory — 1,400 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns.
Oh, and Newton is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds.
“He will be very tough to tackle,” Matthews said. “He’s not your ordinary quarterback. I mean, he’s huge. He’s got a pretty powerful stiff arm … he makes a lot of his plays on third and long. If no one is open, he is going to take off and run. We had problems with that last year in the Rose Bowl. That’s one thing we knew we had to work on going into this game.”
Matthews refers to the career game that Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor produced against the Ducks in the previous year’s Rose Bowl. Pryor is 6-foot-6, 233 pounds, so the Ducks know how hard it is to contain a big, fast quarterback who can complete passes downfield. Only Newton is way better.
Oregon hopes its No. 16 run defense will hold down Newton’s scrambles — something it didn’t do against Pryor — and force him to throw into a secondary that ranks sixth in the nation in pass efficiency defense, and has grabbed 20 interceptions. Five of those picks went to Harris.
“[Harris] has a great overall game,” Auburn receiver Kodi Burns said. “He’s just a great talent. He’s somebody we’re really going to have to deal with.”
Matthews is the steady leader with good instincts. He led the Ducks with 73 tackles and is the quarterback of the defense. Harris is more of a wild card. He can grab a pick-six at any moment. Or he can get busted on a double move. He’s got impressive skills, but he also can lose focus or freelance, which often draws the ire of coordinator Nick Aliotti and even other Ducks.
“For all the big plays he makes, he will sometimes slip a little bit,” Matthews said. “It comes back to the mental discipline, just taking your assignment. Sometimes you will try to make the big play on a double route or stop and go and he will jump it and then [the receiver] will be wide open. But you can’t go yelling at people, telling them to do this. You just got to keep them calm and remember how he had his success. He’s a great corner. Just around the receiver when the ball is thrown, he has got a chance to pick it. That’s the big part about him — his big-play ability.”
Matthews obviously has plenty of help becoming a smart, disciplined player. His brother, Clay, is a star linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. His father, Clay, Jr., played the third most games in NFL history (278) over 19 seasons as a linebacker. His uncle, Bruce, is in the NFL Hall of Fame as an offensive lineman.
But it was his mother, Leslie, whose recent advice most resonated.
“My mom told me I had to be slightly insane with my play,” Casey Matthews said. “That is one thing I haven’t heard her say ever, but she did tell me that.”
As for Harris, he wasn’t one of the players brought to the news conference featuring Ducks defenders. Part of that is the belief of Oregon coaches that senior Talmadge Jackson is the Ducks best corner, despite Harris’ flashy play. Jackson didn’t earn All-American honors, but he did get the first-team All-Pac-10 nod over Harris as voted on by conference coaches.
Jackson has served as a bit of a tutor to Harris, who only became a starter in the season’s seventh game.
“I try to help him improve his overall knowledge of the game,” Jackson said. “He’s a great athlete. He’s very smart. And he’s willing to work at anything you tell him.”
As for Harris’ sometimes demonstrative personality or his occasional blown coverage, Jackson said there’s a fine line between correcting and browbeating.
“Cliff is a very exciting guy to be around,” he said. “You don’t want to mess up anybody’s personality or try to take anything away from him. You want to let him play his style of football but keep it respectable.”
Considering how high-powered the Tigers offense has been this season, if Matthews, Harris and the Ducks keep things respectable, Oregon could end up with the national championship.