Monday, December 31, 2007


Who is Justin Roper?

Until today, there were not many sports fans who could answer that question. After the University of Oregon Ducks' 56-21 victory over the University of South Florida Bulls, more people will know about the Ducks' redshirt freshman quarterback from Buford High School, in Douglasville, Georgia. In the first start of his collegiate career, and in a bowl game no less, Roper responded by completing 16 of 29 passes including four for touchdowns in leading the Ducks to the win.

Most college football fans and pundits had given the Ducks (9-4) up for dead after a season-ending knee injury to starting quarterback Dennis Dixon against the University of Arizona Wildcats November 15. Dixon was headed for a possible Heisman Trophy, and Oregon, 8-1 and ranked #2 in the polls at the time, seemed destined for a BCS bowl game... then Dixon, playing on a knee he and the team knew was damaged, went down early in the 34-24 loss to the 'Cats. Backup quarterback Brady Leaf took over, but the Ducks were unable to catch Arizona.

In the next game against UCLA, Leaf was injured, and with third-string QB Nathan Costa already unable to play due to a knee injury, Oregon was forced to use fourth-stringer Cody Kempt. Oregon's defense played very well against the Bruins, but the offense was unable to put any points on the board in a 16-0 loss. Oregon's quarterbacks were only 11 for 39 for 105 yards in that game, including a 1-for-5 performance from Roper in his first action of the season.

Roper got his chance to step up in the Civil War game versus the Ducks' archrival Oregon State Beavers. After Kempt failed to move the offense early in the game, Roper came in and nearly guided the Ducks to a win, completing 13 of 25 passes . Oregon ultimately lost in two overtimes 38-31, allowing the Beavers to finish ahead of them in the Pac-10 Conference standings. Oregon finished the regular season 8-4, and although there would be a bowl invite, many Duck fans were left thinking that any bowl appearance would only end up in another disappointing loss. The mighty team that appeared set to make a BCS splash seemed to be a shell of the group that was 8-1 prior to the Arizona game, and .

Oddly, instead of opting for the Sun Bowl, the Beavers chose a lesser bowl game matchup against Maryland in San Francisco's Emerald Bowl. Oregon State's argument was that they didn't want to go to the Sun Bowl two years in a row. The Ducks ended up with the Sun Bowl invite, which offered a payout of almost a million dollars more than the Emerald Bowl, but which appeared to offer Oregon little chance for a win in a matchup with South Florida (9-4), which had also been ranked #2 earlier in the season until three consecutive mid-season losses dropped them to #21 in the BCS standings.

Enter Roper. The freshman guided the Ducks as if he had been doing it for a year or two, executing ball fakes and misdirection plays with skill while throwing frozen ropes to his receivers. His stellar play, combined with 253 rushing yards from running back Jonathan Stewart and two interceptions returned for touchdowns, helped the Ducks vindicate their season. Their effort today proved, contrary to the belief of many college football fans, that Oregon could be a very good team even without Dennis Dixon playing.

Today's win offers ample hope for Duck fans for the 2008 season. Although Dixon will have graduated and Stewart will probably have gone pro, only three defensive starters were seniors this year. With a number of offensive linemen graduating, it may be tougher for the QB to get adequate protection in 2008. Opening holes for RBs Andre Crenshaw and Jeremiah Johnson may also prove problematic, but Oregon has recruited well enough that maybe this won't be a problem.

Life isn't always fair, but today's 56-21 Sun Bowl victory over a ranked team SHOULD put Oregon back into the Top 25 in the final poll of the season. It should also put Justin Roper in the catbird seat among Oregon's quarterbacks... enough so that nobody will have to ask "Who is this guy?" Roper answered the question for all of us today, and in grand fashion.