Lost in a maze of Justin Herbert’s touchdown passes and five rushing scores against outmanned Portland State, Oregon’s kicking game had some particular high points on Saturday.
The Ducks’ two punters, Blake Maimone and Tom Snee, each averaged 48 yards per punt as Oregon only had to punt three times. Maimone actually averaged half-a-yard longer, but the Vikings were denied a yard on returns and the Ducks netted an average 48.3 yards-per-punt which will make any defensive coordinator smile (even Jim Leavitt) when the punters put their opponents that deep in the hole to start offensive drives.
If you pay attention to punters now-a-days, you’ll notice that many, if not most, punters are eschewing the traditional spiral kick — which goes off the side of the foot like a soccer-style kick. Punters are now dropping the point straight forward and kicking it so the ball will bounce short of the return man and then roll end over end toward the goal line where anxious coverage players down it, providing excellent field position.
It is exasperating to the return team as the kick looks like a poor kick, but ends up being practically impossible to field in time to make a return. Look for more teams to have two return men back to field punts, one relatively deep and another at 25 to 30 yards to try to catch the tumbler before it can hit the ground
Kickoffs have also changed. Portland State fair-caught nine of 10 kickoffs and downed the other in the end zone, totally conceding a try at a kickoff return against Oregon, which did not allow Bowling Green to get to their own 25-yard line the previous game. With the change in punt strategy and fair catches on kickoffs, the number of kick returns have been drastically reduced, which might be a good thing for team doctors as the number of injury hits on kick returns has traditionally been high. It’s unfortunate because kick and punt returns can also be one of the most exciting plays in a football game.
Portland State had 57 true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on its 93-man roster. You can see why the Viking head coach decided to spare his young lads the unpopular kickoff returns that pile up when you’re getting routed and just start your drives on the 25-yard line.
Injuries are critical in football and especially with a young team. The Oregon game was never going to be close and possibly could have ended up with body bags after the carnage. Portland State even started its backup quarterback to save him for games down the line that they could possibly compete in and win. It leaves a slightly sour taste in your mouth, but these are desperate times at Portland State and they need to battle attrition as well as their opponents on the field.
The Ducks, behind special teams coach Bobby Williams, had a modest improvement in the punt return game, averaging 7.0 yards-per-return, but could muster only 10 yards on one kickoff return. It appears the blockers attempting to shield covering defenders are working hard to get and maintain position, but it most difficult considering the blocker, who can’t see where the ball is, has to react to the cover man who can see the ball. This is the most difficult block in football and often why there are so many block-in-the-back penalties -- sometimes they can’t be avoided, although many could if the player is patient. And, as mentioned, the short bounding, unpredictable kicks are not helping either.
So far, coach Williams seems to have the Ducks’ special teams playing at a higher level than last year’s special teams coach, who already has a punt blocked for a touchdown in Florida State’s dismal showing against Virginia Tech. The Ducks had two blocked last year, giving up a NCAA record-breaking punt return to the Huskies, and had an exceptionally poor punt and kickoff return team. Before last year, you could not remember a time when the Ducks had a punt blocked, so it will be interesting to follow progress this fall.
There was not much to argue about this past game, although coach Mario Cristobal is adamant that he wants his team to develop a killer instinct, keeping the first team and Justin Herbert in the game for the first seven touchdowns.
One could make a point that it could be nice for the second team to get a chance to develop a killer instinct too. Or, because Herbert mainly handed off on the Ducks’ final two drives with him at the helm, it could have been the backup doing the same thing behind the first-team offensive line. After all, there is a chance Braxton Burmeister or Tyler Shough might learn a bit about killer instinct from the first-team offensive linemen.
Cristobal is not doing all this by the seat of his pants. He has his strategy well thought out and, to his credit, has made everyday practices competitive so most anyone who works hard and improves will earn a chance to play on Saturday.
This reminds me of the former UCLA coach Dick Vermeil, who would not time his players in the 40-yard dash because he didn’t want that to influence him to play certain players over others. He went by practice performance, attitude and the desire and ability to get better. When players understand that’s how you earn your playing time, practice becomes a lot better and more productive.
Let’s see how it plays out with Cristobal’s young team as the season goes along and gets tougher competitively.
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Oregon 7.4, Portland State 4.0 (Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third-fourth down conversion) — Oregon 8-of-12 for 67 percent, Portland State 4-of-15-percent for 27percent (Leader wins 83 percent of the time)
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 9-of-9 for 100 percent, Portland State 2-of-2 for 100 percent (Leader wins 75 percent of the time)
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 34-yard line, Portland State 30-yard line (Leader wins 72 percent of the time)
No 5. (turnover margin) — Oregon 0, Portland State 0 (Leader wins 73 percent of the time)