There’s been a whole lot of shakin’ going on in the Duck Nation following the football team's 35-22 victory over San Jose State.
The Spartans had stunk up the Palouse by getting shut out at Washington State before their trip to Autzen Stadium, and then surprised everybody with their improved play to give Oregon fans, and their team, a much-needed slap in the face.
It was inevitable that the Ducks would lose some of their focus during a three-game season-opening home schedule against weak opponents. The highly touted offensive line looked weak and lethargic, the defensive secondary was consistently beaten on too many big pass plays, quarterback Justin Herbert had, for him, a miserable day, receivers once again dropped the first three passes of the game and a field goal attempt became more exciting than routine.
Coach Mario Cristobal was frustrated that one of last season’s major bug-a-boos (penalties) reared its ugly head, with the Ducks notching six for 59 yards. That figure is misleading because a 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return was negated by a holding penalty, with only minus-10 yards listed in the “official stats” but actually a 98-yard penalty and the loss of six points. A defensive penalty also wiped out an interception. All these big plays could be fatal against a tough opponent such as Stanford, which just happens to be Oregon's next game in Autzen on Saturday before a nationwide audience (with ESPN's "GameDay" crew in town followed by game coverage on ABC).
Oregon’s defense against the run has been stout, allowing less than 2 yards per carry, but it will face a severe test against running back Bryce Love, who is a Heisman candidate for the Cardinal. San Diego State completely shackled Love in their season opener, but quarterback KJ Costello was unleashed in the second half and threw for four touchdowns and 332 yards. Six receptions for 226 yards and three scores went to wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside who, at 6-3, 225 pounds, is a total mismatch for the undersized Duck secondary.
The Cardinal will doubtless attack Oregon’s left corner who has given up several long gainers in man coverage. Look for the lob pass and back shoulder fade when Stanford’s offense gets in the Duck red zone (25-yard line and in). The Cardinal have a history of jumbo-sized tight-end types who can line up in the slot to work against safeties or outside, matched up against shorter-sized cornerbacks.
One idea might be to trot someone like Jacob Breeland (6-5, 245) to defend Arcega-Whiteside, like two post players in basketball, jockeying for position and attempting to outjump the other for the ball. The Ducks have no one to match the big guy from Stanford, unless they get some safety help “over the top” for the corner. Obviously, that weakens the run defense, which is going to have its hands full containing Love.
Another mismatch for the defense will be at inside mike linebacker, who plays next to Troy Dye. At times, it may be Kaulana Apelu, who is undersized at 5-10, 208 pounds. Watch the Cardinal’s offensive line attack him with pulling guards, fullbacks or tight ends, much like Arizona State did to him last year. Stanford has an All-America candidate in Nate Herbig, 6-4, 334, who may pull and lead a running play against Apelu, who'll be expected to stand his ground and defend his gap. As Alabama coach Nick Saban says, “the bigger guy usually wins.”
It will be interesting to see how Duck defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt sets his defense. While at Colorado, Leavitt was a winner over a similarly talented Stanford offense, completely stifling the Cardinal by an unusual 10-5 final score. As some pundits have observed, Herbert has yet to engineer a “signature win,” the same might be said of Leavitt, who has directed impressive progress in resurrecting one of the most woeful defenses in college football.
Cristobal has stressed hard, physical play and against San Jose it was missing in action. The offensive line was noticeably docile and the Ducks have to take out a tight end and replace him with another offensive tackle in short yardage running situations. That is not good for a couple of reasons. One, there is one less eligible pass receiver in the formation which allows the defense to fortify more for the run. And two, it says a lot about the lack of a power blocking tight end, which the Ducks don’t seem to possess. When Stanford gears up for power football, they put more tight ends in the game.
The longest rushing gain by an Oregon running back was just 9 yards and the power-physical offensive line could manage only 2.7 yards per rush. Although the Spartans’ defensive line played very well, Stanford’s defensive line will be much better. With all the talk about the Ducks getting stronger and more physical this season, this game is a huge showdown to see if it’s reality and not a dream. Watch the pad levels of the respective offensive and defensive lines. Remember, “low man wins.”
There were some good things in the win over the Spartans. The kick return game broke out with 100 yards on three punt returns and 90 yards on four kickoff returns, which could have been doubled but for the holding penalty that wiped out the 95-yard touchdown kickoff return. The run defense was excellent, giving up only 1 yard per rush and the pass rush was fierce, as Justin Hollins and Jalen Jelks continued their dominating play throughout the first three games.
This is the most important game of the year for Cristobal and the Ducks. Win it, and they will be in position to contend for the Northern Division title. Lose, and suddenly several other teams come out of the shadows to threaten Oregon’s goal of becoming a strong, physical contender in the Pac-12 Conference.
It’s been a while since the Ducks have had such an important game, which will be exciting. Enjoy it.
The stats vs. San Jose State:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Oregon 5.2, San Jose State 4.3 (UO: leader wins 86 percent of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversions — Oregon 10-of-23 for 43 percent; San Jose State 4-of-17 for 24 percent (UO: leader wins 83 percent of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 5-of-10 for 50 percent; San Jose State 5-of-5 for 100 percent (SJS: leader wins 75 percent of the time);
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon: 39-yard line; San Jose State: 32-yard line (UO: leader wins 72 percent of the time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 4, San Jose State 3 (SJS: leader wins 73 percent of the time)
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.