At halftime, no one would have criticized Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal if he told his team to keep walking up the tunnel out of Washington State's Martin Stadium, get on the team bus and head to the airport.
Observers would have to work hard to find a more disappointing, inept performance than what the Ducks showed in the first two quarters in UO's 34-20 loss to Washington State in the Palouse. The Cougars, aided by at least 10 missed tackles, kept drives going after Oregon intercepted a Gardner Minshew pass on its own 15-yard line. That would be the last stop Jim Leavitt’s defense would make in a half that the Ducks allowed 27 points in a row.
Thankfully, there was a second half and Oregon came out more determined to make an effort to get back in the game, which it did under the leadership of quarterback Justin Herbert. The Duck field general drove Oregon to only 39 yards in the first half, but gathered himself, and the offense, to two touchdowns and a field goal to narrow the score to 27-17 going into the fourth quarter.
Oregon kicked another field goal after three pointless run plays went nowhere. Power football or not, the ball needs to be in the hands of playmakers and it wasn’t — Herbert seems to be the only one who has an explosive streak to his talents.
Minshew completed a game’s worth of stats in the first two quarters as the Ducks could not pressure the quarterback nor cover a receiver, whether it was a wide receiver or running back coming out of the backfield. Minshew’s offense rolled up 299 yards to the Ducks’ 39. Herbert was pressured and sacked, and Dillon Mitchell, formerly a pro prospect, dropped two passes including a Hail Mary in the end zone at the end of the second quarter that should have been an easy touchdown.
The only Duck who showed up more than a couple of times was linebacker Troy Dye, who was all over the field making tackles and showing pursuit, clearly giving his all, while the rest of his defensive teammates wandered around. They could not get to Minshew, could not get their hands up to bother him and weakened as the half wore on. All that is not surprising since the Ducks had run only nine plays at one point while the Cougars ran 43.
You were left to wonder what kind of football team was going to show up out of the locker room after halftime — truly one of Cristobal’s biggest challenges, but a challenge all good coaches are going to face, sooner or later.
The commentator doing the broadcast pointed out, rightly, that the Duck defensive backs needed to play tighter and more aggressively. That’s just what they did and you wonder why they didn’t make that adjustment sooner in the game.
The Duck defense was not able to get a sack. Defenders did tip several balls by leaping while they were being nullified at the line of scrimmage by Cougar offensive linemen who showed they were the equals of the big, physical offensive line Oregon boasts. It was obvious that the Duck linemen filling in for injured starters on the O-line were not up to the level of the players they were replacing. At times, it looked like you could question the hustle of the Duck offensive line.
Washington State’s receivers were superior to their counterparts wearing silver and green. They ran their routes with precision and outfought Duck defensive backs for passes that ended up being critical. One in the fourth quarter was going to be intercepted and allow Oregon to tie the game, except that a Cougar wide receiver wrestled the ball away to maintain a 33-yard gain.
While this was happening, several times Duck receivers would run a third-down pass route at a depth of two to four yards short of the yardage necessary for a first down, forcing Herbert to convert a fourth down which he did three-of-five times. It was simply a case of Oregon’s receivers and defensive backs coming up short of what they needed to do because they weren’t as physical or competitive as their Cougar counterparts.
Nobody plays poorly on purpose and neither did the Ducks, but the evidence points to a problem that needs to be fixed. The secondary and wide receivers need to have the same physical and aggressive attitude as Oregon’s offensive line. Right now, Cristobal’s team is incomplete in the aggressive category.
The Ducks need to try as hard as Troy Dye does; he was all over the field, from sideline to sideline, seemingly the only player who could hustle and make a tackle in the disastrous first half. At the half, Dye was shown on television, in tears getting a pep talk from defensive line coach Joe Salave’a. Dye is truly the leader of the defense.
Salave’a might ask where the defensive line was during most of the game. It was absolutely incapable of getting pressure on the passer. Jordon Scott, normally a strong point of the defensive front, was totally nullified by the pass protection and quickness of the offensive line. Scott was only in on one tackle during the game as the Cougar offense doesn't allow a big guy to get a lot of opportunities.
As the Duck defensive backs started playing more aggressively and covering tighter, Minshew lost his momentum. A disastrous play for the Ducks came when WSU scored its final, and clinching, touchdown against Thomas Graham. Graham lined up on an inside relationship of the receiver who was then allowed to go inside and beat him on a post pattern, which the alignment alone should have allowed him to make a play on the pass.
There are problems of technique for the Oregon secondary that show that average athletes can be taken advantage of by skilled offensive players. It might be a good idea to have the defensive backs tighten up and get tougher. Right now, it’s like shooting fish (or Ducks) in a barrel.
The Ducks may have lost this one even if they had played their best — WSU is that good.
Cristobal has been successful leading his team and program through the challenges this season. Though they lost, they did not give up and midway through the fourth quarter and had the Cougar Nation sitting on their hands worried.
Next week comes another challenge at Arizona, a road game on a campus that can get rowdy with a student cheering section called “the zoo.” The Wildcats have at times been missing their great quarterback, Khalil Tate, who has an injured ankle. But he may be a factor in this game, and it would be smart for the Ducks to not wait for the third quarter to start playing hard.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.