The Oregon football team mercifully ran into the UCLA Bruins on Saturday night, who are in the very beginning of a rebuilding that will take time, even with Chip Kelly as their coach. Kelly received a nice ovation when he was announced before the game, a nice tribute to a coach who did the most to bring the Ducks into the national college football conversation.
Once the game got going, however, the Ducks were not exactly congenial hosts, drubbing the young Bruins 42-21 to notch their sixth win of the season. That makes them bowl eligible, which is hardly a big deal. But it is a big deal that the Ducks were able to turn around a two-game losing streak to the positive side of the ledger.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal had to be pleased with the various sparks that ignited the win, which in the first half, did not come from the offense. At halftime, the edge went to the Ducks 21-7. It could have been 24-7, but kicker Adam Stack missed a field-goal attempt from where he usually tries extra points; it seemed a half-hearted attempt, with not much follow through.
Justin Herbert was 12-of-21 passing for 166 yards and a score. Even better, he was not touched by UCLA’s anemic pass rush.
On the other side, the Bruins at times had no problems finding receivers deep down the middle and up the sideline.But the Duck defense, graced by advantageous field position in both quarters, forced four punts and two turnovers. One was an interception in their own end zone and another was on a fumbled punt recovery.
Speaking of special teams, Oregon’s showed up for this game, at least the first half. Ugo Amadi ran a punt back for a 56-yard touchdown to open the scoring and holder Blake Maimone hit Jacob Breeland for a 27-yard gain on a fake field goal to set up the Ducks’ second touchdown. That’s right, folks, Oregon ran a trick play and it worked. It sparked the crowd and the Duck offense that ran up 259 yards total offense in the half.
The game was testament to the fact that momentum does not always have to be on the back of the offense. With the special teams’ contributions and the defense forcing turnovers, the crowd lost that the offense was barely keeping up with UCLA’s.
The Ducks ran up 200 yards rushing and 292 yards passing which was pretty much the same as what UCLA rung up. The problem for Kelly and the Bruins were penalties, dropped passes and poor field position. It was very difficult for UCLA to go the length of the field without shooting itself in the foot as the game wore on.
Herbert looked much sharper this game than the previous game in Tucson, Ariz. One reason was the pass protection was much better. Cristobal moved Shane Lemieux to right tackle and that solidified what was poor protection last week against Arizona. The coaches also called mostly simple plays that obviously were designed to get the ball out of Herbert’s hands as quickly as possible.
There were some “firsts” in this game: the Ducks ran a fake field goal for 27 yards that set up a touchdown when the offense was sputtering. Amadi ran a punt back for the first touchdown, aided by an excellent block in the middle of the field, and the return, by Matt Mariota, a hard working walk-on tight end who has the same Mariota Magic as that of his brother Marcus.
The Ducks were penalty free except for one, a 15-yard targeting penalty on center Jake Hanson who was out in front of (get this) a reverse that resulted in a touchdown. The fact that it was brought back was a negative, but whoever called it called a “trick play.” Look at the results coaches: it was a trick play that jazzed up the offense and the crowd.
Not to mention that opposing teams are going to have to spend some practice time preparing for plays other than the boring line plunge through the guard-center gaps. As a play, the line plunge has a better chance outside the guards rather than inside right now. Nearly every first-down plunge left the Ducks in second-and-eight or more, which has been poison for Oregon lately.
The offense did do a credible job converting third-down conversions against the Bruins, who were ranked 107th in the nation in defense going into this contest. Oregon was 10-of-20 which was a leap from the miserable rate against the Cougars and Wildcats.
Herbert’s throwing stats were much better than the previous games, but it still seemed the coaches were holding him back. Still, more importantly, he did not get the punishment he took last week and perhaps that was the reasoning by the play calling.
Cristobal and assistant Marcus Arroyo called more first-down passes in the first half and Herbert responded well: completing five-of-seven for 69 yards, nearly 10 yards per attempt. Second-and-one is an easier situation to call plays than second-and-eight, you can bet on that.
Oregon is still struggling to be both physical and productive in yards. Running the same play for two yards over and over loses its impact after awhile. Running the same formation play after play doesn’t put much pressure on the defense nor does it help that a lot of pass plays have too many players bunched together.
On more than one occasion, Duck receivers ran through a zone when they should have settled in an open area. This resulted in the receivers getting themselves covered. In that way, Oregon’s pass offense doesn’t look very sophisticated. It also needs to run deeper short routes if that makes sense, like running an 18- to 20-yard sideline route rather than so many at 4 to 9 yards.
Defensive backs are sitting on Duck receivers and disrupting the offense. Oregon’s receivers are better and faster than how they look in games. It is frustrating to not see some of the simplicity of other teams, like WSU and Arizona.
Giving the coaches credit, they did run some simple swing passes to backs and screens to the outside that made the Bruins have to defend the whole field and do some running, giving the Ducks an edge in conditioning, like the good old days.
The Oregon secondary had several gaffes, or miscommunication as they say in the news conferences. Perhaps it’s a result of trying to do too much on defense. Oregon’s linebacker play was mediocre and obviously affected by injuries and inexperience.
The pass rush was better, although the Ducks seemed to get there a step late when they brought linebackers on the blitz. The front four played much better, showing discipline in setting the edge of the defense as they didn’t in the previous two games.
Although the Ducks were credited with only one sack, it was an important one where Justin Hollins chased down the UCLA quarterback and forced a fumble, which he recovered and almost got loose for a touchdown.
Credit the defense for staying with it and forcing some poor passes by UCLA’s freshman quarterback. There were some big gains by the Bruins, but it seemed that they came as a result of coverage miscommunications. Oregon’s secondary play needs to get better.
Next week, into the lion’s den in Salt Lake City, never an easy place to play. Utah lost its quarterback to injury that might even out things a bit, but the Ducks go into the game as an underdog. No matter, as Oregon has plenty of things to get better at. It was obvious by this game that some things were straightened out on the practice field before the UCLA game.
There are still a ton of things Cristobal and his coaches need to iron out before kickoff, but at least the Ducks got the ugly albatross off their backs with this win over Kelly and his Bruins.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.