Less than 24 hours after a 44-15 loss at Arizona, Oregon coaches held individual meetings Sunday with every player on the roster.
One theme emerged in the aftermath of the loss that featured a blocked punt and an Arizona punt that deflected off a Duck to give the ball back to the Wildcats.
“Guys wanted to hold special teams to a higher standard and make it more accountable,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said after the Ducks defeated UCLA 42-21 Saturday night at Autzen Stadium. “They took it upon themselves to coach and push each other in special teams and tonight was a product of that decision, hard work, and good execution.”
Special teams led to each of Oregon’s first three touchdowns, beginning with Ugochukwu Amadi’s 56-yard punt return for a score. Amadi fielded a line-drive punt and ran straight up the middle, being touched only slightly by punter Stefan Flintoft on his way to the end zone.
“The way that ball came, when I saw it in the air I took a quick look to see how quickly they were coming down the field,” Amadi said. “I thought I had enough time to catch it and make one guy miss or take off. You have a feeling for it, depending on how it comes.”
Oregon faced fourth-and-10 at the UCLA 29-yard line on its next possession when Adam Stack ran onto the field for a 46-yard field goal.
Instead, holder Blake Maimone put the ball down and picked it back up before finishing the fake field goal with a 28-yard completion to Jacob Breeland, who had to break one tackle just to get the first down.
“You practice those plays for years and players always wonder when you are going to use them,” Cristobal said. “It looked good in practice and there was a hole there for us to have. The way they bring the overload rush, as long as the holder does a good job putting the ball down, you have a chance for that edge to collapse and get around it. Blake did a great job getting those guys sucked in.”
Maimone was a quarterback at Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village (Calif.) before focusing on punting as a senior.
“I have definitely been waiting for that one a long time, it has been a dream of mine,” he said. “Thankful for the opportunity and that the coaches had confidence in me to be able to run that play. Putting the ball down and selling the fake is a big part of it. I turned around and saw a guy in my face and got it out. That was fun. It is great to be able to contribute. Kicking is a big part of the game and then being able to throw a pass and make a big contribution is something I will never forget.”
Breeland caught the ball at the 24-yard line and was hit by Krys Barnes, but shook off the tackle before going down at the 1-yard line.
“I thought that was a great play,” UO quarterback Justin Herbert said. “For the receiver to stay on his feet and get the first down was huge.”
Maimone had a 46-yard punt to end Oregon’s next possession, but Adarius Pickett fumbled the ball and Oregon’s Tony Brooks-James recovered at the UCLA 11-yard line. Three plays later, Herbert tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Dillon Mitchell to put Oregon ahead 21-0.
“Throughout practices and meetings, we emphasized taking ownership so you get one opportunity for special teams and you have to make the most of it,” Amadi said.
UCLA lined up for a 51-yard field goal to close out the first half before Cristobal called a timeout. After the break, UCLA was called for a false start that moved the ball back five yards and JJ Molson’s attempt fell a couple of yards short.
Cristobal said he felt the crowd induced the penalty.
“One of the biggest plays of the game was them causing (UCLA) to flinch and back them up five yards because the kick was barely short,” he said. “That prevented them from getting momentum into halftime.”