One good thing about playing a very good team your first game of the season rather than a pushover like Portland State is that you should have a clear idea of how really good, or bad, you are by the end of the game.
In the case of Oregon’s dismal loss to Auburn, 27-21, there were many good things but in the end, many more bad things. The Ducks could be a very good team this season, but not unless they learn from and correct the mistakes that caused this heartbreak.
The halftime score saw the Ducks ahead 14-6 and it should have been 28-3, but could have been 17-14 in Auburn's favor if it wasn’t for a surprisingly stout performance by the new Oregon defense that coordinator Andy Avalos has put together with a tight-knit staff. Still, there were far too many missed tackles, not by lack of effort, but more so because of poor technique and not being under control when driving to the ball carrier.
It seemed the most persistent error for the defense was losing contain on the edge, many times allowing Auburn’s quarterback to scramble outside. It wasn’t for lack of effort, but of not being under control and more disciplined.
In the second half, Oregon could rush for only 20 yards in the second half. Oregon coach Mario Cristobal’s offensive front was simply overwhelmed by a defense that got off blocks and didn’t miss any tackles. When a Duck runner or receiver was loose, he was brought down by one defender making a clean, hard tackle. Auburn’s defenders were faster and more physical than Oregon’s offensive players in the second half when it mattered most.
Cristobal would likely rethink his play-call decision with a fourth-and-1 near midfield with less than three minutes to play, ahead 21-20. Herbert was injured, and the Ducks took a timeout thinking they could bring him back for the fourth down play. Unfortunately, coaches didn’t remember that an injured player must leave the field for one play so backup quarterback Tyler Shough was thrown into the fray.
A first down would mean the Tigers would have to eat up their timeouts and the Ducks would be able to run down the clock to prevent any Auburn comeback win. Even so, if Cristobal decided to punt, Oregon would have turned the ball over deeper in Auburn territory, a better deal than midfield. The Ducks ran the ball blindly behind the left side of the offensive line and were blown up. Looking at how Auburn was lined up on defense, it could have been better to run somewhere else.
From a coaching perspective, you have to be organized well before the game (in practice so you can work on the play), to pick a play that has a high chance of getting 1 or 2 yards. That your planning needs to take in consideration your starting quarterback is unavailable seems nit picking, but it would have been nice to have had that conversation. As it was, the play picked was so predictable that the ABC television commentators were calling where it was going to go. No surprise that the War Eagles knocked it in the dirt. Surely Shough is enough of an athlete to deserve a better shot at converting that play.
At halftime, in the locker room,Cristobal could praise the effort of his players, especially the defense, but they were going to have to get under control chasing the quarterback. The offense became conservative and lost the momentum it established on its first two drives where offensive play-caller Marcus Arroyo called an up-tempo attack that featured six first-down pass plays.
Herbert ended up 10 of 16 passing with a touchdown in the first half, but the Auburn front four began to break through his protection and hurry him as the second quarter ran down. Oregon's Javon Holland had two excellent punt returns and the kicking squads showed great hustle, but not always best judgment as shown by two penalties.
Holland ran a punt back deep into Auburn’s red zone and subsequently Herbert and Travis Dye ran into each other on what looked to be the beginning of an option play and the Tigers recovered on the run. Brian Addison, atoning for a dropped touchdown pass earlier, caught the runner from behind with Herbert after an 80-yard-plus sprint.
It was a great example of never-give-up hustle and, to a degree, made up for his dropping a perfect touchdown pass from Herbert that would have put the Ducks up 14-0 after two drives. Further compounding that error was a missed chip-shot field goal by freshman kicker Camden Lewis.
Oregon went three-and-out the next series and punted. Blake Maimone, who had boomed all three of his punts, made the tackle after the return man brought it back 41 yards. Trouble was, his tackle took place mostly out of bounds and 15 yards were tacked on with a penalty. With the score 14-6, the defense sucked it up and drove the Tigers back, allowing only 2 yards on seven plays. Auburn’s kicker, normally dependable, shanked his kick to the right, keeping the score intact.
Offensively, Justin Herbert had some moments, but way too few; he didn’t win any Heisman Trophy points in this game. His offensive line’s forte is not drop-back pass blocking and when the Ducks can’t run, as in the second half, they can’t pass either. There were many passes called but too many that were shallow sideways routes and nothing down the field over the middle to take advantage of Auburn plugging the middle of the line of scrimmage. By the end of the game Herbert was running for his life.
All in all, the Ducks and Cristobal can feel proud of the effort, which was tremendous, but effort alone does not a champion make. The Ducks missed too many tackles, took too many penalties, and worse, squandered opportunities that all great teams are successful with in putting an opponent to rest.
The offense must run the ball better and pass the ball better than a Big Sky team. Herbert had his moments, but not the number a player of his caliber should have. That’s not just on Herbert, it’s on his coaches to prepare all personnel to make that happen.
Next week’s opponent is Nevada, which is feeling pretty good about itself after upsetting Big Ten opponent Purdue. The Ducks had better dust themselves off and get better to be the team that the Auburn game revealed they could be, but only by improving execution totally under their own control.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. He conducts a weekly coach's corner from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the 6th Street Grill.