Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal discovered the missing chapters of his offensive playbook Saturday and the Nevada Wolf Pack ended up on the wrong end of a flurry of touchdowns that made Saturday's game a mismatch before halftime. The result was a 77-6 whomping that should give Duck fans some hope for the future.
Seven different receivers caught touchdown passes for the Ducks, including one by offensive tackle Brady Aiello, who snuck in with an eligible-numbered jersey to catch a 1-yarder from quarterback Justin Herbert. The former Sheldon high school star threw for five touchdowns and displayed, for the first time this season, a nice touch with catchable passes to receivers who worked themselves open against a secondary that never had a chance.
All the old stuff about Oregon’s limited receivers was out the window once coaches called pass routes deeper than 5 to 10 yards downfield. As the Nevada secondary was pushed back by deeper routes, seams in the defense were exposed and the Duck offensive line gave Herbert and later, backup quarterback Tyler Shough, time to shred them to pieces.
Although Nevada is not in the same ball park as last week’s opponent, Auburn, one could only wonder what the result would have been if the same offense and game plan had been unveiled for that game. The Ducks have a wide array of athletes playing every offensive position and, finally, the coaching tactics appeared to recognize that and throw caution to the wind.
At one point, the Ducks scored on eight straight drives. The second- and third-team offense also looked especially sharp, scoring on three drives. At one point, they were getting the ball snapped with more than 22 seconds on the play clock, which is good because it shows discipline that is often lacking in players who don’t get a lot of playing time. This should be an asset down the line.
The defense, learning from last week’s over-pursuing and missed tackles, was quick, and seemingly always under control. It used leverage to its advantage to make hard and sure tackles and not allow the quarterback to get outside the pocket and hurt them by scrambling.
In the first half, Herbert started off slowly, missing badly on his first four throws, all to open receivers. As time wore on, he took a bit off his fastball and put some touch on the pigskin, hitting six straight passes and 10 of 12 for four touchdowns while the Ducks put another in the end zone on a run.
What changed? It appeared the Ducks began to have their receivers run more vertical routes, threatening the Wolf Pack secondary deep and, in particular, the seams between safeties and linebackers. By the end of the half, Herbert was a virtuoso, throwing precise sideline routes to receivers who were wide open because they had finally driven their covering defenders deep by the threat of a long pass.
Nevada opened the scoring, recovering a fumble that occurred when a Duck punt blocker was hit by the bouncing ball, making it live and giving the visitors first and 10 at the 12-yard line. Oregon’s defense stiffened and forced a field goal — this was a big deal at this point of the game. The Wolf Pack had one more impressive drive on their next possession, but again Oregon’s defense forced a field goal. The rest of the half, and the game, belonged totally to the Ducks.
Aside from Herbert’s concise work, the defense showed up big time, holding Nevada to only one conversion on 10 third-down tries and 97 yards on 40 offensive plays. For Oregon, the offense ground out 85 rushing yards, the longest were a 19-yarder by CJ Verdell and a 17-yard gain by Travis Dye -- that meant the Ducks averaged only 3.5 yards per carry on the rest of their carries.
For the game, Verdell rushed for 60 yards, his partner Travis Dye slashed for 22 and Cyrus Habbi-Likio pounded out 30 yards. Darrian Felix, the fastest of the backs, looked just that in running up 80 yards on 10 carries, including a touchdown of 62-yards. Felix needs to be used earlier in future games.
At one point, Cristobal might have regretted the Ducks did not rush for more because that is his barometer of whether his team was more physical than the opponent.
The reality is that this is not old-time football — this is the age of flash and dash and the pass opens the defense to the run game that follows. That it may not flow like the days of past is not important; the better the Ducks pass the ball, the better they will run the ball; it doesn’t work the other way around.
Fourteen different receivers caught passes for 402 yards. Herbert was 19 of 26 for 310 yards and five touchdowns and Tyler Shough was 8 of 9 for 92 yards and two scores. Shough, after getting in for just one play against Auburn, played the last quarter-and-a-half and looked poised, quick on the trigger and made good decisions. If the need arises, no one should be worried for Shough to run the show if Herbert is unavailable.
The Ducks rolled for 643 yards in total offense and allowed only 192. Oregon rushed for 221 yards and allowed only 83, which bodes well for the defense in games ahead. There is genuine speed and athleticism in the front seven and the secondary is playing better game-by-game.
You can waste a lot of time, energy and bodies continually trying to hammer out big yardage against a good opponent. When you have a quarterback with the talent of Herbert, you need to let him go and all the grumbling about young backup receivers goes out the windows. They are all four- and five-star recruits and you just need to let them play. That’s the big lesson the offensive staff and Oregon fans need to face; give them the opportunity to run big-time pass plays and they will be a pleasant surprise.
Cristobal revealed after the game that he was able to play several young players who may end up getting red-shirted. The current rule is that a player can participate in four games and still red-shirt. This is excellent strategy to give the young bucks playing time in case injuries deplete more experienced players down the line. It also gives some motivation for sticking it out when things get more challenging as a freshman football player, in the classroom, weight room and on the practice field.
Next comes Montana, which, right now, is headed for a rude welcome from a Duck football team that is beginning to see just how good it can be. That is, if it keeps up the good work in the film room and on the practice field. That will be Cristobal’s primary objective this next week.
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.