It’s been a long time since a game review of an Oregon football game did not include scathing criticism of the offensive game plan and play calling, but the 77-6 victory over Nevada was a well-planned and executed work of art that revealed the speed and athleticism coach Mario Cristobal has at his disposal.
One can hope that this game was not a one-shot deal, but a sign of things to come as the Ducks look forward to conference play after the Montana game this week.
Quarterback Justin Herbert was unleashed in a big way, completing 19-of-26 passes for 310 yards and five touchdowns after a mediocre start, missing badly on five of his first eight passes. He would go on to complete 16 of his last 18 passes to a variety of receivers. His average yards gained per attempt and per completion were dismal against Auburn, but stellar against the Wolfpack: 11.9 per attempt and 16.3 per completion, stats that a Washington State quarterback would be proud of.
As Herbert goes, so does the offense and Oregon was also able to rush for 220 yards while 14 different receivers caught passes from Herbert and backup quarterback Tyler Shough, including seven scores by seven different receivers. This is a nice change from last year when Dillon Mitchell was the “go-to guy” and the rest of the receivers meekly assumed, or were assigned, roles in the shadows. The Duck receivers are young, but people need to remember they’re all four- and five-star recruits and have (presumably) the talent to play right now.
Shough showed that he has star quality, passing 8 of 9 for 92 yards and two touchdowns. One of his drives was a 15-play, 80-yard scoring march where he was 4-of-4 passing and converted three fourth downs. He showed quickness, rushing for 11 yards, and the next big surprise from the Duck offensive staff could be to have either quarterback execute a couple of option plays.
Not forcing the defense to have to assign one defender on the quarterback on every play allows an extra tackler to line up in the box to help stop the running back. The “injury factor” should not be an issue — quarterbacks take worse hits from blind-side rushers while attempting to pass. As long as Herbert avoids being a hero as he did on the goal line against Cal two years ago and Arizona last season, he should be able to run an option without getting himself hurt.
The play calling which has been too conservative the past two years but was dynamic on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo called 19 pass plays in the first half and kept his foot on the gas in the second half with 16 more. Eleven of the throws were on first down, including one stretch of three in a row; this gives the offense balance and prevents opponents from loading the box against the previously predictable A-Gap Smash Cristobal has preferred. Two passes were called on fourth down, which might make some opponents’ computer statistics crash.
Even better, try a trick play -- just the thing to take advantage of play calling that is painfully predictable. In the past two seasons, the Ducks have run more trick plays on kicking downs than on offense and that eliminates one of football’s greatest opportunities. With a successful trick play you can humiliate your opponent (in a good way), excite your alumni and let your players have some fun along the way — trick plays are good for morale.
Trick plays, called at just the right time (which seems to have escaped coach Jonathan Smith at Oregon State the past two years), are a tremendous accelerator to good offense and make opposing players and coaches spend preparation time for plays that may never happen in a future game. Anything that distracts your opponent from your regular offense is a positive, and helps prevent the lazar-like focus, without distractions, that defensive coaches would prefer for their players.
First down pass plays are important as first-strike pitches are to a baseball pitcher; they are not trick plays. They allow the offense to be more aggressive and put pressure on the defensive play caller. Anytime the down and distance is not long yardage, where the offensive play call could be run or pass, the offense has the upper hand and the defense must be more reactive than proactive.
In the past, fans have wondered if the Ducks make any halftime adjustments at all, especially on offense, and in this one, unlike the Auburn game, Oregon scored more points in the second half than the first. The defense shut out Nevada, a dangerous team that scored 34 the week before against Purdue.
There was a lot of buzz about the defense, which got credit for forcing four turnovers that lead to 28 points for the Ducks. Nevada was held to 7 yards their first two drives of the game and then scored two straight field goals in the first quarter. Coach Andy Avalos’s defense then hitched up their belts and prevented the Wolfpack from crossing the Oregon 47-yard line for the rest of the game.
The defensive front looked strong and fast, making 13 tackles for loss to complement five sacks and four quarterback hurries, which is good news in that last year the Ducks had a passive pass rush. The secondary had four pass breakups and two interceptions, one of which safety Brady Breeze ran back 11 yards for a touchdown.
It is rare that a team in the midst of a 77-6 blowout not get careless as the game got out of hand, but Cristobal can be proud that his team kept the hammer down and simply dominated Nevada with precise, efficient football. The Ducks, playing many backup players, did not fall off in execution by the offense or defense. There were three penalties in the first quarter, but only three more the rest of the game. After a fumble on a punt return in the first quarter, the Ducks played without any more turnovers.
Cristobal said the front-line players set a high bar for the backup players, vocally expecting them to not let up as the game wore on. It was remarkable, particularly on defense, that the second- and third-liners did not allow the Wolfpack to pass the Oregon 47-yard line in the second half — that kind of pride has not always been an attribute for Oregon’s defense, but just like the credit card, it’s priceless.
The crucial stats in the Nevada game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Nevada 2.1; Oregon 5.7 (leader wins 86 percent of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversion) — Oregon 9 of 17 for 53 percent; Nevada 5 of 20 for 25 percent (leader wins 83 percent of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 11 of 12 for 92 percent; Nevada 2 of 2 for 100 percent (leader wins 75 percent of the time)
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon, 44-yard line; Nevada, 25-yard line (leader wins 72 percent of the time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 2; Nevada 5 (leader wins 73 percent of the time).
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.