Len Casanova’s road to the College Football Hall of Fame included a bumpy second season as Oregon’s coach in 1952.
The Webfoots followed up lopsided Pacific Coast Conference losses to No. 3 California (41-7) and rival Washington (49-0) with a 14-14 tie against Montana at Hayward Field en route to a 2-7-1 finish.
Mario Cristobal is expected to have a much smoother ride in his second season, which continues with No. 15 Oregon hosting Montana on Saturday night at Autzen Stadium (7:45 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
The Ducks (1-1) took out some of the frustrations from the excruciating loss to Auburn out on Nevada during a 77-6 drubbing last week.
The Grizzlies (2-0), ranked No. 20 in this week’s FCS poll, have opened the season with wins over South Dakota (31-17) and North Alabama (61-17).
Oregon, which leads the series 7-0-1, is a 37-point favorite in Las Vegas. According to ESPN’s “Football Power Index,” Cristobal’s team has a 98.5 percent chance of winning.
“All focus is on Montana,” Cristobal said. “I think that their quarterback is really special player. He’s a runner, he’s a thrower, he’s the heart and soul to their team. He’s very tough, will throw his body around, there’s no hesitation in his game whatsoever. The ball is out quick and it’s accurate.”
Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed is completing 67.8% of his passes with 696 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions this season. The senior has also rushed for 136 yards and two scores.
Jerry Louie-McGee needs three receptions to become Montana’s career leader. Two other wide receivers, Portland export Samori Toure (107.5 ypg, one touchdown) and Samuel Akem (115.0 ypg, one touchdown) are also productive Big Sky standouts.
The Grizzlies lead the FCS in first downs (64) and are seventh in total offense (520 ypg).
“Very talented, in terms of his arm strength,” Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said of Sneed, who was originally recruited by Montana coach Bobby Hauck at UNLV. “He gets the ball in the tight windows. He's got some big, talented wide receivers on the outside, good slot receivers inside, good route runners. …
“He's experienced in the way that he's played major football and played really good football on different levels.”
Avalos’ aggressive style frustrated Auburn’s Bo Nix (13-for-31 passing with two interceptions) until the true freshman’s game-winning touchdown pass with nine seconds left and overwhelmed Nevada redshirt freshman Carson Strong (13-for-25 with two interceptions) in his first road start.
Oregon is tied for eighth in the FBS with 20 tackles for loss and is tied for fourth with four interceptions.
“We really have had a good week of practice on defense,” said safety Brady Breeze, who returned a fumble for a touchdown against the Wolf Pack. “I’m excited to see what we can do because we can always play better than how we played against Nevada. That wasn’t our best performance, we can always play better than that.”
Justin Herbert is completing 74.6% of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions through two games. The 6-foot-6, 237-pound senior has thrown a touchdown pass in 30 consecutive games and hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 108 attempts.
The starting offensive line did not perform up to its lofty standard in the running game against Nevada and will be looking to get CJ Verdell and Travis Dye on track before the Pac-12 opener next Saturday at Stanford.
“I’ve seen a lot of Oregon teams over the years, and to me, this is the best offensive line I’ve seen in an Oregon uniform,” Hauck said. “The other thing is you’ve got the quarterback who many thought would be the first player taken in the NFL draft last year had he chosen to enter and didn’t.
“I mean, they’re a handful.”
Starting wide receiver Juwan Johnson will be a game-time decision, and tight end Cam McCormick is out for the Ducks.
With a cluster of injuries at receiver, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo has dialed up touchdown-producing plays for four players listed as tight ends on the roster — Spencer Webb, Jacob Breeland, Ryan Bay and Hunter Kampmoyer.
Backup offensive lineman Brady Aiello has also been playing tight end and caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Herbert against Nevada.
“I didn’t know who the heck caught it. That’s a fat receiver,” left guard Shane Lemieux joked. “(Aiello) bobbled it, but he got it down. I probably wouldn’t have caught it myself, just being honest. I’m more of a fullback dive kind of guy.”
The nonconference finale shouldn’t come down to a late kick, but it appears the Ducks are going to have to ride the leg of true freshman Camden Lewis in Pac-12 play.
Adam Stack is entering the NCAA transfer portal and walk-on Zach Emerson is away from the team while facing charges of criminal mischief in the second degree and criminal trespass in the first degree following a recent arrest.
Cristobal brushed aside a question about getting the second- and third-team players more action this week against an inferior opponent.
“Our focus is on playing them the best we can,” Cristobal said. “You know how it is, it’s respect everybody that you play. We’ve got ourselves a heck of a ball club coming in.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email podcast mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.