The Ducks had a forgettable start to their football game against Cal: three penalties, including one for too many players on the field on defense, an interception and a fumble that prevented a touchdown drive. After piling up 10 minutes and 27 seconds of ball possession (without a huddle), 23 plays to Cal’s 10, and 126 yards total offense, including 98 rushing, coach Mario Cristobal found himself behind 7-0.
The second quarter wasn’t much better as the Ducks gained only 7 yards rushing, added another penalty and possessed the ball only five minutes.
Something had to be done and in the locker room senior captain and linebacker Troy Dye made a short presentation to the team that was, from accounts of those who were there, intense and to the point.
In the third quarter, Oregon played better, amassing seven first downs to the Bears' zero, holding Cal to three-and-out possessions four straight times, squeezing out 10 points to get the lead on the stubborn Blue and Gold and committing no penalties. Coaches even had the punt returner Jevon Holland move up 10 yards so that he could catch the Cal punt on the fly instead of watching it hit 10 yards short of him and continue to bounce 5 to 10 more yards past him.
These are all very good signs. In the past three years, fans have wondered what goes on, if anything, in the Ducks’ locker room at halftime. For the first time, they could see for their own eyes that Oregon could indeed, make some changes that would make for a better performance in the second half.
That players are involved in the dialogue is important because it shows players are invested in the game, or “process” as some coaches spin it today. After Holland moved up 10 yards, the next punt return, cleanly fielded, resulted in a 24-yard return that sparked a 30-yard touchdown drive that started with prime field position. The only thing was that it was Cal’s fourth punt and Holland should have been moved up before.
The Oregon defense was outstanding except on third-and-real-long as it allowed conversions on third-and 10 three times and third-and-19. Five times it allowed plays over 20 yards, including a touchdown.
Another area of improvement needs to be the Ducks’ contain on pass rushing. Too many times Cal’s backup quarterback, with a reputation for scrambling, was let loose on the edge where he gained 59 yards and bought more time to complete a pass against a defense that had to have a short pass defender abandon his responsibility to contain the quarterback.
With Colorado’s great scrambling quarterback Steven Montez coming to town Friday, containing the quarterback has to be a primary goal — too many remember his first start as a freshman against the Ducks two years ago when he tore up Oregon’s defense for 468 yards rushing and passing and an upset win.
One issue with calling on defensive linemen trying to rush the passer, tackle him and getting credit for a sack, is that a sack is one of the few “golden” stats a defensive player can get. It takes discipline to maintain leverage on the quarterback and not give into the ego that tells you to “go for it.”
A great NFL pass rusher, JJ Watt, is famous for his ability to tip and deflect passes from near or on the line of scrimmage, not necessarily in the offensive backfield. He understands that a tipped ball might be an interception behind him, which trumps a sack. Oregon’s defensive linemen could all do more in getting their hands up as the passer begins to pass; at that point, you’re not going to get a sack, anyway. Cristobal can highlight the importance of this with the interception Dye made after the ball was tipped by Holland.
The most critical issue facing Cristobal, one that has ignited a feeding frenzy on social media, is the offense, or lack of it. Like addicts who deal with losing their fix, many Duck fans are experiencing withdrawal pains from the loss of an explosive offense, long gains on both run and pass plays, and play calling that is as predictable as governmental public policy.
The Ducks are off to a good start for the month of October, but ahead lie three games against teams which are not having to use backup quarterbacks, have outstanding receivers, and offensive systems and philosophies that can put up points. As long as Cristobal insists on “run first,” they had better not get behind by two touchdowns in the second half of any game. The plain truth about “run first” is that the Ducks lack the size, speed and depth at running back to finish the season as a ground and pound team.
The timing of a couple of reverses against Cal was good and bad. Good for a rare demonstration of élan, but bad because the timing was awkward — in one case the play should have been changed because of the alignment of a defender before the snap on the line of scrimmage outside the formation, who would have been difficult to fool or block.
It remains to be seen whether the play calling can be creative and daring when it needs to be. It might involve taking what Cristobal considers a risk, but right now a simple running play up the middle is equally risky near the goal line. Quarterback Justin Herbert is the biggest and strongest running back the Ducks have and to not use him, as other top-ranked teams such as Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and Georgia use their quarterback, is playing with one hand behind your back.
Right now, Herbert has an equal chance of getting hurt attempting to pass behind a line that is made to move forward, not backward, protecting the passer. There are also some linemen, skilled in run blocking, that are weaker in pass protection. Cal blitzed (brought more than four rushers) frequently, and although the Bears only got one sack, it was obvious that the pressure took Herbert out of his normal game.
Watch for defenses to blitz more and more unless the Ducks change their modus operandi—the offensive line and pass system is not built to adapt to that kind of warfare. There have been many examples of Herbert completing balls against three-man rushes and eight defenders (if a pass has been called), so as it becomes apparent the defensive blitz rush throws the Ducks off track, it will become a staple for opponents. Foes will not have to resort to minimum pressure to keep the offense on its heels.
Mike Bellotti, the highly successful head coach for Oregon during its golden era of offense, once observed that it’s good to have a strong defense but, most importantly, you need an offense that can score points in the wide-open Pac-12. In the conference, you will find yourself in games when you have to outscore your opponents — simply, your defense can not always win for you.
If the Ducks fall behind early in upcoming conference games, it may be too late to do what needs to be done in the locker room at halftime to turn it around. What will be needed then is something that should have happened before the season started — in the coaches’ conference room when personnel realities were compared to dreams that are still off in the future.
The crucial stats for the California game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — California 4.0, Oregon 5.5 (leader wins 86% of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, 3 rd-4th down conversion) — Oregon 5-of-15 for 33%, California 6-of-19 for 32% (leader wins 83% of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 3-of-8 38%; California 1-of-3 33% (leader wins 75% of the time);
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 31-yard line, California 24-yard line (leader wins 72% of the time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 5, California 4 (leader wins 73% 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.