Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal didn’t have many tough decisions to make as the Ducks ran visiting Colorado out of Autzen Stadium, 45-3, on Friday, powered by a tenacious defense that simply would not let the Buffaloes cross their goal line. The win pushed the Ducks’ record to 5-1 at the halfway point of the season.
In the second half, the Ducks had five possessions and scored touchdowns on three of the first four, while Colorado’s dynamic quarterback Steven Montez had three interceptions, a stop on downs and a missed field goal as the Duck offense danced in their end zone.
The first half turned completely on its head with 1:27 left in the second quarter and the Ducks leading 17-3. The Buffaloes had a first down on Oregon’s 15-yard line after a pass interference call. Colorado ran nine plays and gained only 4 yards punctuated by a false start penalty. On third-and-goal from the 11, Montez’ pass was tipped by a couple of players and finally secured by Vernon McKinley III for an interception. At one point in the drive, the Buffs had the ball on the Ducks’ 1-yard line, second and goal.
Quarterback Justin Herbert then drove the Ducks 80 yards in eight plays that took only 1:07, which made you wonder why they don’t run their offense that way more often. Herbert ended the half 16-of-28 for 225 yards and his 34th straight game with a touchdown pass.
Anyway, it was a 14-point swing and made less of Cristobal’s decision to eschew (once again) going for a field goal on fourth-and-3 from Colorado’s 19-yard line on the Ducks' second possession of the game. Instead, the choice was to throw for it and Verdell dropped it to end the drive and keep it a one-possession game.
Cristobal seems to feel that going for a field goal is not macho, as he passed up another chance in the fourth quarter after Tyler Shough drove the Ducks down the field from their own 20-yard line to the Buffaloes' 21-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-3, he elected to have the No. 2 offense go for the first down rather than giving kicker Camden Lewis another chance for a valuable game rep. With games ahead against mature Pac-12 teams such as Washington, USC, Arizona and Arizona State, it might be more important for Lewis to have confidence than the second unit offense.
Herbert looked outstanding, mostly, but had several throws into coverage, thrown so hard no one could catch them. He missed Brenden Schooler deep when he beat the corner covering, revealing that Herbert still has work to do with accuracy on the long ball.
Duck receivers, bolstered by the return of three injured starters from fall camp, dropped four balls, bringing back memories of last season when the eligible receivers averaged four drops per game. Coming into this one, I counted only five drops in four games.
Oregon’s offense had a field day with explosion plays — gains of 10 or more yards. In the first quarter they had an astounding eight — five more in the second, two in the third and two more in the fourth quarter when the game slowed down to a crawl.
The Buffs had four in the first, two in the second, four in the third and none in the fourth quarter as the Duck defense maniacally held their goalline sacred.
One of the sore spots defensively had to be the number of pass interference penalties on long passes. Although the first reaction was to boo the referees, one could see that Duck corners were using their hands too much, holding the hand or one arm of the receivers, preventing them from having a fair chance of catching the ball.
However, there were plenty of excellent examples of secondary defenders gathering around the ball, resulting in four interceptions. The defense swarmed as a swirling flock of Ducks chalked up two sacks, 10 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and eight quarterback hurries.
The defense’s challenge was to keep Colorado’s quarterback from scrambling and, mostly, it did a great job, several times forcing him to run for his life and throw the ball out of bounds to avoid another sack. To further compound their opponents’ suffering, Oregon’s kickoff cover team and punter Blake Maimone put the Buffaloes in poor field position — Colorado had six possessions in the first half, none further than the 25-yard line and four more (of five) in the second half.
Cristobal wanted to cut turnovers, which the Ducks did nearly perfectly, giving up the ball only twice, on downs, with no fumbles or interceptions. He wanted the same with penalties and his ball club has further work to do in that area, being flagged 10 times for a loss of 119 yards. Colorado did not help its cause with 14 penalties for 114 yards including one that ended with a player ejected for a personal foul.
The goal for the offense is to convert 50 percent of its third-down conversion tries, but there’s still work to do there, too. Oregon was only five of 11, and worse on fourth down with just one-of-3 successful. Cristobal might have helped the fourth-down percentage by going for the two field goals in addition to increasing Lewis’ confidence.
Herbert was 18-of-32 passing for 261 yards and two scores, but he threw into coverage three times, had six passes broken up and missed open receivers a couple more times. He started the game 10 of 15 in the first quarter, but seemed to cool off a bit thereafter. Nine receivers caught passes, a healthy sign for depth and talent, but you go away feeling there is still so much more potential to be realized for this group.
The offensive line continued its strong play from last week’s win over Cal, allowing only one sack, which actually wasn’t a sack. Herbert was penalized for grounding the ball, which he didn’t because those darned Buffs tackled the back he was trying to throw the ball to on a screen pass.
Oregon’s front wall also did not allow a quarterback hurry, a dramatic accomplishment compared to the Duck defense hurrying Montez eight times and sacking him twice — it seemed like more as Montez was rarely able to set his feet and find an open receiver. He only completed 19-of-34 passes for a paltry 131 yards, hardly worth the effort as the average attempt was only 3.9 and the average completion only 6.9, numbers that a wishbone team might accumulate.
CJ Verdell shook off an ankle sprain suffered in last week’s win over Cal to rush for 171 yards on only 14 carries, a 12.2 average with a long run of 70 yards. His running mate Travis Dye average 18 yards per carry for 54 yards and a long of 47 yards. The Ducks accumulated 288 yards but lost 12 on a sack and 19 yards when the center snapped the ball over Herbert’s head on the first possession of the game.
The Duck defense was outstanding, the offense good, but whose impressive statistics were achieved against the weakest defense in the conference. Next week is Washington in Seattle, which is not as easy a place to play as Auburn was in Dallas or Stanford in Palo Alto. The Huskies hate Oregon and the Ducks had better bring thier "A" game, just to compete.
Suffice to say 10 penalties could mean defeat and Cristobal will not be able to pass up any points his offense can produce on any drive because Washington has the meanest defense in the Pac-12. That is, maybe, except for the Oregon defense.
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.