Film study of Oregon’s 45-3 win over Colorado confirmed several trends the Ducks have established while building their season record to 5-1 and 3-0 in the Pac-12 Conference.
The Duck defense continued to shine, holding the previously touted, explosive Buffaloes to a lone field goal in four trips inside the Duck 40-yard line. Oregon’s opportunistic pass coverage picked off four of Steven Montez’ passes and stopped Colorado on downs for five total turnovers. Although the Ducks did not lose a fumble or interception, they still turned the ball over on downs, twice.
Coordinator Andy Avalos has put together a talented and deep defensive roster that is not built around any one defender. The old days of linebacker Troy Dye being the only standout are gone as a host of new defenders have had their time in the spotlight.
Isaac Slade-Matautia, Sampson Niu, MJ Cunningham, Bryson Young and Mase Funa have bolstered the linebacking corps and made it the strength of the defense. Up front, Kayvon Thibodeaux, DJ Johnson and Popo Aumavae have brought youth, and power, supporting returning stars Jordon Scott, Drayton Carlberg and Austin Faoliu. Together this group has 21 sacks in six games, leading the Pac-12 and on schedule to accumulate an astounding 42 over the season.
The defense has been helped considerably by the field position afforded them by the kickoff coverage team, which did not allow a return past the 25-yard line. Colorado’s only starting field position in the game past its own 25 was in the third quarter after a punt, on its 42-yard line. Oregon’s average starting position was its own 36-yard line.
Not to be outdone, punter Blake Maimone continued his outstanding kicking, averaging nearly 49 yards per punt. Obviously, pinning your opponent deep in their own end gives the defense a real advantage, allowing it room to be aggressive and attack the offense. This is another reason the Ducks have allowed only one touchdown in the past four games, and none in the second half of their five victories.
Offensively, it is another story. Although coach Mario Cristobal saw improvement in the much-discussed running game (252 yards), it came against the worst defense in the conference. Still, the offensive line looked crisp: running backs CJ Verdell (171 yards) and Travis Dye (54 yards) were bolstered by the emergence of Cyrus Habibi-Likio’s 47 yards and three touchdown runs.
At the end, there were still questions about what the quality of the running game will be against tougher opponents, like the rest of those on the schedule and the Washington Huskies, in particular. At the Pac-12 media day before the season, a Husky defender was asked what he thought about Justin Herbert — “He’s big and real fast, a good runner,” was the answer, which means Washington knows more than Cristobal has revealed about the benefits of having a quarterback running threat like many of the current highly successful offenses in the nation.
Nonetheless, if the Huskies have to prepare for that possibility, then it does take a bit of heat off the other running backs. If they don’t, and Cristobal chooses to unleash Herbert as a secret weapon, it could set the Duck offense free.
One thing very apparent at the beginning of the Colorado game was the attack mode Cristobal chose to warm things up. The Ducks won the toss and elected to receive and promptly marched 75 yards in nine plays to get on the scoreboard first, which is very important for the home team in a conference game.
Although there has been much complaining about the offensive game plan holding Herbert in check in all previous games, this was not the case against the Buffs. He completed his first five passes for gains of 7, 9, 22, 17, 24 and a 7-yard touchdown on his seventh attempt. Autzen was buzzing and the Ducks were off to a 7-0 lead.
Herbert’s passing on the next drive was not so concise. He hit only 3-of-7 passes with the last incompletion a dropped pass by the running back on fourth-and-3 from Colorado’s 19-yard line, where Cristobal once again went for a first down instead of three points by his field-goal kicker Camden Lewis.
The kick was certainly in Lewis’ range and would have been a golden opportunity of giving the freshman a chance at increasing his confidence for this game, and those tough ones lurking in the future. That thought might have gone through Cristobal’s mind because the next time Oregon drove into the Buffs' red zone, he chose to kick a field goal fourth-and-5 from Colorado’s 14-yard line. Once again, his kicker came through with his second success in a row and a 10-3 lead.
Cristobal has only coached one game in Husky Stadium, that a 38-3 drubbing when he was the line coach in 2017. He is still the offensive line coach and occasionally makes decisions, it seems, more from a line coach’s perspective than a head coach’s perspective — like deciding when to go for a first down and when to go for a field goal or when to run a short yardage play by a fumbling back because he wants to show that he trusts that back.
Oregon’s head man said Monday “…the more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel.” Why not trust your kicker? Give him some opportunities to build his confidence. It’s at least as important as your offensive line and running backs’ confidence. And the kicker’s confidence certainly doesn’t grow when the head coach chooses to go for the first down instead of the field goal, especially when the game doesn’t ride on it, and when the kick is within chip-shot range. In fact, confidence dissipates.
Herbert threw for only 36 yards in the second half and for the game (by my count) had three throws into coverage, four poor passes and four to five drops, all of which detracted from his final stats of 18 completions out of 32 attempts. It’s difficult to tell for sure, but the Duck signal caller seems to get off track from time to time. He was 10 of 15 at the end of the first quarter and only 8 of 17 the rest of the game. He needs to be more consistent if Oregon is the team it wants to be.
The Ducks face their sternest challenge in Seattle against the Huskies in a rare day game. The winds and rain swirl in Husky Stadium and can be murder on a kicker. Oregon won a game there in 1995, when the wind blew a short Husky field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter wide of the goal posts.
Having confidence when facing that challenge is as important as the efficacy of your red-zone offense. Right now, the Huskies have the statistical advantage. The Huskies score 94% of the time in the red zone to the Ducks’ 69%. And Washington is 11 for 11 in field goals while Oregon is 2 for 5. If the game goes to overtime (which is always played in the red zone) as in last year’s exciting Duck victory, the long-range weather forecast and Washington’s statistical advantage loom even larger.
The crucial stats for the Colorado game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Colorado 4.0, Oregon 7.4 (leader wins 86% of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversion) — Oregon 6 of 14 for 43%, Colorado 9 of 20 for 45% (leader wins 83% of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 6 of 8 for 75%, Colorado 1 of 4 for 25% (leader wins 75% of the time);
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 36-yard line, Colorado 23-yard line (leader wins 72% of the time);
No. 5 (turnovers) — Oregon 2, Colorado 5 (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.