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By Jason Vondersmith/Portland Tribune/Ducks should beat Stanford after handling Montana

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Ducks linebacker Mase Funa (left) sacks Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong.A potential NFL first-round draft pick plays quarterback. The offensive line and physicality remain the emphasis. And functional skill players continue to be developed with the Oregon Ducks.

But, oh, the strength of the team lies on the other side of the ball. It's a pretty good defense that Andy Avalos, the new coordinator, and assistants and players have been working on.

Defensive lineman Jordon Scott predicted it:

"Yes, sir, as a defense as a whole it should be a great year. It should be one of the best years for Oregon defense ever," he said during training camp.

Well, defenses that led the Ducks to the Fiesta Bowl championship in January 2002, the Holiday Bowl win in 2008 and the Rose Bowl victory in January 2015 were pretty good, among others, and Oregon has produced many NFL defensive players throughout the years.

But yes, sir, it could be a difference-making year for UO defense and, in turn, a season in which the Ducks rise to Pac-12 contenders. The unit played well against Auburn in the opener and then produced some great numbers against Nevada. Oregon gave up 192 yards, forced four fumbles (recovering two) and two interceptions, allowed 3 of 17 third-down conversions, made 13 tackles-for-loss (for minus-55 yards), registered five sacks (for minus-28 yards) and made QB Carson Strong's head spin and running backs eat turf.

Nevada seemingly went backward as much as forward.

"That's a trademark of defense that Coach Avalos has brought here," said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, whose team makes another tuneup at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Montana, an FCS opponent.

The Ducks beat Nevada 77-6; if things go right, the Montana game could be another big-time blowout, rather than a garden variety 45-point win.

Along with Avalos and assistants, "to me the most important part is the players have taken ownership in it," Cristobal said. "They're buying into it. We still need to get a whole lot better."

Scott and Austin Faoliu anchor a deep defensive line. Bryson Young plays well at "Stud." Troy Dye, star linebacker, had 15 tackles against Auburn. Linebacker/"Stud" Mase Funa might be the most impressive freshman (and not Kayvon Thibodeaux). Jevon Holland and Deommodore Lenoir lead the deep secondary.

The word special might be thrown around too much in sports, but the UO defense could be special. (Then again, challenges do await in Pac-12 play, perhaps notably from Washington State).

"I do think we have something special," said safety Brady Breeze, from Central Catholic High. "Guys are just clicking, able to make checks and calls, and just having fun. Like in the backyard playing flag football, guys are making calls in the middle of a play and guys are smiling, 'Hey, let's go make a play.' And, that was in the first quarter, when the game was still tight. Guys are trying to have fun, keep it light and just play football."

Avalos has been a big upgrade even from a solid coordinator in Jim Leavitt.

"We're just clicking," Breeze said. "Last year, we had a pretty good defense, but we didn't click like we have this year — between players and coaches and player to player, guys are trusting each other."

No point in breaking down the Montana game, as Oregon should win easily. The Ducks need to stay away from injuries — Faoliu was one of the few players to get banged up against Nevada, but he'll be OK — and execute and play efficiently. It might benefit the Ducks to put another big number on the scoreboard, as 77-6 surely drew some attention from college football followers who wondered how they might react after the disappointing loss against Auburn.

But everybody also knows Oregon should rout Montana and its next true test comes at Stanford on Sept. 21. The early call from me is the Ducks, my Pac-12 favorite, will beat the Cardinal.

"We can't look too far ahead, we've got to focus on Montana," Breeze said. "I think we do have something special (as a team). We can't worry about the (Pac-12) championship or the Rose Bowl. We've got to worry about the next game, worry about ourselves."

Indeed, overall the Ducks still need to work out some things before Stanford. Three starting-level receivers (Juwan Johnson, Brenden Schooler, Mycah Pittman) sat out the Nevada game, as did tight end Cam McCormick. But the Ducks spread the ball around to the point where 10 different offensive players, including O-lineman Brady Aiello playing tight end wearing No. 82, scored touchdowns; Breeze also scored a TD on a fumble return.

Skill player development remains imperative to give quarterback Justin Herbert and his offensive line options on offense to score points.

"We've got a lot of guys who can make plays," Herbert said. "It's good to see guys step up."

Offensive players to score TDs against Nevada: Jacob Breeland, CJ Verdell, Ryan Bay, Aiello, Bryan Addison, Daewood Davis, Cyrus Habibi-Likio, Jaylon Redd, Hunter Kampmoyer and Darrian Felix. Yep, the likes of Travis Dye, Spencer Webb and Johnny Johnson III were the unfortunate ones in a 71-point victory, not to reach paydirt.

"I knew they could make plays; it was good to see them make them in game," Breeland said of the TD makers.

And, Herbert, after five lousy incompletions in the first quarter, missed on only two passes the rest of the way, finishing 19 of 26 for 310 yards with five touchdowns.

Said Strong, Nevada's QB: "He's a top quarterback draft prospect for a reason. He stood back there and he was cool, calm and collected the whole game, and he was delivering strikes."

With Herbert delivering strikes and the defense doing damage against an outmatched opponent, Duck fans should enjoy another rout Saturday. Then the real season begins.

The pick: Oregon 52, Montana 7


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