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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Herbert and company could get mojo back when Oregon meets Colorado

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Ducks linebacker Troy Dye (35) upends California wide receiver Jeremiah Hawkins (10) in the second half Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Wow, is there anything the Oregon defense doesn't do well?

We're talking historic proportions for the unit led by first-year coordinator Andy Avalos and many standout players — Jordon Scott, Troy Dye, Jevon Holland among them.

Heading into Friday's 7 p.m. game against Colorado at Autzen Stadium, the Ducks lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (9.8 points per game allowed), total defense (261.4 yards), pass defense (166 yards) and rush defense (95.4 yards) — or all of the major categories and then some.

The Ducks have 19 sacks and interceptions in each game (eight total) and have limited teams to 32% on third-down conversions and 44% (4 of 9) on fourth down.

Oregon last held four consecutive opponents under 10 points in 1960 — until now. The four-game stretch has seen 22 opponent points scored, including one touchdown (by Cal in last weekend's 17-7 UO win in Eugene).

The one blemish on the unit's record, other than an "L" against Auburn: The Tigers ran for 206 yards on 43 carries (4.8 yards per carry) and, although Bo Nix suffered 19 incompletions on 32 passes, the Ducks gave up the game-losing pass play with nine seconds left.

But, let's not be too picky. Oregon's defense has been sensational.

So, does Oregon come back to Earth at some point, or do the Ducks sustain excellence for the next seven games?

Well, here's a dose of reality: The Ducks (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) already have played the 11th-ranked Pac-12 offense (Stanford) and 12th-ranked offense (Cal), and No. 10 (Arizona State) doesn't land on the schedule until Nov. 23 and the No. 9 offense (UCLA) doesn't play Oregon.

In other words, the rest of the way — even with Arizona State QB Jayden Daniels and running back Eno Benjamin — offenses should bring challenges for the UO defense.

And, considering the UO offense hasn't hit its stride, yet, other than in blowouts against weak opponents, the rest of the games could be very interesting.

Justin Herbert has been solid, throwing 15 TD passes against one interception (against Cal), averaging 268.2 yards passing and completing 71.6% of his passes.

Some receivers/tight ends have made plays — Jacob Breeland, Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd have combined for 68 receptions and 11 TDs — and the running game went for 190 yards against Cal.

But, running back CJ Verdell suffered an ankle injury against Cal, the Ducks failed to score until midway through the third quarter, and the offense generally didn't pass the eye test.

A win is a win, but the Ducks need to produce more offense to take some heat off their defense.

"We don't want to become completely dependent on that," UO coach Mario Cristobal said of the defense. "We're going to have to be more than that. We really, really struggled to get out of our own way."

Maybe the Ducks and their faithful have to come to grips with the thought that they might not blow out any Pac-12 teams. They might not be explosive enough.

At the same time, why can't the Ducks be the best defense in the Pac-12 and win all their remaining games (including Oct. 19 at Washington)?

"The belief has always been really high (in the defense)," Cristobal said. "They have a high standard. It's fun to watch."

One big part went down in the Cal game, as senior defensive end Gus Cumberlander appeared to suffer a serious leg injury. It's a tough blow for the player and the defense. But, ballyhooed true freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux notched two sacks against Cal, and he could receive even more playing time.

Colorado (3-2, 1-1) should be a test, if only because the Buffaloes have shown more competitiveness under new coach Mel Tucker, and veteran QB Steven Montez has some good skill players and a veteran offensive line. Montez, who ranks second in the Pac-12 in passing yardage (292.6 per game, with 10 TDs and two picks and 67% completion rate), led a Colorado upset at Autzen in 2016, although it couldn't be classified an "upset" by season's end as the Buffaloes played in the Pac-12 title game and UO went 4-8.

Alex Fontenot is averaging 78.4 yards rushing with four TDs, and Tony Brown and K.D. Nixon have combined for 47 receptions, 744 yards and five TDs. The big question is whether wide receiver Laviska Shenault plays. He's considered one of the Pac-12's premier skill players, but he's had a core injury and missed most of the win against Arizona State and all of the loss against Arizona. He has 17 receptions for 226 yards and two TDs; he's considered day-to-day.

Colorado averages 34.6 points and 446 yards, but whereas the Buffaloes have played well offensively, teams exploit their defense to the tune of 31.6 points and 470.6 yards. Arizona's Khalil Tate eclipsed the 400-yard passing mark against them.

The Ducks should feast on Colorado's defense and regain some offensive mojo in the week before the UW game.

It'll be interesting to see how running back Travis Dye does after fumbling twice against Cal, and whether Verdell even plays; a running game still needs to be established, even with Herbert and his receivers putting up yards and points against the Buffs.

Oh, and the UO defense should be counted on, even should the Ducks give up a few more touchdowns. It's a premier defense, until somebody proves otherwise.

The pick: Oregon 38, Colorado 24


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