Ducks learn tough lesson from Broncos
In the Las Vegas Bowl, Boise State's defense held Oregon to 47 yards rushing, forced four turnovers, sacked QB Justin Herbert four times and kept the Ducks from crossing midfield until midway through the third quarter. The Broncos' offense churned out 481 yards that included respectable rushing numbers and nearly 37 minutes of possession time, and suffered only one sack.
Not to mention the Ducks' 10 penalties for 95 yards and eight punts, other factors that contributed to a 38-28 loss.
But Boise State's beat-down pointed to the Ducks' need for improvement in one glaring area — offensive and defensive line play. The big boys still need to be bigger and stronger and better, especially with a former offensive lineman, Mario Cristobal, now in charge.
"Obviously that's not what our identity is or is going to be," Cristobal said after last Saturday's game. "We've got to get back to work once we get back from the (holiday) break and reestablish ourselves."
Before the game, Cristobal said the Ducks wanted to be relentless and physical and "send a message across the country for what Oregon football is to be moving forward." Back to work.
About a year ago, coach Willie Taggart entered the picture and proclaimed Oregon's players as "weak" physically and mentally. Cristobal also talked many times during the 2017 season about bettering the physical aspect of the Ducks.
The Vegas bowl notwithstanding, the Ducks believe they have, in Cristobal's words, "a strong foundation now, especially at the line of scrimmage." The reference is not only to an offensive line with the likes of Jake Hanson, Shane Lemieux and Calvin Throckmorton, but also to defensive linemen Jalen Jelks, Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu.
With the return of quarterback Justin Herbert, linebacker Troy Dye and others from a 7-6 team, a 10-win season appears possible in 2018. But that will depend on the play up front. Always has, always will in college football.
"We want to play that kind of football that other programs don't want to play," Cristobal said, "that is physical at the line of scrimmage, putting a tremendous amount of investment on the offensive and defensive line."
The Ducks solidified their coaching staff this week with the re-signing of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, defensive line coach Joe Salave'a and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo.
"All three have been impactful in establishing the direction of our program as both teachers and mentors for our players," Cristobal said. "They have been key in helping build our momentum, both on the field and in recruiting."
Leavitt's defense allowed 28.2 points and 359.8 yards through 12 games, marked improvement from the past two seasons. He'll have more experience next season, with Justin Hollins joining Dye again at linebacker and Ugo Amadi leading the secondary.
One would think the Ducks would be even better on defense next year. And the schedule should help — it includes three manageable nonconference games, home games against Stanford and Washington and Chip Kelly's UCLA, and some winnable road games. (The Ducks were 6-1 at home and 1-5 on road fields in 2017.)
Depth, especially on the defensive line, needs to be developed. But the Ducks have enough top-level talent to be a top Pac-12 defense in 2018. Dye had 107 tackles, 13 1/2 tackles for loss and four sacks in '17, and Jelks led the Ducks with 15 tackles for loss and 6 1/2 sacks. Amadi and returnee Thomas Graham Jr. led the team with three interceptions each.
Herbert struggled through three quarters against Boise State, due in part to protection and receivers not getting open. But he finally clicked with Dillon Mitchell, who had nine catches for 143 yards.
"I'm super excited about this team," Herbert said. "I'll do my best to get back in the weight room, in the film room, and get this taken care of."
A big loss is Royce Freeman, though running back Tony Brooks-James has 1,544 yards (7.1 per carry), 33 receptions and 17 touchdowns in three seasons. He'll be a primary back in 2018, presumably, along with Darrian Felix and perhaps CJ Verdell. The Ducks will want to develop a power back to go with Cristobal's emphasis on power running.
Tight end Jacob Breeland returns, as do Mitchell, Brenden Schooler and Johnny Johnson III among the young receivers. Mitchell had a team-high 42 receptions for 517 yards and four touchdowns. Breeland had a team-high five TD receptions.
Up front are four offensive linemen who have had ample playing time. Another big loss is left tackle Tyrell Crosby. Competition will determine it, but an educated guess is Brady Aiello moves to left tackle (where he started 10 games in 2016) and Cristobal works in George Moore at right tackle, or Throckmorton returns to right tackle from guard.
On offense, "we became much more multiple than from the beginning of the season," Cristobal said. "You'll see us continue to evolve."