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By Jason Vondersmith/Portland Tribune/UO's strong defense makes it home favorite in faceoff against Wolf Pack

COURTESY PHOTO: SERENA MORONES - Oregon running back Darrian Felix gets a lift after scoring against Auburn.The good news for the Oregon Ducks is they know it's possible.

They rebounded last season after an epic late-game meltdown and loss to Stanford, in which coach Mario Cristobal took heat for game management, and they won at Cal and then knocked off Washington at Autzen Stadium.

Some bad losses followed, but nothing like the Stanford loss, which seemed a lock until CJ Verdell fumbled with 51 seconds left. Cristobal simply could have asked QB Justin Herbert to take a knee and run down the clock to practically nothing. Instead, Stanford recovered the fumble, kicked a tying field goal and won 38-31 in overtime.

Auburn rallied to beat Oregon 27-21 last weekend, not because of one glaring mistake by the Ducks — although an argument could be made that Cristobal made many, including usage of timeouts, play-calling (along with coordinator Marcus Arroyo) and personnel.

Auburn stunned the college football world by throwing a game-winning TD pass — true freshman Bo Nix to Seth Williams, 26 yards against single coverage with nine seconds left — instead of playing it safe and settling for a field goal.

And then Duck fans watched as Hebert rifled a pass way out of the end zone to conclude the choke job of a game, although Cristobal said, "It's an insult to football to say you gave something away."

Other than that, the Ducks played pretty well.

So, the future does look OK, especially with Nevada coming to Autzen Stadium at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Whereas the program that provided us with Colin Kaepernick plays good football, as exemplified in last weekend's last-second 34-31 win over Purdue from a 56-yard Brandon Talton field goal, the Wolfpack should not be in contention to beat Oregon with a TD pass with nine seconds left.

After Nevada, it's Big Sky/FCS Montana at Autzen, and then Oregon plays at offensively-challenged Stanford with a quarterback (K.J. Costello) who Northwestern knocked out of the first game. The season could be righted in coming weeks.

But, plenty of questions swirl around the Ducks this week: Can Cristobal and Arroyo game-coach and make adjustments against good coaches? Is Herbert (17-13 as a starter) really a star or just a good-looking pro prospect? (There is a difference, think of Josh Allen at Wyoming). How much is Oregon's offense limited without game breakers? Are such things as drops, missed field goals and turnovers going to be problems?

The defense could be the team's strength. It played well for most of the Auburn game — in coverage, slowing the run, pressuring Nix. Troy Dye, Jevon Holland and Austin Faoliu played great. But the unit got tired, presumably because the offense couldn't sustain anything in the second half.

That had me scratching my head: What, tired in the first game, even while playing substitutes? Maybe Aaron Feld, strength and conditioning coach, should reevaluate his team's conditioning.

Like Cristobal said, "When both teams play that hard, you have to give credit to the other team."

I agree, because Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's offense managed to run in the face of an Oregon defense geared up to stop the run, and the Tigers then passed with Nix, who looked every bit the overwhelmed true freshman until he dove for the key first down and hit on some passes, including the inexplicable big one to Williams.

Inexplicable, because everybody watching the game would have bet their house — well, maybe $20 or so — on Auburn playing for the winning field goal, rather than let Nix throw a pass on a night when he was 13 of 31.

But, it happened, and chalk up another extremely bad, ugly loss to the Oregon Ducks. I won't even share the pre-2015 bad losses, but add Auburn's unlikely win to the following: giving up 62 points to Utah at home in 2015; losing a 31-0 lead and then the 2015 Alamo Bowl 47-41 in three overtimes to TCU; a 70-21 loss to Washington during 2016's 4-8 season; four losses in five games in 2017 without a suitable backup QB, including a combined 120-20 count versus UW, Stanford and WSU; a 38-28 2017 Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State, in which the offense failed to cross midfield until midway through the third quarter; and Stanford last season (not to mention being blown out at Arizona).

It's still easy to see Oregon winning the Pac-12 North Division and conference title, but it's just as easy to see the Ducks losing about five games. I'll stay optimistic for Oregon's sake.

And, I've seen all the coaches from Mike Bellotti to now, and I'm going to cut Cristobal some slack. I pretty much like everything I see and hear from the guy, and he can really recruit (with assistants' help, of course) and he has injected physical attitude and toughness — a culture — into his team. He's a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach; he has a different way about him — it's not like he played quarterback. It would behoove Cristobal to brush up on game management, but it's a little harsh to call him the worst game manager in college football (as one writer proclaimed).

It's going to be painful at times watching him grow as the head man — and, remember, he had a 27-47 record at Florida International in his only previous head coaching job — but when Cristobal seemingly does many things right, do we harp on one thing he may not do well?

As far as Nevada, I think it'll be about a three-score win. The Wolfpack features QB Carson Strong (30 of 51, 295 yards, three TDs vs. Purdue) and a balanced offense, but Purdue racked up 519 yards on them (423/four TDs passing).

Looks like Herbert could do some damage, and more healthy receivers (Juwan Johnson?) would help.

And, Andy Avalos' defense should shine, as it could all season.

The pick: Oregon 42, Nevada 21


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