Jason Says: Ducks look to lead
Following a methodical 21-6 win against Stanford, the Oregon Ducks should feel good about themselves as they enjoy the first of two bye weeks.
The defense is looking stellar, and quarterback Justin Herbert is off to a good start.
Then again, for a program that hasn't been a national player since 2015, of course there should be cause for concern as the Ducks prepare for the rest of their schedule and aim to challenge for the Pac-12 North Division title.
How does Oregon score only 21 points against a down Stanford team, when USC and Central Florida put 45 each on the board against the Cardinal?
I thought with their offensive line, the Ducks would dominate the trenches. Not counting Nevada and Montana, and we shouldn't count them, the Ducks rushed for 151 combined yards on 63 carries against Auburn and Stanford (or 2.4 yards per carry, albeit counting sacks). And, the Ducks have given up eight sacks.
The offense lacks a game-breaking player. Oregon has a lot of functional skill players, but nobody great.
So, who knows what direction the Ducks go when they resume play Saturday, Oct. 5, against California at Autzen Stadium?
The nationally ranked Bears are 4-0 with a Pac-12 win at Washington and a win at the SEC's Ole Miss — they play at home Friday, Sept. 27, against Arizona State. Coach Justin Wilcox's team has a standout defense with a solid secondary. Quarterback Chase Garbers has more options among skill players; the Bears can generate more offense.
But the Ducks have routed the Bears in the past two meetings — 42-24 in 2018, 45-24 in 2017 — while rushing for 260 yards on 42 carries (6.2 yards per carry) last year and 328 yards on 56 carries (5.9) two years ago.
And, it'll be a tough task for Cal's offense to move the ball against the UO defense, which might be the best in the Pac-12.
I could envision a Duck win. I could see a Duck loss.
Then you have the rest of the schedule. There are scenarios for struggle and loss in each:
• Oct. 11, vs. Colorado — The Buffaloes and QB Steven Montez have beaten the Ducks at Autzen before (2016), they are playing spirited and solid football under new coach Mel Tucker and have a Pac-12 win (ASU), and they have a star in Laviska Shenault.
• Oct. 19, at Washington — A new star quarterback (Jacob Eason) is helping the offense complement a revamped defense for coach Chris Petersen's team, and it's a Huskies home game against a rival that upset them in 2018.
• Oct. 26, Washington State — Oregon has lost four in a row to the Cougars, who appear to have the offense, including QB Anthony Gordon, running back Max Borghi and receivers (including Easop Winston Jr.), to run up the score again. Can the Ducks keep up?
• Nov. 2, at USC — The Trojans have played three quarterbacks, and the third-stringer (Matt Fink) just helped them beat Utah with the aid of a great receiver group in the Air Raid offense and a better defense. It'll be a tough game for Oregon in L.A.
• Nov. 16, Arizona — Quarterback Khalil Tate and running back J.J. Taylor will hope to help duplicate the Wildcats' 2018 domination of the Ducks, and Tate remains a guy who can be a big-time X factor on any field.
• Nov. 23, at Arizona State — Coach Herman Edwards' program is still building, but true freshman Jayden Daniels has played well in support of running back Eno Benjamin, and ASU has a good defense. The Sun Devils will want some revenge for a tough loss in 2018 at Eugene.
• Nov. 30, Oregon State — Don't laugh, but if the Beavers have their offense clicking with quarterback Jake Luton, running backs Jermar Jefferson and Artavis Pierce, and good receivers, it could be an interesting game at Autzen.
We also could see the Ducks play well in the next five games — going 4-1 or 3-2 — and then rest up during a second bye week and sweep through the final three games.
The U of O defense has been upgraded with its depth and coordinator Andy Avalos. The unit has given up 42 points, including only five field goals in the past three games (42 consecutive drives without allowing a touchdown, going back to Auburn's TD with nine seconds left). Opponents are gaining only 262.8 yards per game.
But, the offense needs to round into shape. Herbert has been good, so far, throwing 14 touchdown passes to no interceptions, raising his completion percentage to 74.4 percent and averaging 281.8 yards per game.
Johnny Johnson III (22 catches, 264 yards, two TDs), Jacob Breeland (18, 265, five) and Jaylon Redd (17, 149, three) have been primary targets, and youngsters have been worked in and others should return from injuries eventually (Juwan Johnson, Mycah Pittman, Brenden Schooler).
Can the Ducks consistently run the ball with C.J. Verdell, Travis Dye and Darrian Felix?
Can the Ducks convert third downs against good teams?
And, most importantly, can coach Mario Cristobal and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo develop game plans and make play calls and adjustments against good teams?
The onus is on them, clearly.
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