Jason Says: Title shot will take Oregon at its best
The senior quarterback inexplicably continues to struggle, but Oregon won the Civil War on Saturday because of special teams and defense, and that feels really good to the players on the 10-2 Pac-12 North Division champs.
"We were fortunate the defense played so well," said QB Justin Herbert, who threw erratically in going 18 of 30 for 174 yards and a touchdown in the 24-10 win over Oregon State, a week after his two interceptions basically cost the Ducks a game at Arizona State and a potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
Although Oregon State outgained the Ducks, the UO defense allowed 10 points or less for the seventh time and forced the pivotal turnover when Jermar Jefferson fumbled in the closing minutes.
It capped a season in which Oregon has allowed only 15.8 points and 331.3 yards (106.1 rushing) per game under first-year coordinator Andy Avalos.
"It's been amazing," senior linebacker Troy Dye said. "It's super great to see how the defense has grown. It's awesome to see the young guys step up, and it's been tremendous for our defense. It shows how resilient these guys are."
Arizona State, led by QB Jayden Daniels, running back Eno Benjamin and its receivers, torched the Ducks, but defense kept Oregon within striking distance for Herbert and the offense to rally (only to lose 31-28).
The Beavers played the Ducks without starting quarterback Jake Luton, and managed only one touchdown drive led by backup Tristan Gebbia.
Defense has created margin of error for the 2019 Ducks, much like what the historic offenses have done for the UO defense throughout the past decade.
"We told them we don't care how many points you put on the board, just put some points up and we got you," cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. said of this year's team. "They could put up as little as three and as much as 70, as long as they put points on the board we told them, 'We got your back.'"
A matchup against Utah (11-1) looms in the Pac-12 championship game, 5 p.m. Friday at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The Utes have the Pac-12's best defense and a physical team led by dual-threat QB Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss.
But, because of their defense, the Ducks feel good as they prepare this week.
Coach Mario Cristobal praised his defense after the Civil War game.
"You always saw 11 helmets getting to the football," he said. "The communication level, the way that they practiced, and all the things that they did to play at this level, was really impressive to watch. It was just as impressive to watch it carry over to the game itself.
"Those guys will tell you that they still feel like they've got a lot of real good football left in them, and they keep getting better. It was super impressive, and I'm proud of the defense."
Dye is defense's ringleader as Herbert is to the offense, and he's not surprised with the unit's performance.
"We all play within the scheme of the defense, it takes all 11 guys," he said. "We just play within the framework of what Coach Avalos gives us."
Special teams also contributed last weekend, with Mykael Wright's 98-yard touchdown return for a touchdown, a Jevon Holland 25-yard punt return that set up Herbert's second-quarter touchdown pass to Johnny Johnson III and Blake Maimone pinning the Beavers inside their 20-yard-line five times with punts.
Wright, a defensive back, has been able to contribute on kickoff return, using his explosive speed — he had a 100-yard kickoff runback for touchdown at USC. He calls former Ducks star De'Anthony Thomas a "mentor" and a reason he loved Oregon football growing up. Holland, the starting safety with nine career interceptions, began the season with a big punt return against Auburn and has been a constant threat.
Maimone has been one of the Pac-12's best punters, averaging 43.2 yards per boot, with 16 punts inside the opponent's 20.
"Blake is outstanding at pinning them inside their 10- and 5-yard-lines. When you flip the field like that consistently, it's hard now statistically (for opponents) to score points," Cristobal said.
Even Camden Lewis contributed a 32-yard field goal, although he missed a field-goal try for the second home game in a row.
The offense is another issue. Herbert's 174 yards against a poor OSU pass defense was his season low, and he wasn't close with many of his throws. He shrugged it off, saying, "The game's not decided on my individual performance; it's who scores the most points, and we did that."
The Ducks had 191 yards rushing (5.2 per carry), and Cyrus Habibi-Likio sealed the game with a fourth-quarter, 20-yard TD run.
But, offense is a concern.
"We weren't very efficient (vs. OSU), obviously," Cristobal said. "We have been throughout the course of the year. We've been really good on third down as well; (vs. OSU) we were 3 of 14, so that is very uncharacteristic of us. It was not up to our standard. We've got to get back to work and get better at it."
Said Johnson: "We're not playing to our best right now. We can play better. There are flashes to it. We just have to finish those drives."
Herbert moved to 27-13 as a starting quarterback, has passed for more than 10,000 yards and is still considered a first-round NFL draft pick. He has 31 touchdowns and only five interceptions, he'll set his single-season career high in passing (currently 3,140 yards) on Friday, and he's completing a career-high 67.6% of his passes.
He can etch his name in UO lore with a big win over Utah and a Rose Bowl victory (in the best-case scenario). For now, how does he stack up with the accomplishments of Joey Harrington, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota, the great Oregon QBs of the past 20 years?
He has a supporter in Dye, who said, "Justin's my brother for life, and I got his back."
The Ducks beat the Beavers (5-7) for the 11th time in 12 years, and finished 7-0 at home. It felt good to beat a rival, even with bigger games on the horizon.
"We had moments and opportunities to really separate and take complete control of the game," Cristobal said. "I don't think we ever lost control of the game, but, certainly, it got tighter. I don't think you take away credit from the other team.
"It's all about respect in football and to give the other team credit," he added, before saying the Ducks should be better offensively against Utah and "I have complete and total faith that we will."
Cristobal and Herbert shared a big hug after the game, the seniors' last at Autzen Stadium. The seniors, remember, were part of a disastrous 4-8 season to start their careers in 2016. Cristobal teared up as he spoke about Herbert.
"This football stuff, when it's done right, it's life-changing," Cristobal said. "A guy like that — like all the other guys in this room — they are the right kind of people. It is what you want your son to be."
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