Defense, special teams seize opportunities in victory over Washington State
Tom Osborne@@CE@@ could see it coming.
The blocked punt that Boseko Lokombo@@CE@@ returned for a touchdown, giving Oregon an early 8-0 advantage? Oregon’s special teams coach had been preparing his players for it since Monday. He noticed a wrinkle in Washington State’s blocking scheme and knew the Ducks had exactly the personnel to exploit it.
“They do something a little different than most teams do,” Osborne said. “(We) thought we’d try to attack it a certain way, and try to put the right guys in the right spots.”
Avery Patterson@@CE@@ shot through the gap just minutes into the first quarter, and the rest was history.
“Avery’s the perfect guy in for that role to do that,” Osborne said. “You gotta get the right guys in the bus and sit them in the right seats, and that’s always our challenge. Full credit goes to Avery. He did an awesome job, he took the right angle, he did exactly what we wanted to do.
“And that was a big play for us.”
That play, started by Patterson and finished by Lokombo (who happen to be roommates), set the tone for a 43-28 victory in which Osborne’s unit played a starring role. On a day that saw the Oregon offense outgained by the Cougars in total yards (462-454)@@CE@@, special teams and an opportunistic defense proved to be the difference makers.
“In this league, the turnover battle and special teams are the key to victory,” Oregon head coach Chip Kelly@@CE@@ said. “What our special teams did for us was really the key to that.”
Indeed, the special teams unit was responsible for two of Oregon’s six touchdowns on the day. Along with Lokombo’s return, true freshman De’Anthony Thomas@@CE@@ broke away for a 93-yard score on a kickoff return in the waning minutes of the third quarter, effectively ending any chance of a Washington State upset.
Less noticeable, but perhaps just as important, was Oregon’s punt coverage. Even if the offense stalled, Osborne could count on punter Jackson Rice and the coverage unit to pin the Cougars deep in their own territory.
“If they don’t return balls on you, that gives your team a chance to win,” Osborne said. “Whether it be fair catching it or if we tackle them for a short gain or no gain, when they’re not returning the ball, they’re not changing the field. We’re extending the field for our defense. And that’s our role.”
Given that extended space, though, the defense still allowed Washington State to move up and down the field at will. It was only in the red zone that defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s@@CE@@ squad finally stiffened. The Ducks intercepted Washington State quarterback Marshall Lobbestael@@CE@@ twice near the goal line, and allowed just one touchdown in the Cougars’ four red zone trips.
“We were really good in the red zone by getting a couple picks,” Aliotti said. “Not giving up points in the first half was key, the way that game was going.”
For redshirt freshman cornerback Terrance Mitchell@@CE@@, an interception at the Oregon two-yard line in the first quarter provided the cure for a longstanding itch.
“My coach told me that the first one is the hardest one,” Mitchell said. “And now since the first one got out of the way it felt good, but I just gotta get back and make more plays.”
Opportunity, indeed, is what has defined both the defensive and special teams units for Oregon this season, and the Ducks will have to seize more of them if their run through the Pac-12 is to remain unblemished.
“We got a nice solid three teams coming up,” Mitchell said. “And they pass the ball a lot, so I’m gonna get more opportunities.”