In front of his own cheering section, Royce Freeman and Ducks’ rushing attack respond
It was the largest crowd Royce Freeman played in front of and almost certainly the largest cheering section he had at the collegiate ranks. With dozens of family and friends garnering a yellow Oregon shirt with the number 21 and ‘Freeman’ emblazoned across the front, the true freshman was playing in front of quite the fan section and, to his relief, was able to deliver Saturday.
Recording his first 100-yard rushing game of his career, Freeman finished the game with 121 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries as part of Oregon’s dominant 42-30 win in front of an announced Rose Bowl crowd of 80,139 – at least 30 of which consistently screaming “Let’s go Royce” until the game’s conclusion.
“This is the closest I’m probably going to get to home so it was great,” the Imperial, California native said. “I just wanted to make them proud when they came all this way to see me play.”
One would think they were, and for plenty of reasons that didn’t just have to do with the Ducks’ lead anchor at running back. Reaching 261 yards of rushing by game’s end, in comparison to 144 in its loss against Arizona last week, Oregon as a team was able to set aside plenty of concerns involving its depleted offensive line and virtually cruise to its second conference win of the season.
“We came out hard trying to move, trying to push the line of scrimmage,” Freeman said. “It showed out there.”
One detail that showed and was able to make its impact quick was the presence of left tackle Jake Fisher. After missing the last two games with a leg injury, Fisher returned to his spot on the line and a clear rise in the whole unit’s output was evident.
By the end of the game, the Ducks had averaged 6.3 yards per carry to go along with four rushing touchdowns and Marcus Mariota had never been sacked.
“Having Jake back is huge,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “I think he’s one of the best offensive linemen in the league, but credit goes to our whole offensive line. I think they took the challenge that we haven’t been running up to our standard.”
Getting back to what Oregon does, according to Frost, and doing it well, seemed to be the simple equated formula. With the majority of the 41 rushes spread between Mariota, Freeman and Thomas Tyner (Byron Marshall had one rush for six yards) and not a single of the three rushing for less than 58 yards, the Ducks were back at their level and despite UCLA’s talented defensive unit, had five drives in which they used nine plays or more.
Channeling off Freeman’s early success Tyner didn’t take long either to make an imprint on the game. In his first drive appearing on the field, after not playing all of the first quarter, the sophomore back would gain 19 yards on four carries and cap the Ducks’ second scoring drive after taking a screen pass for a 21-yard touchdown.
Tyner would finish his day with 13 rushes for 58 yards.
“I thought both backs really ran hard,” offensive line coach Steve Greatwood. “Sometimes there’s going to be a large hole sometimes there’s going to be little ones but they need to hit the little ones as hard as they hit the big ones and I thought they did an excellent job today.”
Clearly moving at a higher rate behind an offensive line playing at a better level, the run game found an edge it didn’t have in previous weeks. All this comes without even mentioning Mariota’s 75 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
As Jake Fisher said, the unit is “clicking” and whether his presence or the running backs improved performance was the main answer, Oregon proved how simple its formula can get.
“If we run the ball well, ” Frost said. “We’re hard to stop.”
Follow Justin Wise on Twitter @JustinFWise