FootballSports

Defense bright spot for Ducks



Leslie Montgomery

Another game, another inconsistent performance from the Oregon offense. The offensive line made strides against Utah, paving the way for 217 yards of offense, but Jeremiah Masoli completed just 25 percent of his passes for 95 yards, with a critical fourth-quarter interception and two fumbles.

So how did Oregon come away with a 31-24 win over the 18th-ranked Utes? With its defense, naturally.

“That might have been one of the better defensive performances I’ve ever seen by a bunch of kids,” said Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “I thought they played hard. They flew around; they kept their cool under adverse situations. We had some turnovers, we confused the quarterback a little bit, and looking like were coming and then not coming a few times.”

The defense did receive an initial lift from one of its own, as Walter Thurmond III burst through a truck-sized hole in Utah’s punt coverage for a 78-yard touchdown, the first off a return in the senior’s increasingly decorated career.

“Today, the guys just came out there and everyone had great blocks,” Thurmond III said. “It got everybody excited.”

Thurmond III’s return touchdown came off a Utah three-and-out on its opening possession, a defensive theme Oregon would adhere to. Utes quarterback Terrance Cain scored from 19 yards out after a blocked Jackson Rice punt with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter; aside from that possession, Utah had seven first-half three-and-outs and three turnovers on downs. One turnover on downs came at the end of the first half, as Utah elected to go for it on fourth and goal from the Oregon 2 and Thurmond III batted Cain’s pass away from David Reed.

“We had a great stop before the end of the first half,” Aliotti said. “(I was) very, very pleased and extremely proud of the way our kids played.”

Touchdown runs by LaMichael James and Jeremiah Masoli gave Oregon a 21-7 lead into halftime, and the crowd of 58,017 buzzed with excitement. The lead, however, was tenuous in the hands of the offense, as a Masoli fumble led to a Joe Phillips field goal. The Ducks responded with a seven-play, 68-yard drive that culminated in a four-yard touchdown run by Masoli, but Cain completed a 22-yard pass to Jereme Brooks for a touchdown on the ensuing possession and free safety Robert Johnson recovered yet another Masoli fumble, returning it 28 yards for another score.

“It’s unacceptable,” Masoli said. “Giving turnovers to a good team is bad, and they almost came back and got us.”

Once again, the Oregon defense came to the aid of the offense, forcing two three-and-outs into the fourth quarter. Masoli botched an opportunity to extend the lead with 7:42 remaining in the third, as his third-and-goal pass attempt to Jeff Maehl was intercepted by Johnson in the back of the end zone. Eddie Pleasant returned the favor on the fifth play of Utah’s ensuing drive, picking off Cain and setting up a 31-yard field goal by Morgan Flint. An interception by John Boyett with 1:56 remaining iced the game for the Ducks.

James led the Ducks in rushing, with 27 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown, while four receivers each caught one of Masoli’s passes.

“Utah is a great team,” James said. “They played hard and physical. Give a shout out to them. But we showed the world UO is still around.”

Next up is No. 8 California on Sept. 26 in Eugene. Cal hasn’t lost to Oregon since the 2005 season, when the Ducks beat the Bears 27-20 in overtime in Eugene.

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