Taking Stock: A look at Oregon halfway through the season
The No. 18 Oregon Ducks (4-1, 1-1) are off this weekend, but a tough test at home against the No. 10 Washington Huskies looms. The Ducks will take this week to stay in form and prep for the Huskies.
Here is where the Ducks stand after five weeks of play:
When Oregon’s offense “struggled” to score against San Jose State, fans and media members raised questions. Although potentially holding back, they still produced 58, 62 and 35 points.
Now in the midst of conference play, all restraints are off. The worries from Oregon’s “struggles” on offense have become an afterthought given the immense success in Pac-12 play. Oregon’s prolific rushing and passing has it averaging 36.5 points in Pac-12 games. With Washington lined up after the bye week, the Ducks cannot hold back.
“During league play, we’re trying to kill guys,” wide receiver Dillon Mitchell said. “We’re not trying to not show things; we’re not trying to hide things from people. I definitely feel like we’re coming out and trying to go after people.”
Recently, quarterback Justin Herbert has seen his stats improve. Herbert is averaging 282.2 passing yards and three touchdowns per game — 50 more yards and 0.2 touchdowns more than current heisman-favorite, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
“He just continues to elevate his game,” head coach Mario Cristobal said after the 42-24 win over Cal. “He sees the whole field. He’s a great decision maker.”
Catching a lot of those passes is Mitchell. The receiver caught just six passes through Oregon’s first three games. He now has 27 catches on the season after an almost record-breaking performance against Stanford (14 receptions for 239 yards) and another solid game against Cal (seven receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown).
Since conference play began, Mitchell has become Herbert’s go-to target due in part to his increased work on the field, and the coaching staff is taking notice.
“The key to him these past couple games is how he has been practicing the last few weeks,” Cristobal said. “In practice, he’s just been relentless about his approach to everything in the details of his craft. It’s showing up on game day and certainly the quarterback trusts him more and more, so we’ll continue to expand that role.”
Attention comes with success. Defenses will begin to key in on Mitchell, upping the need for another elite receiver.
Tight end Jacob Breeland (seven catches and two touchdowns) and wide receivers Johnny Johnson III (10 catches and four touchdowns), Jaylon Redd (nine catches and three touchdowns) and Brenden Schooler (six catches) all have opportunities to fill that role.
“I think we’ve just done such a great job of getting everyone involved in the pass game and with the run game,” Herbert said. “It’s a lot easier to throw the ball when you got guys like Dillon Mitchell, Brenden Schooler, Johnny Johnson and a couple great tight ends.”
Just like with the passing game, youth was a question mark in the backfield. But thanks to stellar play by linemen Penei Sewell, Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson, Dallas Warmack and Calvin Throckmorton, the running game has been a bright point.
Prior to the season, the running backs’ youth was seen as a weakness, but with redshirt freshman CJ Verdell (420 yards and two touchdowns) and true freshman Travis Dye (253 yards and two touchdowns) leading the team in rushing, experience is no longer an issue.
“They’re all doing a great job,” Herbert said. “It doesn’t matter who’s back there. I’ve got faith in them.”
This is the first time in four years that Oregon has the same defensive coordinator for two years in a row. Jim Leavitt is in charge, and he is largely responsible for turning Oregon’s defense into something to respect.
But it’s not just happening with top NFL prospects. It’s happening with seniors who are comfortable and ready to capitalize on their final season.
Safety Ugochukwu Amadi and outside linebacker/defensive end Justin Hollins aren’t just hitting their marks. They’re making big plays.
Amadi is a cornerback-turned-safety listed at 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds. He is undersized but not underutilized. The Ducks have him playing deep, covering the slot and blitzing. He is tied for the team lead in interceptions with fellow safety Jevon Holland at three. He also has two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, both more than defensive star Troy Dye.
Against Cal, Amadi had two interceptions, including one for a touchdown and one on the first play of Cal’s second drive. The Golden Bears tested Amadi early when they threw a deep ball over the middle, but he was in position and snagged it. He passed the test.
“I knew they were going to try me deep,” Amadi said. “The way our system is, leaving me on an island a lot. I had to play big — make plays.
He’s been a key part of a defense that ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in yards per game. Some of that is influenced by the strength of schedule. Oregon played three bad nonconference teams and a below-average Cal offense, and the Ducks are allowing 412.5 yards per game in conference play, which ranks eighth.
The defense has allowed some yards, but they are making big plays. It leads the Pac-12 in interceptions and is second in sacks.
Hollins, Oregon’s sack leader, has attacked quarterbacks all season long. He’s recorded four sacks in five games this season, already a career high. He has three forced fumbles and has bolstered Oregon’s already strong front seven.
The defense is second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed, but at times, Cal was able to move the ball on the ground, specifically with its quarterbacks.
“We hold ourselves to a very high expectation,” linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr. said. “We want to be one of the best defenses in the country, and that just doesn’t happen for the best defenses in the country.”
Oregon will face better offenses in the future. Washington, Washington State and Arizona all provide their own challenges, and the Oregon defense will need to improve.
However, it is clear the Oregon defense can win a game for the Ducks. It is forcing turnovers at a high rate and allowing the offense to play loose, knowing the defense can hold teams on a consistent basis.
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