For the second week in a row, the Ducks won a game by double digits despite surrendering at least two more turnovers than their opposition. Last Saturday, against Washington State, it was three turnovers, yet they won by 14 points — nearly unheard of.
During a Nov. 16 press conference, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said he considers explosive play margin — number of runs of at least 20 yards or passes of at least 30 yards — and turnover margin to be the two biggest statistical factors in determining outcomes.
The Ducks have far outperformed their competition in the former while sorely underperforming in the latter.
Here’s a deeper dive into those themes, as well as more takeaways from Oregon’s 43-29 win over Washington State in Pullman.
How about those turnovers?
Oregon’s five turnovers on the season have come from two distinct spots. One is sporadic reads from the first-year starting quarterback, Tyler Shough. Shough has made poor reads, especially early in games. Against Washington State, he threw an interception on a screen pass that was disrupted by the defense, a spot in which Moorhead says the young quarterback needs to learn to throw the ball away and not “make a bad play worse.”
“The turnovers are something I guess you would refer to as a statistical outlier, that we’re on the minus end of that,” Moorhead said. “It’s something that we need to get resolved.”
Shough, also, rifles balls into tight windows across the middle. While it didn’t result in a turnover in week two, it could have. He threw one into double coverage across the middle early in the game, which glanced off the hands of multiple defenders before hitting the turf.
Despite the occasional miscues, Shough has fit into Moorhead’s offense with ease and is the only FBS quarterback to throw for at least 200 yards and run for at least 80 in his team’s first two games.
The other area of concern has been running back ball security. If you count the fumbled handoff between Shough and running back CJ Verdell as a Verdell fumble, then all three of the Ducks’ primary runners have fumbled this season.
Unlike the Shough plays, these turnovers aren’t schematic or a result of poor decision making. Rather, like Moorhead suggested, they’re anomalies or simply a sign of a need for increased ball protection.
This year’s Oregon offense is undeniably different. It’s more unpredictable, more aggressive and more explosive.
In Pullman, the Ducks ran the run-pass option to perfection.
Midway through the first quarter with the ball on Washington State’s 26-yard line they elected to go for it on fourth-and-2. Shough motioned receiver Kris Hutson to the other side of the line just before he clapped his hands for the ball to be snapped. After receiving the ball, he faked the hand off to Verdell, who was then wrapped up by multiple Cougar defenders before he avoided the rush and dumped it off to Hutson for the first down.
That same drive, they ran it again, this time resulting in a DJ Johnson touchdown.
Early in the third quarter, facing a fourth-and-1, Moorhead again called for the RPO. Expecting the fake handoff and dump off, the defense played slightly back on their heels and Verdell blasted it up the middle for a first.
Oregon is the only power five program averaging 250 yards on the air and 250 yards on the ground per game. The offense also leads the nation in third-down conversion percentage at 72.7%.
Duck fans can thank Moorhead for that.
Running backs out of the backfield
As a junior in 2019, Verdell caught just 14 passes through the entirety of Oregon’s 14-game season. Through two games under Moorhead, Verdell has already caught seven, including a career-high five against Washington State.
The increase shouldn’t come as a surprise. Running backs catching balls out of the backfield whether on screens, swing routes or wheel routes is a staple of previous Moorhead offenses.
Travis Dye, who had 16 receptions in 2019, broke loose for the Ducks in week two delivering two receiving touchdowns.
“When he has a skill set that [he] can run between the tackles like a running back and kind of catch the balls on the perimeter, it makes him a very valuable weapon,” Moorhead said. “Coach Maestro has done an unbelievable job with that group, kind of getting the guys in place to run plays that match their skill set.”
While Oregon’s offense is off to a hot start, defensive coordinator Andy Avalos and his defense are still getting up to speed.
As a unit last season, the Ducks allowed an average of 329 yards per game to opposing offenses. Two weeks into this season, they’re allowing 417.
Washington State’s offense is shifty, often rolling out three or four speed receivers on each down, even so, tackling has been an area of concern for the Ducks. On several occasions the front seven failed to wrap up running back Deon McIntosh, and on the perimeter Cougars receivers had plentiful opportunities to run after the catch.
“Needless to say, everybody in the country didn’t have a lot of opportunities to practice tackling in the offseason so we’ve got to make that ground up right now,” Avalos said. “And we will, the guys are excited to do that.”
Freshman Noah Sewell was a bright spot for the second week in a row. The linebacker added four more tackles, as well as racking up his first career sack against WSU’s Jayden de Laura. He plays with bruising physicality while managing to avoid giving up any speed and technique in the process. He earned the opportunity to be a starter moving forward.
If the Ducks hope to compete for a Pac-12 championship, they’ll need to shore up their pass coverage as well.
The Ducks may have lost pivotal players in the secondary due to opt-outs, but last year Avalos and his defense proved that they can be a difference-making unit that could keep Oregon in games by themselves. There’s no reason that can’t be the case again this year, but to do so will require increased development from young players as well as veteran players in new roles.
Senior cornerback Dede Lenoir has locked up his half of the field and Jamal Hill has proved capable in coverage at the nickel position.
On the flip side, Nick Pickett is getting picked on. He was victimized several times in coverage by Washington State’s smaller, speedier pass catchers. He was also called for two targeting calls: one that was eventually overturned and a second that will have him sidelined for the first half of the UCLA game.
“Obviously we’ve got to lower our strike zone when we’re tackling,” Avalos said. “We’ve had a few instances where we’ll have guys missing games.”
Against Stanford, the same happened to Verone McKinely III, who was sorely missed on the back end before his arrival in the second half.
“Here in the last couple of weeks we’ve had to move around a lot of safeties,” Avalos said. “At practice a lot of guys have gotten reps.”