The Autzen-record-tying 77 points may be what immediately jumps out about Saturday night’s blowout victory against Nevada, but it was the backups who ultimately stole the show.
The Ducks scored 11 touchdowns as a team, and each one was scored by a different player. Five of those 11 were first-career scores in a Duck uniform. One was by an offensive lineman. Another by a fifth-year senior who’s spent the majority of his career as a third-stringer. And that, more than the 77 points, was the story Saturday night at Autzen.
“When a guy does get in the game, we’re gonna play football,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “Guys played a lot of snaps tonight, and got a lot of valuable time, which helps them in their development process.”
By the middle of the third quarter, most of the starters had been lifted for second and third string players. A lot of those players, especially the younger ones, have been afforded valuable opportunities early and often. The NCAA’s new rule allows a player to play up to four games without burning a redshirt.
“This redshirt rule really allows you to do some things that, from a development standpoint, you wouldn’t have a chance to do if you didn’t have the four-game option to play guys,” Cristobal said.
Potentially among those players were linebacker Mase Funa, cornerback Mykael Wright, running back Sean Dollars and wide receiver Josh Delgado. Every one of those guys got an opportunity to make a big-time play Saturday night in front of 50,000-plus at Autzen Stadium, and that may not have been possible a couple seasons ago.
Arguably the biggest highlight of the night came from a backup. But it wasn’t just any backup. It was a backup offensive lineman, wearing a different jersey number, catching a touchdown pass from Justin Herbert. That backup offensive lineman was Brady Aiello, and his teammates and coaches loved it.
“Pretty jealous of him is what I am,” Cristobal, a former offensive lineman, said of the rare big-man touchdown. “It’s what I wanted my entire life and never had a chance to have.”
When asked about potentially defending Aiello in practice, Brady Breeze said he’d never seen it: “No I have not. Brady on Brady? I don’t know. He might beat me.”
Breeze scored his first-career touchdown as well, on a fumble recovery in the third quarter.
“It was pretty cool,” Breeze said laughing. “I’ve been praying for something like that to happen my whole life.”
While Aiello and Breeze lightheartedly enjoyed their first-career scores, the first-ever score for tight end Ryan Bay felt different. After five years, three head coaches and a constant uphill battle on the depth chart, Bay reeled in his first-career touchdown pass in the third quarter.
“Great to see,” fellow tight end Jacob Breeland said. “So much fun seeing my brothers scoring touchdowns. It was awesome.”
Just like fifth-year seniors, a number of true freshmen made the most of their expanded role Saturday night, none more prominent than Mase Funa. Funa made a brilliant open-field tackle in Arlington last weekend, and built upon that even more in his Autzen debut with two sacks and an additional tackle for loss. He led the Ducks in both categories on Saturday.
“We want to finish. We can finish,” Funa said. “That’s the tone that we set for each other every week. Just finish.”
For Funa personally, the first two games of his freshman season have proved to himself that he’s making progress in his recovery from a knee injury suffered in April at Mater Dei High School.
“My fall preparation...I was more worried about getting my speed back,” he said. “So far I think my speed is slowly coming back. My knee feels more comfortable. Everything is slowly coming back.”
Elsewhere on defense, junior Sampson Niu was all over the field in both halves, picking off a pass and forcing a fumble. He’s played sparingly in his career so far as a Duck, but he’s turning a corner as his playing time has increased.
“Sampson is one of the more natural linebackers I’ve been around,” Cristobal said. “His instincts are off the charts. Natural nose for the ball. He has a great feel for the passing game, zone coverage, has played some man as well. He just continues to elevate his game.”
Kayvon Thibodeaux made his Autzen debut Saturday night and broke loose for the first big play of his Oregon career. With Nevada backed up in its own territory, Thibodeaux delivered a hit on Nevada punter Quinton Conaway at the seven-yard line after a bobbled snap.
Funa’s Mater Dei teammate Sean Dollars saw his first carry as a Duck, and Daewood Davis caught his first-ever touchdown pass just a week removed from being switched from cornerback to wide receiver to relieve the growing injury concern at the position. Junior Hunter Kampmoyer also got in on the action, catching the first touchdown of his three-year Oregon career.
Lastly, redshirt freshman Tyler Shough got an extended opportunity at quarterback and did not waste it. He went 8-for-9 for 92 yards and two touchdowns after not throwing a single pass all of last season.
“It was great to get out there,” Shough said. “It was nice to get a bunch of reps with the ones, twos and threes. I felt good about it and I was happy with the outcome.”
Saturday night proved more than just the fact that the Ducks can explode for 77 points. It proved they could do it with depth.
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