The final score from last night does not reflect how good that Utah team truly is. The Utes dominated the Ducks in that opening quarter. Sadly, as it so often did in last night’s game, the injury bug struck and the Utes watched the game slowly slip out of their hands. Travis Wilson, Utah’s normal starting QB, was initially benched in favor of the more athletic dual threat QB, Kendal Thompson. However, following Utah’s nearly perfect opening drive, Thompson’s knee buckled on a first down run after he opted not to slide. The next play, Thompson attempted a deep pass and it was clear that his knee was not in good shape. He was taken to the locker room, and Wilson took over for the rest of the game. This, along with maybe the miscue of the century (see below), gave the Ducks new life, which is what eventually carried them to victory.
In a brutal game littered with physical hits, injuries, and penalties, the Ducks came out on top. Utah, in my opinion, was the best team the Ducks have seen and the best team the Ducks will see until they play in the PAC-12 Championship. The Utes were even more hard-hitting than Stanford, and containing the likes of Devontae Booker and Kaelin Clay is no easy feat for a defense. For the first time all season, the Ducks truly looked like a championship team. They’ve proven that their offense is far too good for any defense — no matter who it is — to stop them. If a team is going to beat these Ducks, they are going to have to outscore them. Although this isn’t an impossible feat, I’d love to see someone try. Right now, I can say with confidence that the Ducks are playing as well as any team in the country.
With that said, there are still notes from last night worth addressing. Here are the top five things that stood out.
#1: Keep Grinding, Grinding, Grinding
This was not a fun game to watch. First Utah’s QB went down with a left leg injury that will now keep him out of the season, then their WR Tim Patrick suffered a gruesome leg injury early in the second half. The injuries didn’t stop there though, as Oregons’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Hroniss Grasu, and finally Pharaoh Brown all went down in succession. Ifo will most likely return; however it looks like Grasu’s and Brown’s seasons are both done. Some might say this is just a consequence of football, but if you’ve ever played the game you know this is so much more. These are brothers out there who love and support each other dearly. Football teams are families, and watching Pharaoh Brown scream and cry in pain is not something that a player just stomachs and moves on from. Oregon showed incredible composure at a time where emotions could have gotten the best of them, a trait much needed for a championship team.
#2: Mariota is Running the Show, Literally
Marcus Mariota, as good as he was in the middle of the season, is currently playing at a godly level. After an opening drive when Utah’s formidable defensive front sacked Mariota twice and forced Oregon to punt, the quarterback went to work. Every time Utah brought pressure, instead of forcing a dangerous throw, Mariota took off. More importantly though, not a single rush was forced or unnecessary. He only ran when Utah’s defense slacked off, but luckily for him Utah seemed to have no interest at all in containing him. Mariota totaled season highs of 114 yards and 18 carries, almost all of which were second and third down runs that helped keep drives alive. Mariota’s ability to extend plays and drives is a big reason why this Duck offense is arguably the best in the country right now, and it goes without saying that his play is critical to the Ducks’ playoff success.
#3: Special Teams Finally Came to Play
It wasn’t always pretty, but all things considered this was the most well-rounded performance by the Ducks’ special teams all season. Freshman kicker Aidan Schneider stepped up big, hitting all three field goals he attempted including a 42-yarder. Both Charles Nelson and Johnathan Loyd broke huge punt returns, and most importantly Oregon kept Kaelin Clay out of the end zone. Having to play Ty Montgomery and Clay in back to back games is no easy feat for any special teams unit, and it shows incredible promise that neither of the top 20 return men were able to find the end zone against the Ducks.
#4: Mark Helfrich Excels at Second Half Adjustments
Here’s something that might surprise you. Oregon, in its last three games, has outscored its opponents 69-33 in the second half. In all three of those games, Oregon had the lead going in to the half, and what’s critical to note is that not once did they ever give up that lead. Instead, they poured it on. Helfrich, along with Nick Saban of Alabama and Charlie Strong of Texas, is one of the best coaches at making second half adjustments. His offensive mind, along with the amount of weapons at Helfrich’s disposal, help make Oregon one of the scariest second half teams in the nation. This was evident in the Utah game, as Mariota threw for 179 of his 239 yards in the second half. Helfrich is excellent at finding holes to exploit in a defense, and that has shown with Oregon’s season long success.
#5: The Defense Isn’t That Strong, but That’s OK.
Oregon’s defense is not great, but it also has never been the reason the Ducks lost a game. The whole team contributed to the Arizona game, and other than that one blunder of a game the Ducks have outscored everyone else. When a team has an offense as good as Oregon does, it doesn’t need a perfect defense. What it needs is a defense that can create turnovers, and in that regard Oregon is excellent. The Ducks are the second-best team in the nation in turnover margin, with an average of nearly two less turnovers per game than their opponents. Other teams simply aren’t going to be able to beat the Ducks if they give up extra opportunities. Right now, although perfection would be ideal, it’s not necessary. If the Ducks continue to make big plays on defense, then the team should be just fine come playoff time.
Top photo Screen shot from Video