Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out
Duck fans saw their fondest dreams and deepest fears unfold Saturday night in a victorious offensive battle against FCS Eastern Washington.
The Ducks tied the NCAA record for most consecutive games (69) with at least one touchdown pass. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only passing record involved in the Saturday night scorefest. Eastern Washington receiver Cooper Kupp broke Autzen Stadium records for both receptions (15) and receiving yards (246).
Kupp is destined to play on Sundays, but giving up records to an FCS team is not a good defensive start to the season.
Still, Oregon wasn’t the only team to have some struggles this weekend. The first outing of the 2015 Ducks as compared to the first outings of their future opponents, should temper our expectations for the season, and is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. Oregon’s conference schedule takes a dive. Remarkably, one game into the season was all it took to leave Oregon without a single road game against an undefeated Pac-12 team. Arizona State lost fairly miserably to Texas A&M, while Colorado lost to Hawaii.
The North didn’t fair any better: neither Stanford, nor Washington scored an offensive touchdown against Northwestern and Boise State, respectively — and between the two of them, they racked up only 419 yards of offense.
The four conference teams the Ducks play on the road punted a total of 32 times in their first game. For all we know, Oregon’s punter may be the Maytag Repairman from ads of old — he never made it onto the field after warm-ups. The Ducks ran up 61 points and 731 yards of total offense, scoring faster than their road opponents could go three and out. Which was pretty darn fast.
The Ducks’ home schedule includes Washington State, which just this weekend handed Portland State its first ever win over a Pac-12 team, and Oregon State, which didn’t pull away from Big Sky doormat Weber State (2-10 last year) until the final quarter.
At this point, Oregon’s hardest Pac-12 games appear to be Utah, California and USC — and all three games are at Autzen. It’s still early, and improvements are to be expected here and there, which is great news for Oregon’s pass defense. Meanwhile, the losses by Stanford, Washington, Washington State and Arizona State are big black eyes that reduce the margin of error for conference teams hoping to make the final four.
Having the rest of the conference beat up on these four would be helpful, which is also great news because it’s highly likely. But the most helpful thing would be for Oregon to beat up on …
2. Michigan State. Like the Ducks, the Spartans had a less-than-stellar first game that saw them struggle before finally putting away a middling Western Michigan team, 37-24. MSU’s running game was solid, if unspectacular, while quarterback Conner Cook was only 15-31, passing for 256 yards. The Spartans shut down Western Michigan’s usually robust running game, but surrendered 350 yards through the air, which hints Oregon will move the ball on the Spartans, one way or the other.
Cook’s passing stats suggest that Oregon’s young secondary may have an easier go against the Spartans than they had against Eastern Washington, who certainly provided all the material any coach could ever hope for in terms of teachable moments. Let’s hope the Ducks learn — and learn fast.
3. How the schedule stacks up. After Michigan State, Oregon gets a breather against Georgia State before taking on Utah at Autzen. Then they play, probably, the worst three teams in the conference on successive weekends: Colorado, Washington State and Washington.
But things start to get dicey with a Thursday night trip to Arizona State, followed by a home clash with California the first weekend in November. Hopefully the secondary will be ready for them, because Cal QB Jared Goff and his backup lit Grambling up for 471 yards through the air. Good thing Oregon has two extra days of rest.
After California, the Ducks play at Stanford — which looks less daunting now than it did a week ago — and then at home against both the Trojans and the Beavers.
What works in Oregon’s favor is the fact that games against the most dangerous opponents — good passing teams — come late in the season, after the young secondary has a chance to mature. In the meantime, both Michigan State and Utah present legitimate hurdles.
The thrashing that Eastern Washington gave Oregon’s pass defense was probably the best thing that could have happened for the Ducks. The state of the secondary might otherwise have been masked, had the Ducks played a team with a lesser passing attack, and the realized need for improvement may have come at the expense of a loss later on. As it is, losses may still come, but not without fair warning.
As for the offense, anyone hoping that the Ducks will miss a beat without Marcus Mariota is in for disappointment. The Ducks’ offensive display against Eastern was accomplished without the services of Charles Nelson, Devon Allen and Darren Carrington, all of whom would be starters for most D-1 programs — and with a quarterback who has been with the program for only three weeks.
Top photo by Gary Breedlove