The Oregon Ducks demolished FCS doormat Nicholls as expected Saturday afternoon, by a score of 66-3, but the game gave the plucky Colonels some reasons to feel proud, and the Ducks’ coaches areas to improve this season.
Speculation that the Ducks would pass more under Coach Helfrich proved unfounded on Saturday. For the first time in history, three different Ducks rushed for over 100 yards: De’Anthony Thomas (129 yards), Marcus Mariota (113) and Byron Marshall (124). Chip Kelly previously used Thomas as a “TAZR,” moving between pass receiving, screens and runs, but against Nicholls, DAT was a workhorse running back. He ran on eight of the Ducks’ first 14 plays from scrimmage, and had 106 yards with two TDs after just 11 carries.
Oregon set a new school record for total offense with 772 yards – an even 500 of those on the ground. The previous record was 730 yards last year against USC, in the game that convinced Tampa-2 legend Monte Kiffin to quit as the defensive coordinator. Then again, adjusted for opponent strength, 730 yards against the Trojans is the equivalent of 4,870 yards against the Colonels, and most of the Ducks’ starters stayed in until late in the third period.
Nicholls’ starting quarterback Beaux Hebert left the game for good near the end of the first quarter with a probable concussion, following a diving tackle from Ducks DB Terrance Mitchell, who ended up getting ejected under the new “targeting” rule.
A severe underdog already down 24-0 to a top-five team might have been expected to crumble at this point, but the Colonels rallied behind junior transfer QB Kalen Henderson, who joined the Colonels this year after two seasons with Tulsa. Henderson showed tremendous poise on national TV, throwing 21-40 for 214 yards and running for 68 more, despite 4 sacks that gave back 22 of those yards.
Henderson said that he wasn’t really a backup quarterback as much as in a competition with Hebert, the son of the New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl QB Bobby Hebert. “Coming into the game, coach said he was going to play both [of us] quarterbacks [in] separate quarters. I guess my time came a little quicker than expected, but I was able to go in prepared and I think we did some positive things today.” Nicholls coach Charlie Stubbs said, “I thought our guys hung in there really well and didn’t quit.”
It’s not a simple matter to judge the performance of a team as good as the Ducks, against an opponent as overmatched as the Nicholls Colonels, the 98-pound weaklings of the FCS Southland Conference. (Incidentally, they don’t like to be called Nicholls State any more.) Last year, the Colonels went 1-11, lost to McNeese State by 32, and beat only one opponent – something called Evangel, a tiny NAIA Christian school. The outcome of this game was not in doubt, and one of the few points of suspense was whether Oregon could continue its streak of 89 consecutive sold out games. (They did, barely.)
The Ducks beat the spread (which was 59) by four points, thanks to a fourth-quarter burst led by the two players competing for backup quarterback, Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie. The Ducks broke a number of big offensive runs, forced four fumbles (one ruled down first), and saw a couple of defensive players — Derrick Malone and freshman Torrodney Prevot — make play after play. Receivers Josh Huff (5-118) and Bralon Addison (2-42, TD) had strong games.
There were some reasons to be concerned, though, as Oregon looks ahead to tougher competition. At least three defended passes could have and maybe should have been intercepted. Nicholls was able to move the ball consistently against the Ducks, picking up 10 first downs in the first half to Oregon’s 16, and nearly matching the Ducks’ passing yardage (256 to 272). The turnover at linebacker has been a concern for Oregon, and while the strong side was well represented by Boseko Lokombo and Prevot, QB Kalen Henderson was able to work the middle of Oregon’s defense repeatedly, especially in the second half.
Oregon twice went for it on fourth down and failed to convert. While Mariota’s passing was not overly impressive (12 for 21, 234 yards, 1 TD), especially in the first quarter, he appeared to improve with each possession. After the game, he acknowledged that, “I started the game kind of juiced a little bit, and I missed a couple of throws high. Once the game started flowing, I felt that I ended up throwing a little better.” He also gave credit to Nicholls’ defense. “Honestly, they came out in a whole different look than we were really prepared for. Credit to them, they mixed up their coverages. We just had to iron out those things at first, and once we did, we were able to get rolling.”
The Colonels managed only a single field goal but seemed poised to score much more. They lost a fumble at the Oregon 26, Dior Mathis blocked a field goal attempt from the 25, and three other drives into Oregon territory seemed to hit an invisible wall at precisely the 34-yard line. One ended in a missed field goal. The other two ended with a bit of Nicholls trickeration: a fake not-punt. (I’ll explain.)
Both times, the Colonels lined up as if they were going for it on fourth down. Quarterback Henderson took the snap in the shotgun, then kicked a little pooch punt, sort of the opposite of a fake punt. Perhaps a read-option pass/punt? It was devastatingly effective, with the first kick downed on Oregon’s one-yard line. It’s more troubling that they fooled the Ducks a second time, pinning down the Ducks on their own 3, especially since putting a safety (capable of punt returns) back around the goal line would not have been surprising on fourth-and-ten at the 34.
Two player competitions added intrigue to the blowout. Freshman kicker Matt Wogan, who’s challenging Alejandro Maldonado for the kicker job, showed both potential and room for improvement on kickoffs. He averaged 62.7 yards, alternating several beauties near or in the end zone, with two kicks shanked out of bounds to the left and one line drive that first touched down at the 30. (Maldonado made Oregon’s only field goal attempt of the day, from 29 yards.)
In the battle to be the backup quarterback, Jake Rodrigues made the most of his time, completing both passes he attempted for a total of 30 yards, and breaking a 28-yard run from scrimmage on a scoring drive. Jeff Lockie was less accurate on limited pass attempts (1 for 3), but led the Ducks to two touchdowns. He scored the second one himself on a beautiful double-hesitation run, taking full advantage of his blocking with excellent timing.
In the end, it was a blowout Ducks victory, with special meaning for Mark Helfrich. Mariota, leading his teammates, gave their new coach the game ball in commemoration of his first win. ”It was his first career victory,” the quarterback noted. “That’s something special.” It was a short and sweet moment that lasted about five seconds. Then everyone got back to work, getting ready for the Virginia game.
by Mark Saltveit with Don Gilman
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Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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