It’s no secret the Oregon Ducks’ non-conference schedule has been lackluster at best in recent years. Arguably, their toughest non-conference opponent since the departure of the Mark Helfrich regime has been a subpar Nebraska team.
Last year, the Ducks saw Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State. Those teams didn’t provide much of a challenge, nor did they serve to prepare that Oregon team for the rest of the season by giving them an early taste of adversity. The attendance reflected what fans thought of these games, providing some of the lowest attendance records in years. It wasn’t the weather, either, because we all know it never rains at Autzen Stadium.
This season, the Ducks open with a highly anticipated match-up against the Gus Malzahn-led Auburn Tigers. This Week 1 pilot to the 2019 season is already drawing analysis and gambling bets. After the Auburn game, Ducks fans are looking ahead to the Pac-12 opener against Stanford, at Stanford Stadium. Oregon football enthusiasts seem to be forgetting there are two weeks between these two all-important games.
Remind me, who are we playing again? Oh, yeah — the Nevada Wolfpack and the Montana Grizzlies, respectively.
Honestly, I would agree that these games don’t quite pass the eye test in terms of being marquee, but we shouldn’t just forget about them. Come December, these games could have important ramifications in terms of the College Football Playoff. Depending on the outcome of Week 1, there are two schools of thought which the Ducks could use in terms of strategy against the next two opponents.
Run It Up
This is a strategy with which Duck fans have become all too familiar, in a good way. Dating back to the Chip Kelly era up until last season, the Oregon offense used its quickness, strength and overall talent to beat up on lesser opponents. In most games, it seemed feasible at halftime that the Ducks could finish the game with 100 points and 1,000 total yards. The Ducks have scored more than 60 points in these non-conference match-ups 10 times since 2010.
This would be an effective way to go about these games if the Ducks come out on top over the Tigers. The playoff committee takes into account margin of victory. With this in mind, taking Nevada and Montana lightly could be a complete disservice to the Ducks.
The Ducks could use this strategy even if they do lose to Auburn. In this scenario, Oregon would have some making up to do and will need to prove they can dominate play, no matter the opponent.
Testing 1… 2… 3…
For the first time in recent history, Coach Mario Cristobal took a different approach to the weak, non-conference games last season. Yes, the opening contest against Bowling Green ended up in a rout, but it didn’t go as smoothly as fans had hoped due to Bowling Green jumping out to a quick two-score lead in the first quarter.
Cristobal used these non-Power Five games the way, in theory, they should be used. They served as a test run leading up to all-important conference play. He called plays in order to get a better look at how they would run against a real opponent, almost like a glorified practice.
This “testing” approach is the one I like better, as I feel it will pay dividends later in the season. It’s one thing to run a play in practice against a scout team defense who has seen these plays before, but it’s another thing to run them effectively and efficiently during a game.
An argument can be made for both approaches, in terms of how the Ducks should go about these two games. One argument that all Duck fans can agree upon is that neither of these non-conference teams can be taken lightly. There is nothing more fearsome in sports than playing a team that has a lot to gain and nothing to lose. That’s the mentality I suspect Nevada and Montana will have coming into the Autzen Zoo under the lights.
The Wolfpack, out of the Mountain West, ended last season with an 8-5 record, which included wins against Oregon State and San Diego State. Last season also featured a devastating two-point loss to Boise State in mid-October.
The Montana Grizzlies, out of the Big Sky, came away with a 6-5 record last season. Their most notable victories came against Northern Iowa and Idaho.
Both teams are coming off relatively positive seasons, especially an up-and-coming Nevada. Either team (or both) could pose a challenge to the Ducks. I do think the Ducks will come away with victories in both games, but they shouldn’t be chalked up just yet. Seeing one of these two teams derail Oregon’s season would be devastating on all accords. How this team will respond coming off what is sure to be a tough task against Auburn, no matter the result, will define what kind of team the Ducks have in 2019.
Eugene, Oregon Top Photo by Amazing Moments Photography
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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