Winter is Coming: Will the Ducks Rule the North?

Cameron Johansson Editorials 48 Comments

The last time Oregon was in the Pac-12 championship game, it handled the Arizona Wildcats in a 51-13 rout. As dominant and memorable as that game was, it was five years ago …

Stanford, Washington and Washington State have each been a thorn in the Ducks’ side since then, preventing them from booking an early December trip to Santa Clara. Flash forward to 2019, and two games into conference play, things are finally lining up nicely for Oregon. The Ducks have more or less cruised to a couple wins over Stanford and California, but the rest of the North is falling apart around them. Let’s quickly summarize the events that have unfolded within the North Division to catch you up to speed.

The Ducks opened the year as favorites to take the North with Washington right behind them. Although Oregon was favored, Washington began the year ranked higher in the Coaches Poll and just behind in the AP. The Huskies began their conference play with a home loss to Cal. After a couple non-conference games, the Huskies defeated USC, only to be upset by a banged-up Stanford team the following week. This leaves the Huskies at 1-2 in conference play thus far.

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Stanford kicker Jet Toner boots a 39-yard, game-winning field goal against Oregon State in Corvallis.

Stanford has had a tough start to 2019 in terms of injuries and schedule, as they have already played four conference games. They opened Pac-12 play with back-to-back losses to USC and Oregon, but rebounded quite nicely with wins over Oregon State and the aforementioned Huskies, which leaves them 2-2.

Oregon State has had a pretty average start to Pac-12 play, with a late loss to Stanford and a convincing win over UCLA. Speaking of the Bruins, they created some chaos when they won potentially the game of the year in Pullman, crawling back from a 31-point deficit in the 3rd quarter to upset then 19th-ranked WSU 67-63. Mike Leach’s boys also had a rough night against the Utes, which leaves them still winless in conference play.

To round out the North, Cal started the year strong, climbing to 15th in the rankings before losing starting quarterback Chase Garbers and potentially their chances in the North, after back-to-back conference losses to Arizona State and Oregon.

This leaves the Ducks as the only undefeated team in the North division, with a two-game game lead over the second place Cardinal. This is an ideal situation for the Ducks obviously, but will it remain this way?

Kevin Cline

The Oregon defense stood tall, forcing two turnovers in a 17-7 win over Cal.

When Mario Cristobal took over the new era of Duck football, he wanted to create a tougher program that was going to win gritty games and stay disciplined. The off-season hiring of Andy Avalos, made possible after Cristobal sent Jim Levitt packing, proved he was not afraid to ruffle some feathers to get there. Avalos has since created arguably the most well put together defense in school history. The perception of Duck football to outsiders was that it was okay for the Ducks to allow 35 points; they’d just score 40. This is rapidly changing.

This past week, Oregon had to prepare for a backup quarterback. It’s easy to think that this should be simple solely because of the “backup” title, but backups are also harder to prepare for because there’s not very much film on them. Devon Modster was able to escape the pocket a handful of times and complete some quick outs, but the Ducks’ defense was able to keep him at bay for most of the game.

This coming week, the Oregon defense could be facing their biggest test since Auburn with the up-tempo offense Colorado provides. Quarterback Steven Montez and wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. have about as good a connection in the Pac-12 as any quarterback and receiver combination. If Shenault can stay healthy, he will more than likely be playing on Sundays; he will provide a steep test for the Duck secondary. Oregon saw a similar situation last year when N’Keal Harry came to Eugene and matched up with Thomas Graham Jr.

Matt Zlaket

The Oregon offense has sputtered, but still has the potential to be the best offense in the Pac-12.

Speaking of offense, after the 77 points the Ducks scored against Nevada, the offense sputtered to only 17 points last week against Cal. Yes, without the three turnovers in opponent territory and a missed field goal, the game probably would have been a blowout. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t.

Every week, Cristobal and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo both mention the offense needs to get in sync and is capable of putting up big numbers if the execution is there. The struggles in the run game are well-noted by fans, and sometimes it feels like the play calling is trying to will the run game back to life. Truth be told, until CJ Verdell left with an injury against Cal, the run game didn’t look too bad. Clearly a couple fumbles didn’t do the perception any favors though.

Justin Herbert hasn’t had the targets he thought he would to start the season, but they are slowly trickling their way back. In the meantime, the Oregon passing game has looked a little bit like the New England Patriots passing game in terms of using the tight end as a receiver and prioritizing a trusted slot receiver.

Jacob Breeland has come out of the gates hot, being a go-to target for Herbert. Jaylon Redd has also seen an increase in productivity, as he has scored a touchdown in each of the last four games. As far as wideouts go, freshman Mycah Pittman had a great first game as a Duck and his energy electrified the Autzen crowd. Johnny Johnson III has also played a consistent role in the Oregon offense.

Overall, the pieces are falling into place for Oregon to take the North crown, but the execution still needs to be more consistent to consider them a lock. Having a two-game lead is nice, but with the meaty part of the schedule still remaining, the season is far from over. The defense has more or less carried the Ducks through the first few Pac-12 games and though it is impressive, it’s hard to believe they can hold the rest of the schedule to fewer than seven points.  So yes, the North is Oregon’s to lose as it stands right now, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Eugene, Oregon
Cameron Johansson                                                                                                                                                                          Top Photo by Kevin Cline

 

Spencer Thomas, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, is an attorney for the Social Security Administration in Atlanta, Georgia, and coaches high school football for Hillgrove HS in Powder Springs, Georgia.

 

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