Ducks, Cristobal Answer Nagging Questions: Are the Ducks for Real?

Coach Ken Woody Coach Woody's Analysis

Oregon, a 14-point (or more) underdog, confidently entered the storied Ohio State ‘Shoe that was packed with 100,489 fans hungry to see the Buckeyes earn their tenth-straight victory over what many assumed were the usual bunch of Northwest patsies who have never defeated OSU.

Head coach Mario Cristobal and the Ducks answered a lot of questions that have lurked the past two seasons: can Oregon show any kind of flair and explosion on offense and will all the great recruiting classes Cristobal and his staff have gathered the past three years finally show it on the for-real field?

The answers given were resounding: offensive coordinator Joe Morehead crafted a brilliant game plan that used every weapon the Ducks had in uniform and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter fired up his charges when needed most to totally deflate Ohio State.

CJ Verdell had a career day, rushing for 161 yards against a Buckeye front that, based on the Ducks offensive line’s dismal performance against Fresno State, did not need to respect Cristobal’s stated goal of dominating the line of scrimmage. The Ducks rushed for an astounding 269 yards and limited OSU to 128. Usually, when these two teams rumble, those totals are turned around.

CJ had tons of running room against the Buckeyes.

Oregon’s offense used inside runs to set up outside passes and the offense, for the first time in a long time, had a flow and sense of purpose that was a beautiful sight for Duck fans who have long criticized Cristobal for past methodical and boring performances.

Quarterback Anthony Brown showed he’s for real—completing 17-of-35 throws for two touchdowns and running for 65 yards, many in crucial situations. His completion percentage was not impressive: dinged by several drops by Duck receivers, who had problems last week against Fresno State. Brown looked like a true maestro directing an Oregon offense that was dynamic and steady under pressure: many of his throws were completed in critical situations.

For the game, the offensive line regained respect, grinding out 269 yards rushing, allowing no sacks, and converting four-of-four red zone opportunities and the team committed no turnovers.

The Duck defense was magnificent on fourth down, allowing only two conversions of five tries, every stop key to keeping the Buckeyes at bay on the scoreboard. Oregon was never behind in the game, and the defense was strong when needed most, regardless of field position.

In the video above, CJ Verdell (No. 7) scores the first of his three touchdowns with excellent line blocking highlighted by the crack back block of tight end DJ Johnson (No. 12). At 6-4, 273 pounds, Johnson is an outstanding blocker and receiver and an imposing physical threat to any defender who must cover him.

Verdell scored twice on this exact play and coach Morehead called it several other times in the right situations. Ohio State’s linebackers and safeties had a difficult keying the ball, often out of position to make a play on the ball carrier.

The Duck’s corner Mykael Wright (No. 2) above is caught in an embarrassing situation, looking down checking the coverage call sheet on his wrist band, as the Buckeye’s best wide receiver runs past him for the easiest touchdown he’ll ever score. The score gave some life to the 100,484 fans in the ‘Shoe and brought OSU to a tie score which was as near as they would get during this game.

This play above by freshman linebacker Noah Sewell (No. 1) shows why he’s an All American: beating OSU’s left guard to the running lane, while Kristian Williams (No. 91) gets upfield on his blocker, cutting off the cutback lane.

Sewell’s tackle is textbook: square to the runner with explosive hip action that stands up the ball carrier for no gain as the Buckeyes were threatening to tie the score before halftime.

In the above play, Verdell scores his third touchdown at the beginning of the second half. Verdell finished with three touchdowns and 161 yards, averaging eight yards per carry against a proud Ohio State defense. His rushing success also helped set up key pass completions as the game wore on as the Buckeyes were forced to honor any fake the quarterback made to him.

This is the only evidence the Ducks were able to cover OSU’s All American receiver Chris Olave(No. 5) on a fourth-and two situation deep in Oregon’s red zone. The Duck secondary had every receiver covered and was helped out by excellent pressure from the defensive front.

Adrian Jackson (No. 29) and Nate Heaukulani (No. 46) flushed the freshman quarterback CJ Stroud to scramble outside and throw across the field late in a vain attempt to connect with Olave. Duck defender DJ James (No. 0) avoids an interference penalty by not grabbing the hands of Olave and coming over the top to knock the ball down. Stroud was 35-of-54 pass attempts for 484 yards and three touchdowns while Olave caught 12 passes for 126 yards, but no scores.

Freshman tight end Moliki Motavao (No. 8) above catches his first touchdown pass, wide open in the end zone thanks to the consistent inside running of CJ Verdell. Anthony Brown fakes to Verdell, who draws the entire Ohio State defense inside.

DJ Johnson goes in motion and sneaks in front of Verdell’s plunge and, blocking the end man on the line of scrimmage, draws the two defenders who are now concerned with Brown running outside, giving Motavao plenty of open territory behind them. What makes this more effective is the tight end, who gets lost by releasing in front of the three outside defenders; everyone else was reacting to Verdell.

Ohio State pulls to within 35-28 on this scoring pass above from Stoudt to Jaxson Smith-Njgba on a clever fourth-down pass play. OSU’s right tight end picks safety Steve Stephens IV (No. 7), who is supposed to be covering the slot receiver coming across the field while the Buckeyes’ offensive line picks up an all-out blitz by the Ducks.

The pick is legal as there is no body contact with Stephens, who is forced to avoid the tight end and the Duck covering him. Stephens’ alignment at the snap was too deep for him to cover Smith-Njgba anyway. Give OSU credit for running the tight end at the back of the referee, whose position helped obscure Stephens’ vision of his receiver.

The Buckeye’s right tackle avoids the referee’s eyes with a key holding violation on a Duck pass rusher.

Another example above of the value of the Duck’s inside running success: the entire interior defense sucks in on the run fake to Verdell. Tight end DJ Johnson sneaks into the flat behind the fake to Verdell. Two defenders with outside responsibility and concerned about Brown running after the fake, are influenced by the inside fake to be out of position to defend the key completion that allowed the Ducks to run out the clock.

After a huge win that took them to the clouds, Oregon still has work to do on defense. There was no appreciable pass rush until the latter part of the game and the secondary needs to tighten up. The Ducks sorely missed five starters including All Universe Kayvon Thibodeaux who should be back in stride by conference play, or sooner, against Stony Brook, who lost to New Hampshire 27-21 in their opener and won last week 24-3 over Colgate.

Out of respect, the Ducks should not overlook the Seawolves, as they should remember what it’s like to have that attitude directed towards them. With the unrelenting intensity and discipline that Cristobal brings to the Duck program, that should not be a problem.

On the other hand, one can forgive him for feeling a little smug about all the questions he’s faced for so long before this exhilarating victory: “I told you so, just wait until you see what else Oregon can accomplish.”

Coach Ken Woody
Eugene, Oregon
Top Photo by Tom Corno

Ken Woody coached college football as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Utah State and Washington State and head coach at Whitman College and Washington University-St. Louis.

He conducts a weekly Duck Clinic at the 6th Street Grill on Wednesday’s at 6:00 p.m. It is free and open to the public-Learn football and why the Ducks win or lose.

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