Oregon Football will play it’s third ranked opponent in a row when it faces Washington next Saturday. This early Pac-12 gauntlet is showing us where Oregon stands among the best in the conference, and begs the question:
Who is the best team in the Pac-12?
Both Stanford and Washington dominate the conversation for best team in the Pac-12. Colorado is ranked #21 after a 4-0 start, and could be the best team in the South. USC might have started slow but they’re picking up steam with two conference wins. Although Oregon’s loss to Stanford makes it tougher to win the Pac-12 North, the argument could still be made that they are the best football team in the conference. Oregon lost to Stanford in an impressive collapse where it was evident the Ducks played better. Under that assumption, the Oregon-Washington matchup in week seven serves as a litmus test for who is really the top team in the Pac-12.
Let’s analyze what makes this 2018 Oregon Ducks team so lethal. Justin Herbert is making incredible throws that make teams on Sundays jealous. Herbert has combined his arm talent with intangibles and a tremendous awareness of what’s happening around him. The offensive line has protected Herbert well, while also springing a diverse cast of running backs. While wide receivers were a weakness last year, Dillon Mitchell has evolved into a weapon for the Ducks. Only time will tell if the tight end position and other wideouts besides Mitchell can be useful options in Herbert’s arsenal or a critical weakness, but regardless they have a good start.
In their first six possessions of last Saturday’s win over California, Oregon scored four touchdowns. This explosive start is reminiscent of the previous week against Stanford; however, in both matches, Oregon’s offense came to a screeching halt at the end. The huge plays made by Oregon on the defensive side of the ball overshadowed the fact that Oregon failed to adjust offensively again.
Against Stanford, the Ducks scored twenty-four points on their first four possessions – three touchdowns and one field goal. After halftime, Oregon’s next seven possessions only yielded seven points, including two brutal fumbles on potential scoring drives. The Ducks averaged 8.7 yards per play in the first half and only 4.1 yards per play in the second half.
The same story emerged against Cal, with Oregon’s first six drives consisting of four touchdowns and 28 points. Once again though, they limped to the finish with Oregon’s final four drives resulted in zero points with a fumble and missed field goal, opening the door for a Cal comeback that luckily the defense prevented. The Ducks averaged 10.1 yards per play in the first half, and only 4.4 yards per play to close it out. This is a troubling trend to keep an eye on.
Meanwhile, the defense is settling into a bend but don’t break mentality. They held Stanford to a modest 4.9 yards per play in the first half, before getting absolutely gutted for 10.8 yards per play the entire second half. Against California the story was almost the same, giving up 4.9 yards per play in the first half, and then 7.7 yards per play in the second half. The Ducks last two weeks were eerily similar, so why was one game a brutal loss and the other a comfortable victory? Turnovers. Against Stanford, Oregon was en route to a comfy win until two huge fumbles swung the game. Against Cal, Oregon’s defense was phenomenal, snagging four interceptions and a fumble return TD.
In the first half of these games, Oregon plays like they have the talent to beat anyone in the country; but in the late stages, Oregon regresses to not even being a Pac-12 championship contender. The sample size is small, but the similarities in these games could be telling. If the Washington game determines how serious Oregon is about contending in 2018, they absolutely need to play better football in the second half and continue forcing turnovers on defense.
I’ll have more on the upcoming Washington game next week, and watch out for a story later this week about Oregon Volleyball at their lowest point in Matt Ulmer’s tenure.
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