Posted on December 31, 2020
This isn’t a Boyz II Men appreciation post, but it does feel like a fitting way to summarize the end of the 2020 season.
With Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl serving as an opportunity for both Oregon and Iowa State to put an exclamation point on their respective seasons, the road to Glendale has been filled with twists and turns and obstacles that only 2020 could provide.
In some ways, the end of the road comes as a relief.
For Oregon, at least, the path to the postseason was far from guaranteed a few short weeks ago. Losses in back-to-back weeks on the road at Oregon State and Cal set up a winner-take-all showdown with rival Washington before a COVID-19 outbreak within the Huskies’ program robbed both programs of the chance to earn their way into the Pac-12 Championship Game.
With the Huskies unable to field a healthy team in time for the Conference title game vs. USC, Oregon took its place, going on to defeat USC 31-24 to punch their fortuitous ticket to the desert for their second straight New Year’s Six bowl berth.
Couple those roller coaster weeks with the daily discipline that’s been required of every college football program this season, and it’s easy to see why January 2 will likely be met with equal parts excitement and relief for both the Ducks and Cyclones.
Before putting a holiday bow on what has been a bittersweet season in Eugene, I take a look at the burning questions facing Oregon heading into their Fiesta Bowl matchup with 10th-ranked Iowa State, below and over at WFOD.
1. Who gets the start at quarterback for Oregon?
This is the question on the minds of every Duck fan as Saturday’s game with Iowa State approaches. On Tuesday, we took an in-depth look at the case for and against Tyler Shough getting the start vs. the Cyclones, and while compelling arguments exist on both sides, the exercise really only stands to further entrench or reinforce one opinion over the other.
In truth, with days to go before kickoff, there has been no indication from the Oregon coaching staff one way or the other as to whether Shough will get the starting nod, or Boston College grad transfer Anthony Brown will make his starting debut for the Ducks.
A start for Shough would seem to indicate that Mario Cristobal and his staff have enough confidence and faith in the redshirt sophomore to reverse a stretch of unsatisfactory play that has only gotten progressively worse since the second half of the Oregon State game.
However, it’s anyone’s guess as to how long Shough’s leash will be if he falters early against the Cyclones.
The fact Anthony Brown was showcased for the first time all season (mostly in short yardage and red zone opportunities) against USC suggests that, at the very least, confidence in Shough is waning and that Brown will reprise a similar role against Iowa State.
To take it a step further, Brown’s debut in the Pac-12 Championship Game arguably makes it easier for Cristobal and Ducks offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to expand Brown’s duties in the Fiesta Bowl, perhaps to a point where both Shough and Brown are alternating possessions, or even to the extent that Brown takes over altogether.
Question marks at quarterback are the last thing you want to be dealing with at this point in the season, particularly when preparing to face a very sound Iowa State defense. But there’s no escaping the fact that the uncertainty at the position for Oregon is one of the more intriguing storylines entering this game.
2. Can the Ducks’ surging run defense keep Iowa State’s Breece Hall in check?
Few would have expected the Oregon defense to perform the dramatic about-face they have executed in their last two outings, but alas here we are, as the Ducks’ run defense, in particular, feels like the best thing this team has going for it in this immediate moment.
Of course, the beginning of the season couldn’t have been worse for the Ducks in this regard. Through the first four games, Oregon’s run defense surrendered 208.25 yards per game, 10 touchdowns, and 100-yard rushing efforts from three running backs, including a series-record 226 yards from Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson in the Ducks’ loss to the Beavers.
Since then, however, Oregon has been nothing short of dominant against opposing rushing attacks, as Cal managed just 88 yards on the ground before USC was limited to an anemic 38 yards rushing.
In fairness, both Cal and USC rank 11th and 12th, respectively, in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, though it’s an inspiring trend nonetheless. The task of slowing down Iowa State’s Breece Hall, however, only figures to increase exponentially in difficulty.
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Hall’s physique may remind some Duck fans of Royce Freeman, though Hall sacrifices some of Freeman’s physicality for improved suddenness and explosion.
Ranked as the nation’s second-leading rusher both in terms of yards (1,436) and touchdowns (19), Hall presents a quandary similar to that of Jefferson, in that, like Oregon State’s offense, much of the Iowa State offense is predicated on Hall’s success on the ground, better enabling Cyclones star quarterback Brock Purdy to do damage in the passing game.
Hall’s production has tailed off some in recent weeks, as he’s failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark in each of Iowa State’s last three games (at Texas, vs. West Virginia, and vs. Oklahoma). If the Ducks can extend that streak to four, it may bode well for earning a victory.
3. What can Kayvon Thibodeaux do for an encore?
It’s hard to argue that Kayvon Thibodeaux’s singular presence hasn’t been the most redeeming quality about this Oregon team in 2020.
Though his stats are somewhat modest in comparison to his fellow Pac-12 pass rushers (32 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks), it’s what Thibodeaux hasn’t registered on the stat sheet that has really stood out.
Case in point was Thibodeaux’s sterling performance against USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Facing off against a potential early round draft pick in USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, Thibodeaux was utterly dominant en route to earning Defensive Player of the Game honors, tallying five tackles (including two for loss and a sack) and countless moments of harassment against USC’s Kedon Slovis whenever he dropped back to pass.
It was the second year in a row that Thibodeaux was an electric performer in a championship game for the Ducks, setting the stage for Thibodeaux to potentially launch his campaign to be the top overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft with a strong performance against Purdy and the Iowa State offense.
To the Cyclones’ credit, the offensive line has done an excellent job of keeping Purdy clean and upright through 11 games this season, as they’ve surrendered a Big 12-best 13 sacks.
Thibodeaux, however, will be a different kind of challenge for this group on Saturday.
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