Posted on November 20, 2020
Of course, no Duck fan needs a reminder when it comes to the tremendous levels of success Oregon achieved under Kelly when he served as the program’s head coach from 2009 through 2012.
With all due respect to the incredibly important and notable achievements of former Duck head men such as Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti, it was Kelly who took the torch from those two men and helped elevate the program to heights never before seen in the Willamette Valley.
And while Kelly’s success post-Oregon has been checkered at best, there will always be a soft spot in the hearts of Duck fans who rightfully associate his tenure in Eugene with the program’s zenith to date.
Unfortunately for everyone, no fans will be inside Autzen Stadium this Saturday to shower Kelly with love and adoration like they did in 2018, when he made his initial trip back to Oregon for a game that saw the Ducks more or less dismantle Kelly’s Bruins to the tune of a 42-21 final score.
With preparation well underway for Saturday’s kickoff between the Ducks and Bruins, I examine the biggest questions facing Oregon heading into Week 3, both here and over at WFOD.
1. Can the Ducks reverse the troubling turnover trend?
This is perhaps the elephant in the room when discussing the shortcomings of this Oregon team in 2020. As we mentioned earlier in the week when discussing the odd reversal of preseason expectations that has occurred this season between the Oregon offense and defense, it has been more than a decade since the Ducks have opened the first two weeks of season without notching a single takeaway. Making matters even more perplexing is the fact that Oregon ranked as one of the nation’s best teams in 2019 when it came to racking up takeaways, tallying 27 for the season.
It’s certainly true that the frequency of takeaways can fluctuate greatly from season to season. It’s also a fact that the Ducks lost four of their best defensive playmakers a season ago due to either graduation or opt-outs in Troy Dye, Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham, and Brady Breeze. But it’s not as if this defense is devoid of playmakers in 2020. Far from it, in fact, as Oregon still boasts perhaps the most defensive talent of any team in the Pac-12 – at least on paper.
The defense’s opportunity to change those fortunes could come this weekend against a UCLA team that is actually tied with Oregon for most giveaways (5) in the conference, dovetailing nicely into the other turnover issue facing the Ducks: The Oregon offense can’t seem to hang onto the ball.
The first-half performances from Tyler Shough and the Oregon offense have left quite a bit to be desired, as both games saw Shough throw interceptions while narrowly missing several other opportunities to have passes picked off. That, plus the fumbles from Duck running backs, has prevented Oregon from putting forth the kind of complete four-quarter effort that may have turned the games against the Cardinal and Cougars into blowout victories.
Reversing these trends would be a welcome sight for a coaching staff and a fan base that can sense the true power of this team when it’s firing on all cylinders.
2. How much will the Oregon defense take the performances from the past two weeks to heart?
In addition to failing to turnover opposing offenses thus far this season, the Oregon defense has proven to be rather leaky over the course of two weeks of play. Currently, the Ducks rank ninth in the Pac-12 in opponent yards per play (6.78) and are dead last in opponent plays of 20 yards or more (13), as subpar tackling and a troubling number of broken plays in coverage has this unit looking like a shell of its former self compared to the past two seasons.
Behind Oregon, UCLA is among the conference’s best teams in terms of generating explosion plays, having tallied five plays of 30 yards or more in 2020. Led by perhaps the most dynamic quarterback in the Pac-12 in junior Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the Bruins feature a multi-pronged offensive attack that is tuned to thrive on miscues from opposing defenses, thus there will be no respite for an Oregon defense that has appeared shaky at times.
The good news is that when teams have gotten to third down against Oregon, the defense has excelled in getting opponents off the field (39.29 opponent 3rd down conversion percentage). However, the Bruins currently rank second (behind Oregon) in the conference in third down conversion percentage (51.85), meaning something has to give between these two sides on Saturday.
3. How much might Justin Flowe’s injury impact the Ducks moving forward?
It’s not what you want to see from any player at any level, but particularly from a player of Justin Flowe‘s projected caliber. In case you missed it, reports surfaced Tuesday stemming from a tweet sent from a former high school coach of Flowe’s that stated Flowe would miss the remainder of the season due to a torn meniscus in his knee. Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal somewhat validated those claims when he stated during his media press conference Wednesday that he expects Flowe to be “unavailable” Saturday vs. Bruins, but didn’t offer much more color than that.
If it is indeed the end of Flowe’s season, it will be a disappointing start to what figures to be an illustrious collegiate career once the former five-star prospect returns to full health. Despite logging just one tackle in the season opener vs. Stanford, Flowe was a player the Ducks were counting on to provide key depth at linebacker behind junior Isaac Slade-Matautia.
With him sidelined, and with senior Sampson Niu not currently with the team due to personal reasons, Oregon likely turns to senior Dru Mathis and redshirt sophomore MJ Cunningham to help fill that void behind Slade-Matautia.
For now, the Ducks have the bodies on hand to manage the absence, but if injuries or COVID-19 strike and Flowe’s injury is as bad as has been indicated, it could become a significant problem for this defense as the season rolls on.
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