Posted on November 22, 2020
For Mario Cristobal and the 11th-ranked Oregon Ducks, Saturday’s narrow 38-35 win over the UCLA Bruins is certainly better than finding yourself the opposing end of that ledger, but it’s hard to imagine there will be much chest-thumping and celebrating inside the confines of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex considering the all-around performance that was witnessed from the Ducks Saturday afternoon in Eugene.
In his second return trip to Autzen Stadium following unprecedented success as the head coach at Oregon from 2009 through 2012, Bruins head coach Chip Kelly nearly escaped town with an upset victory over his former side; a victory that undoubtedly would have served as the signature win for Kelly since his arrival in Westwood in November of 2017. In fact, if not for a stunning pick-six by Oregon’s Jordan Happle to end the first half of play (more on that later), Kelly and the Bruins are likely headed back to Los Angeles with that signature result.
In the end, the Ducks will live with taking it however they can get it, though Saturday certainly revealed some very real cracks in the dam as it pertains to Oregon’s chances of crashing the College Football Playoff, despite their truncated schedule.
Below and over at WFOD, I examine the biggest takeaways from the Ducks’ white-knuckle victory over UCLA.
1. Oregon has a serious problem on its hands defensively
Prior to COVID-19, the expectation for Oregon entering the 2020 season was that this was a team that would be led by its astonishing front-line talent and depth on defense. As the pandemic lingered through the spring and into the summer, key players such as Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham, and Brady Breeze made the decision to opt-out of the 2020 season and turn pro. Yet, preseason confidence in the Oregon defense remained largely unshaken, as the perceived depth and talent of that group far surpassed anything else in the Pac-12. Now three games into the season, it’s painfully clear that this Oregon defense is far worse off than anyone could have reasonably imagined.
Against the Bruins Saturday, the Duck defense was exposed in a way (particularly on the ground) that hasn’t been seen since October of 2018, when Arizona ran roughshod over Oregon en route to a 44-15 drubbing of the Ducks in Tucson. In that game, the Wildcats ran for 276 yards and two touchdowns. On Saturday, the Bruins gouged the Oregon defense to the tune of 267 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, as dreadful tackling once again reared its ugly head. Of that rushing total, 167 yards and two touchdowns came on 34 carries from UCLA senior running back Demetric Felton, who established career-highs in each of those categories.
Adding even more insult to Saturday’s defensive performance for Oregon was the fact that UCLA was without arguably its best player in junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who was unable to go Saturday. In his place, redshirt freshman Chase Griffin performed admirably in his first start, throwing two costly interceptions, but also exuding impressive poise and confidence for a young player in a difficult spot. So much seemed to be working against UCLA entering this game, but you would have never guessed it given how woeful the Ducks were on defense.
As a whole, the Oregon defense appeared flat-footed, disorganized, and utterly lost for most of Saturday’s game. Even worse, they were dealt a potentially devastating blow with true freshman Noah Sewell being carted off the field in the third quarter with what appeared to be a lower leg injury. Cristobal stated after the game that there’s a chance that Sewell’s injury isn’t as bad as anticipated, but with the Ducks already down another five-star freshman linebacker in Justin Flowe, the linebacking unit is suddenly paper thin with four games remaining on the schedule. Wins can have a “lipstick on a pig” effect on a team’s deficiencies, but if Oregon is to finish the regular season undefeated, the glaring issues on defense can no longer be glossed over.
2. The Oregon offensive line comes tumbling back to earth
It’s not often that you see a team coached by Mario Cristobal get completely pushed around in the trenches, but that’s exactly what UCLA did to Oregon. Not only did Oregon’s front seven on defense get bodied Saturday afternoon, but the Oregon offensive line was throughly whipped as well, as the Bruins held the Ducks to just 88 yards rushing on 34 attempts (2.6 yards per carry) in addition to sacking Ducks quarterback Tyler Shough four times.
Entering the day, the Ducks had averaged 269 yards on the ground through two games and had only allowed Shough to get sacked once, but Oregon had no answer for UCLA’s Osa Odighizuwa, a senior defensive lineman and Portland native, who announced himself as a game-wrecking presence inside Autzen Stadium. One bad game shouldn’t define a group that is still relatively green in terms of their starting experience, but it perhaps provides us with a truer representation of an oscillating quality of play spectrum that we can expect from this group on a weekly basis.
3. Takeaways end up saving the day for the Ducks
At long last, Oregon’s takeaway drought is over. And in all honesty, the timing couldn’t have been better for a Duck team that likely loses this game if not for the turnovers they forced. In fact, each of Oregon’s four takeaways led to either an immediate touchdown or a touchdown on the Ducks’ ensuing offensive series, accounting for 28 of Oregon’s 38 points on the day.
Take it to the 🏡 Oregon with style points to end the half 🦆 pic.twitter.com/UvVLoVHle6
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 21, 2020
Oregon defensive back Verone McKinley returned to his playmaking ways with a genius fumble recovery in the first quarter followed by a critical interception in the third quarter with UCLA advancing into Duck territory, however, it was Boise State transfer Jordan Happle who ended providing the true heroics, though unbeknownst at the time. His improbable 58-yard pick-six with time expiring in the first half gave the beleaguered Ducks an unexpected 24-21 advantage at halftime that ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.
4. Devon Williams’ breakout performance a bright spot for the Oregon offense
Compared to last week’s offensive outburst at Washington State, there wasn’t a ton to write home about for the Ducks on offense Saturday vs. UCLA. However, if there was one significant development that occurred, it was the play of redshirt sophomore wide out Devon Williams.
Reported to have played some of his best football as a Duck in the practices leading up to Saturday’s game, Williams, the former highly-touted transfer from USC, proved that to be the case against the Bruins, snagging six receptions for 123 yards and one touchdown on 11 targets. Though Williams did have a notable drop on a potential third down conversion, in addition to some issues with footing on receptions that could have gone for even more yardage, he demonstrated big-play potential for a wide receiver group that is light on big-bodied pass catchers. With Mycah Pittman expected to return next week at Oregon State, Williams’ emergence provides this offense with another proven playmaker on the perimeter to go along with Johnny Johnson, Jaylon Redd, and Pittman.
— ☘️LegalizeQuack☘️ (@Legalize_Quack) November 21, 2020
5. How much more leash does Camden Lewis have?
If it feels like this has become a recurring topic in this space, it’s because…well, it has. Though he did convert his field goal of the season, a 23-yarder to give the Ducks a 17-14 lead in the second quarter, it feels as though we may be getting closer to reaching the end of the road on Camden Lewis’ bid as the Ducks’ primary field goal kicker. The erratic play stemming from a roller coaster freshman season has unequivocally spilled over into his sophomore season, as Lewis, now 1-for-4 on the year, badly missed an important 43-yard attempt in the fourth quarter that could have extended Oregon’s lead to 41-35.
College kickers are notoriously unpredictable, as there’s a certain amount of breath-holding that takes place every time they trot onto the field. But at this point, Lewis’ well-documented struggles must have Cristobal and Duck fans alike turning blue, as confidence in the young kicker has perhaps never been lower. Cristobal stated as recently as this past week that the competition in practice will dictate who gets an opportunity to kick on game day, but one has to wonder at what point do Cristobal and special teams coordinator Bobby Williams turn to walk-ons Henry Katleman or Harrison Beattie in an effort to change the Ducks’ fortunes in that department.
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