Willie Taggart

SOURCES: UO QB Justin Herbert breaks collarbone

SOURCES: UO QB Justin Herbert breaks collarbone

EUGENE - Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert suffered a broken collarbone while rushing for a touchdown in the first quarter of Saturday night's 45-24 win over California, according to multiple sources. 

The injury occured near the right-handed quarterback's left shoulder and according to a source is not considered to be season-ending. 

Herbert scored on a seven-yard run to give the Ducks (4-1) a 17-0 lead with 2:14 remaining in the first quarter.

Following the scoring play, trainers attended to Herbert's left shoulder on the sideline before he walked out of the stadium and toward the locker room. Broken collarbones can take from between four and eight weeks to heal depending on the severity of the break. If fractured, Herbert would probably be done for the season. If it's a hairline break, he could return in as little as a few weeks. He did not appear to be in serious pain following the injury and as he walked off the field.  

The injury occurred shortly after senior running back Royce Freeman headed to the locker room after it appeared that he injured himself also somewhere around the shoulder area. He also did not return to the game but his injury is said to not be that serious and he could return as soon as Saturday when the Ducks hosts No. 16 Washington State (5-0), which upset No. 5 USC on Friday night. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart offered no details about his players' injuries during his postgame press conference. However, rumors began circulating immediately following the game that Herbert had indeed broken his collarbone. Several sources close to the team told CSN that they were hearing that Herbert had suffered a break. Official team sources confirmed the news later. 

Herbert finished the day 7 of 8 for 86 yards for one touchdown. 

Compounding the problem at quarterback is that redshirt senior backup Taylor Alie, who replaced Herbert, ended up leaving the game in the fourth carry after getting injured on a running play after he had completed 9 of 13 passes for 41 yards.

That led to Taggart going to freshman quarterback Braxton Brumeister to finish the game. He completed his lone pass attempt for four yards. 

Sources say that Alie's injury isn't serious. That's good news because if he were out the Ducks would be down two just Burmeister and walk-on freshman Mike Irwin out of Lakeridge High School. 

Oregon entered last spring with a very deep group of quarterbacks that included redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen and redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr.  However, Wilson elected to transfer in April during spring drills and in the summer Jonsen left the team leaving Oregon with Herbert and Burmeister, who enrolled at Oregon early enough to participate in spring practices. 

The loss of Jonsen and Wilson forced Taggart to move Alie from wide receiver to quarterback. Alie went to Oregon as a quarterback and in 2015 appeared in games, along with Jeff Lockie, after starter Vernon Adams Jr. injured the index finger on his throwing hand.

In 2016, the Ducks moved Alie and Lockie to wide receiver and went with senior graduate transfer Dakota Prukop, Herbert, Wilson and Jonsen. Herbert took over the starting job week 6 against Washington and threw 19 touchdown passes the rest of the way.  

(more later). 

Cal will challenge Oregon's resolve

Cal will challenge Oregon's resolve

We're about to find out if these Oregon Ducks have the resolve to tighten the screws and win a very losable game against California on Saturday night before the heart of the schedule kicks in and the season spirals out of control. 

Oregon has displayed some signs of brilliance through four games this season. The Ducks (3-1) have also demonstrated that they can be had and at times have proven to be their own worst enemy. These realities make Saturday's 15-point spread in UO's favor appear to be out of whack. UO simply has yet to display the consistency needed to warrant being such a big favorite over a 3-1, PAC-12 opponent. 

A converence leading 42 penalties, inconsistent play in the last three games, youth, new coaching staff and new systems are all playing roles in the erratic product we're seeing on the field. 

On merits alone, Cal (3-1) should be favored when the two teams meet at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at Autzen Stadium. The Golden Bears have better wins on their resume (at North Carolina and Mississippi) and a much better loss (No. 5 USC). Oregon's 3-1 record is deceiving. The Ducks are 1-1 against Power Five competition and has two cheap wins (Southern Utah and at Wyoming). The 42-35 win over Nebraska, which lost to Northern Illinois, is decent. But the 37-35 loss at Arizona State, a team that lost to San Diego State and narrowly defeated New Mexico, 37-31, is a head-scratcher. 

Cal is going to give Oregon all it can handle. The Golden Bears' defense made life miserable for USC quarterback Sam Darnold and the Trojans for three quarters before the dam broke and USC' talent took over and turned a 13-13 tie entering the fourth quarter into a 30-20 win.

Oregon isn't as talented or as experienced as USC and you can bet that Cal coach Justin Wilcox will have some good defensive schemes dialed up to try to confuse quarterback Justin Herbert, rattle the penalty-prone offensive line and fluster a young receiving corps.  The only way the Ducks could avoid a similar game from taking place that they could lose would be to clean up the problems that cost them at ASU and almost allowed Nebraska to come back from a 42-14 deficit at halftime to steal the game. 

Let's face it: A close win and a close loss against two mediocre teams makes the Ducks mediocre, as well. 

For that reality to change, Oregon must figure out how to cut down on penalties and execute consistently, especially on offense. That requires mental toughness when adversity strikes.  False starts are unacceptable. Technique flaws on offense and defense while under durress that lead to holding penalties can't happen. Alignment and assignment issues on offense and defense musn't be tolerated. 

The big problem for Oregon is that these issues might not be unavoidable this season. The team is simly too young. It needs time to mature. Time to develop that mental swagger to go along with the physical swagger. 

Or, maybe we've already seen signs of the Ducks slowly maturing before our eyes. They did hold on to win over the Cornhuskers after the tide turned. And, after falling behind 31-14 to the Sun Devils, the Ducks bounced back to take a 35-34 lead late in the game.

The smart money, however, is on the notion that this is simply who these Ducks are for the time being. We will know more on Saturday. Oregon, no matter how it plays, needs a win. Otherwise, with and upcoming slate of games against No. 16 Washington State, at Stanford, at UCLA, vs. No. 20 Utah and at No. 6 Washington, even becoming bowl eligibility could suddenly in doubt. 

---

Oregon vs. California

When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium. 

T.V.: FS1. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 15.

Records: Oregon (3-1), Cal (3-1).

Last week: Cal lost 30-20 at home to No. 5 USC. Oregon lost 37-35 at Arizona State. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-46, 3-1 at Oregon); Cal's Justin Wilcox (3-1).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5. For the all of the reasons stated above, the Ducks could very easily drop this game. However, it's stretch to believe that Sam Bowers is going to be good enough to win at Autzen Stadium. He has thrown six touchdown passes with eight interceptions on the season. His 55.2 completion percentage ranks 11th in the conference. 

Final pick: Oregon, 37-27. This should be an interesting game but UO will pull it out in the end. 

Oregon's penalties have reached ludicrous levels

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USA Today

Oregon's penalties have reached ludicrous levels

The Oregon Ducks are no strangers to having officials throw numerous yellow flags at them during games but this year's team has raised the bar on infractions accrued to new heights. 

Oregon (3-1) was penalized 14 times on Saturday night during a 37-35 loss at Arizona State to run the Ducks' season total to a Pac-12-leading 42. It could have been worse. Technically, Oregon committed 17 penalties against ASU but the Sun Devils declined three.  

Oregon's 10.5 penalties per game are the most for the program since at least 2000 (see chart below). The most Oregon has ever committed in a season since 2000 is 8.8 in 2015. The Ducks have plenty of time to reverse the trend for this season but averaging double-digit penalties per game certainly is cause for alarm. 

"It's as frustrating as it gets," Oregon redshirt sophomore center Jake Hanson said following Saturday's loss. "You can't expect to win games when you have over a 100 yards of penalties. We have a lot of stuff to cleanup this week."

Oregon was charged with 99 yards in penalties on Saturday and is averaging 89.2 on the season (third most in the Pac-12). The penalties hurt. Earning flags and a general lack of execution contributed to the Ducks converting on just one of 11 third down attempts during their loss to the Sun Devils. 

"I think penalties are a huge factor," UO sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. "Anytime when you're moving backwards it isn't a good thing." 

UO coach Willie Taggart said the proper technique is needed to avoid penalties such as holding (Oregon committed five total on offense and defense vs. ASU) and pass interference.

"We've just got to teach," Taggart said. "Teach and practice."

False start penalties on the offense were also a big problem against ASU (2-2). The Ducks committed five, four in the first half when UO managed to score just 14 points with one touchdown set up by a muffed punt return by ASU at its 11-yard line. 

'You can't do that," Taggart said of the false starts. "You've got to listen for the call."

Interestingly, while penalties have been a problem for Oregon over the years, they typically haven't hurt the team's won-loss record. The Ducks have ranked at or near the bottom in the conference for much of the past 17 years. In fact, Oregon has committed a whopping eight or more penalties per game in eight out of 17 seasons since 2000. 

In 2010, when Oregon went 12-1 and reached the BCS National Championship game under coach Chip Kelly, the Ducks ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in both penalties per game (7.2) and penalty yards per game (61.2). Kelly's teams ranked ninth in the conference in total penalties in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and ranked eighth in 2009. 

The 2014 team, which reached the national title game under coach Mark Helfrich, ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in penalties per game (8.2) and seventh in penalty yards (72). 

Some of the elevation in numbers over the years could be contributed to the number of plays generated by an uptempo offense. More plays could certainly lead to more penalties. But not enough to account for the poor overall rankings. And, tempo certainly wouldn't necessarily impact the team's conference ranking in that area during today's era when most teams run an uptempo offense. 

In 2004, the year before the Ducks moved to the spread offense and began running some no-huddle, the Ducks committed 8.6 penalties per game, the third most (counting this season) since 2000.

While great UO teams, such as the 2010 and 2014 squads, were able to overcome their penalty totals, lesser Duck teams did not. The aforementioned 2004 Ducks went 5-6 that year. The 2016 season, the program's only other losing campaign since 1993, saw the Ducks rank last in the Pac-12 at 8.3 turnovers per game. 

This Oregon team is closer in playing level to the 2004 and 2016 teams than it is to any of the Ducks' championship teams. These Ducks are simply too young and too inexperienced to be good enough to win many close games while giving away yards through penalties. 

Oregon and Taggart had better clean up this penalty mess or more close, frustrating defeats will surely come their way this season. 

OREGON'S PENALTY TOTALS - 2000-2017

2017 (3-1)

Penalty per game game = 10.5 (12th PAC-12)

Penalty yards per game = 89.2 (10th)

2016 (4-8)

Penalty per game game = 8.3 (12th)

Penalty yards per game = 75.8 (12th)

2015 (9-4)

Penalty per game game = 8.8 (10th)

Penalty yards per game = 61 (10th)

2014 (13-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.2 (9th)

Penalty yards per game = 72 (7th)

2013 (11-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.2 (12th)

Penalty yards per game = 70.2 (10th)

2012 (12-1)

Penalty per game game = 7.9 (9th)

Penalty yards per game = 71.1 (9th)

2011 (12-2)

Penalty per game game = 7.2 (9th)

Penalty yards per game = 65 (7th)

2010 (12-1)

Penalty per game game = 7.2 (9th PAC-10)

Penalty yards per game = 61.2 (9th).

2009 (10-3)

Penalty per game game = 7.3

Penalty yards per game = 62.7

2008 (10-3)

Penalty per game game = 7.3

Penalty yards per game = 62.7

2007 (9-4)

Penalty per game game = 6.1

Penalty yards per game = 55

2006 (7-6)

Penalty per game game = 7.5

Penalty yards per game = 60

2005 (10-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.0

Penalty yards per game = 72.7

2004 (5-6)

Penalty per game game = 8.6

Penalty yards per game = 79.7

2003 (8-5)

Penalty per game game = 7.8

Penalty yards per game = 69.7

2002 (8-5)

Penalty per game game = 8.5

Penalty yards per game = 71.2

2001 (11-1)

Penalty per game game = 6.4

Penalty yards per game = 57.9

2000 (10-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.0

Penalty yards per game = 72.0

Oregon reveals true self in loss at ASU, and it's not all bad

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USA Today

Oregon reveals true self in loss at ASU, and it's not all bad

TEMPE, Ariz. - Oregon's zany and quite entertaining 37-35 loss at Arizona State Saturday night might best be defined by one sequence of events involving a spectacular play followed by a selfish moment and a butt chewin' to end all butt chewins. 

UO running back Tony Brooks-James caught a 22-yard touchdown pass near the right sideline of the end zone to draw Oregon to within 31-28 with 4:33 remaining in the third quarter after Oregon had fallen behind 31-14. For whatever reason, the redshirt junior decided to spike the ball, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the ire of UO coach Willie Taggart. 

The television cameras at Sun Devil's Stadium caught Taggart ripping into Brooks-James on the sideline as if he were his son who had broken curfew and shown up at home with a speeding ticket from another state. 

"I was trying to teach him a lesson," Taggart said. "You've got to understand, we're down in the football game, you make a hell of a play, you just can't do that. That's selfish."

In that one moment you saw where these Oregon Ducks truly are as a team. They are inconsistent and undisciplined enough to fall behind in a game they were favored to win by 14 yet talented enough to fight back on the road to eventually take the lead. In the end, however, costly mistakes prevented the Ducks from pulling this one out revealing that they clearly remain a work in progress. 

And all of that is okay and should have been expected. Oregon is 3-1 after going 4-8 last season. Clear progress has been made. But for anyone who had been seduced by the team's 3-0 start, Saturday night was a wakeup call. Keep expectations in check or prepare for some maddening disappointment mixed among flashes of potential greatness.  

We can expect more games like Saturday's during the season. Oregon, for the first time this season, on Saturday faced a solid offense with a dual-threat quarterback who had some very impressive athletes to get the ball to. Quarterback Manny Wilkins threw for 347 yards with no interceptions and rushed for 56 gross yards (35 net) and two touchdowns. Oregon sacked him four times, three defensive end Jalen Jelks delivering three. But Wilkins managed to overcome adversity much of the night and create big plays. 

"I think they had a hell of a lot more explosive plays than anyone had on us all season," Taggart said. 

ASU's much-maligned defense used its aggressive style to take advantage of Oregon's mistakes. Senior running back Royce Freeman, who entered the game with 460 yards rushing, managed just 81 on a season-low 15 carries. Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert was a bit off with his touch on some deep passes and several drops by a young receiving corps minus senior Charles Nelson hurt his completion percentage (19 of 35 for 54 percent). Herbert still passed for 281 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. 

"Penalties and dropped balls," Taggart said of his team's struggles. "It's hard to get into a rhythm... It's hard to go faster like we want to do when you're off schedule."

Oregon committed 14 penalties to bring the season total to a whopping 42 infour games. 

The greatest positive is that Oregon battled back on the road in a Pac-12 Conference game. Consider that the Ducks trailed 31-14 in the third quarter with one of their touchdowns coming courtesy of a muffed punt at the ASU 11. It was a vast departure from the huge leads gained against Wyoming and Nebraska. To that point in Saturday's game, however, little evidence existed to suggest that Oregon would mount a comeback. Yet, the Ducks did just that. Oregon led 35-34 following a four-yard scoring run by Herbert with 6:41 remaining in the game.

"I thought we responded well," Taggart said. "We got ourselves back in it and took the lead in the fourth quarter. I was impressed with out football team by doing that and not giving up and not quitting."

But the Ducks couldn't close. After ASU took the lead with a field goal, Oregon did next to nothing on its final two desperation drives drives. 

"We just didn't do enough to finish it," Taggart said. 

That's because these Ducks weren't ready to win a game like this, just yet. They were used to playing from ahead and didn't have the experience and discipline to win in this situation on the road. 

After the game, players took accountability for their performance. Brooks-James said he had to learn from his selfish mistakes. Redshirt sophomore center Jake Hanson blamed himself and the entire offensive line for not clearing the way for Freeman and better protecting Herbert, sacked late during one of the final drives. Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye blamed his play and the defense. 

These are all good signs of great things to come. But the road to get there is going to be a bumpy one with the heart of the Ducks schedule kicking into gear real soon. 

 

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson will not play tonight at ASU

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson will not play tonight at ASU

TEMPE, Ariz. - Oregon senior wide receiver Charles Nelson, who sprained his right ankle last week, will not play tonight at Arizona State, according to sources. 

Nelson injured his ankle in the first half of the No. 24 Ducks' 49-13 win at Wyoming. He appeared later on crutches and in a walking boot. After the game, UO coach Willie Taggart said the injury wasn't as bad as originally feared. Earlier this week Taggart said that the team hoped to have Nelson in action against the Sun Devils (1-2). That won't happen and Nelson's status for next week's home game against California (3-0) is uncertain. 

Freshman nose guard Austin Faoliu is also expected to return tonight after missing last week's game, according to a source. 

Kickoff tonight is 7 p.m.

Replacing Nelson in the slot could be junior Taj Griffin, who returned to action at Wyoming for the first time since tearing an ACL late last season and caught a 20-yard touchdown against the Cowboys. Freshman Darrian McNeal is also a candidate. 

Without Nelson, Oregon will be relying on a very inexperienced receiving corps. After Nelson, the next leading returning pass catcher from last season is redshirt sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland, who caught six passes for 123 yards in 2016. Nelson caught 52 for 554 yards and five touchdowns, second only to Darren Carrington Jr., who transferred to Utah after Taggart dismissed him from the team for getting arrested and charged with a DUII in July. 

Nelson leads the team with 15 receptions for 253 yards. Sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell's 13 receptions ranks second (156 yards) while freshman Johnny Johnson III is second on the team with 172 receiving yards (10 receptions).

Who starts in place of Nelson is likely irrelevant. Oregon will probably juggle a glut of receivers at multiple positions as it did last week at Wyoming. 

Oregon's Taj Griffin is back, hungry and dangerous

Oregon's Taj Griffin is back, hungry and dangerous

When Oregon junior Taj Griffin took a pass over the middle 20 yards to the end zone in the second quarter of the team's 49-13 win at Wyoming on Saturday, running back Royce Freeman was one of the first teammates to greet him.

"I was trying to rush to the end zone once he scored as fast as I could to give my man some love," the senior captain said.

It was a big moment for Griffin, who hadn't played in a game since an ACL tear during a non-contact drill late last season cost him the final three games of the year.

"It was definitely great to get back out there," Griffin said.

Griffin said he probably could have played in No. 24 Oregon's first two games. But, given that he had missed spring drills and remained limited during fall camp, he thought it best to wait until he was completely 100 percent healthy. That time has come and the lightening-fast and elusive playmaker is ready to contribute. 

"He is a lethal weapon, especially if we use him correctly," Freeman said. "He can do a lot of great things for us."

How exactly will be used? As a running back or as a receiver?

"I like both," he said. "Wherever I can get the ball in space and help my team out."

The 5-foot-11, 178-pound Griffin, recruited as a running back, is listed as a wide receiver on the team's depth chart but received six carries for 35 yards at Wyoming in addition to his lone reception. 

Griffin isn't quite as electric as for UO star De'Anthony Thomas was, and he isn't as polished as senior receiver Charles Nelson. Still, Griffin is a lethal combination of both that could prove to be a wild card for the Ducks this season and a force in the future. 

Oregon is very deep at running back with Freeman, senior Kani Benoit and redshirt junior Tony Brook-James. The receiver position, however, is a lot thinner behind Nelson. Griffin is now listed as the backup slot behind Nelson. In the long run, that ultimately could be Griffin's best position given his lack of ideal size at running back. 

"I'm not the biggest guy, frame wise," he said. 

Thomas, who played at Oregon at 5-9, 175-pounds, moved to receiver his freshman year and ultimately got drafted into the NFL as a receiver by Kansas City.  Griffin has a similar skillset and is hoping to take over the starting slot position next year after Nelson has moved on to the NFL. 

"I'm definitely work towards that," Griffin said. 

For his career, Griffin has 788 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 120 carries and 271 yards receiving 18 receptions for three scores. 

Nelson is currently nursing a sprained ankle but is likely to play Saturday at Arizona State. If not, or even if he's simply limited, we could see a lot more of Griffin in Tempe, Ariz.  

UO wide receivers coach Michael Johnson said Griffin is still learning the position but certainly presents some firepower and will be used in certain situations.  

"When he gets the ball in his hands in space, he is a dynamic player," Johnson said. 

A healthy Pagano will help UO in Pac-12 play, beginning with ASU

A healthy Pagano will help UO in Pac-12 play, beginning with ASU

Oregon graduate transfer Scott Pagano has returned to action just in time to help the No. 24 Ducks take on the high-scoring teams in the Pac-12 Conference. 

Pagano, who missed the first two games after undergoing foot surgery to repair a broken bone, saw minimal playing time on Saturday during Oregon's 49-13 win at Wisconsin. He did not record a tackle. 

“He did alright the times that I did see him," UO coach Willie Taggart said following the game. "We knew there was going to be some rust to get off. But it’s good to get him to get some game experience before we get into Pac-12 play.”

Oregon's defense is off to a strong start. But the addition of Pagano as a graduate transfer from Clemson, which won last season's national title, was met with glee for a reason. He is the best defensive lineman on the team. Having him healthy for Pac-12 play will be a must if the Ducks' defense is going to stand up to the test of facing strong offenses on a weekly basis. 

A fully healthy Pagano, however, could be weeks away for Oregon (3-0).

“I’m still not where I want to be right now,” Pagano said following Saturday's game.

Pagano estimated that is foot was at about 75 to 80 percent healthy. The plan is for him to play as much as he can without hindering the healing progress. When his foot begins to bother him, Pagano said, he would scale back his reps. 

Senior safety Tyree Robinson said Pagano's mere presence has been a boost to the team given that all of the Ducks players know where he has been and what he can do. Taggart said that Pagano still must get into football shape and that UO hopes to increase his repetitions each week.

For Pagano, transferring from Clemson to Oregon, which played so poorly on defense last season, was helped along by the presence of the new coaching staff under Taggart. He called Joe Salave'a the best defensive line coach in the country and said that he saw signs of things looking up while watching a spring practice. Pagano said he could tell that the team was buying into what new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was selling.

The Duck are allowing just 23 points per game after surrendering 41.7 last year. 

“I knew we were going to have a great defense,” Pagano said. “I knew I wanted to play with a team like this."

Next up for Oregon is Arizona State (1-2). The Sun Devils are off to a slow start but have far more speed and weapons on offense than every opponent Oregon has faced this season. 

"This is going to be the most athletic team we've faced so far, by far," Taggart said. 

Here is a quick look at the matchup:

Oregon at Arizona State

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 14 1/2.

Records: Oregon (3-0), Arizona State (1-2).

Last week: The Sun Devils lost 52-45 at Texas Tech. Oregon won 49-13 at Wyoming. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-45, 3-0 at Oregon); Sun Devils' Todd Graham (89-57, 40-28 at ASU).

Sun Devils' impact players: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is off to a pretty hot start, averaging 308 yards passing with seven touchdown tosses and has yet to throw an interception. He has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. Wilkins, a redshirt junior, was the No. 6-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation when he came out of high school in 2014.

"This will be the first time we've had a good mobile quarterback that we've had to go against," Taggart said. 

Senior running back Kalen Ballage has rushed for 179 yards and four touchdowns but is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. 

Sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry is Wilkins' top target. The 6-foot-4 Harry has caught 24 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. 

ASU's defense is led statistically by two freshmen. Defensive end Jojo Wicker has three sacks on the season and linebacker D.J. Calhoun is averaging 10.3 tackles per game. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5.  It's a road game. It's a conference game. It's against what will be by far the best offense the Ducks have faced this season. There's a lot to be worried about for Oregon. However, ASU is about as bad on defense as the Ducks were last season. If the Ducks take care of the football they would once again surpass 40 points. We will know after this game if UO's defense truly has bite if it can keep the Sun Devils in check. 

Early pick: Oregon, 47-33. Oregon's defense will be challenged but it won't give up enough points to waste what should be a strong showing by the Ducks' offense. 

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Whenever the down marker flips to "3" on opposing offenses, Oregon's punt return team jumps to attention and the offense becomes antsy. It's becoming a pavlovian response.

That's because 79 percent of the time this season, the Ducks' defense has stopped opposing teams from converting on third down, a dramatic shift from last season. And it all starts with attitude and desire. Oregon senior safety Tyree Robinson said he urges the defense on every third down to dig deep for that extra burst of energy that allows them to play harder so they can get off the field. 

“I think guys have really bought into that , which kind of makes us a special defense right now,” Robinson said. 

According to Oregon sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tirelessly preaches the importance of making plays on third down, or, the "money down," as he calls it. 

“We have to go out there and make that money,” Dye said. 

Right now, the No. 24 Ducks (3-0) are filthy rich. Opposing offenses have converted just 21.3 percent of the time on third downs, best in the Pac-12 Conference. Last year Oregon allowed a 48.5 percent conversion rate, 11th in the Pac-12. 

The Ducks' defense has shown dramatic improvement over last season in every category imaginable. A low third down conversion rate for opponents and eight turnovers forced have been two of the most important areas of improvement. They lead directly to the team allowing 23 points per game, down from 41.7 a year go. 

Wyoming (1-2) on Saturday managed to convert just 4 of 15 third down attempts during Oregon's 49-13 victory. Two Saturdays ago, Nebraska converted just 2 of 14 attempts during a 42-35 loss at Autzen Stadium. 

"It's great to see those guys get off the field on third down and get the ball back to our offense,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

He credits the success to the defense doing a great job of studying opponents and having an idea of what they like to do on third down. Also, they have done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. Oregon already has 10 sacks after getting just 25 last season. The Ducks sacked Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen twice on Saturday while pressuring him all evening. A projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Allen managed just 64 yards passing against Oregon. 

“When you can get to the quarterback, and he didn’t have time to pass the ball, that’s what usually happens," Taggart said. "And if you can get to him early, he will start looking at the rush and I thought that’s what he did.”

Dye said the defense entered this season with something to prove and a chip on its collective shoulders following such a poor season in 2016 when the Ducks ranked 128th in total defense. Robinson said the experience gained last year by so many young players forced into action has paid off this season. 

“It’s awesome to have a defense that we have so much confidence in," UO quarterback Justin Herbert said.

But will it last? Oregon hasn't exactly faced quality offenses to date. Wyoming's 14.3 points per game ranks 120th in the nation. Nebraska ranks 63rd at 31.7 points per game. Oregon won 42-35 over Nebraska on Sept. 9. The Cornhuskers (1-2) lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois on Saturday. 

The Ducks begin Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday at Arizona State (1-2). There are 11 teams in the conference averaging better than 31 points per game, including the Sun Devils. Most teams have great passing offenses that will challenge the Ducks' Pac-12 leading 89.7 passing defense efficiency rating. 

ASU junior quarterback Manny Wilkins is averaging 308 passing yards per game with seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions. 

The Pac-12 is going to be a challenge, one the UO defense is looking forward to facing. 

“Oregon is not just an offensive school anymore," Dye said. "We play defense, too.”

Ducks No. 24 in both AP and Coaches polls

Ducks No. 24 in both AP and Coaches polls

The Oregon Ducks entered both the Associated Press Top 25 and the Amway Coaches polls for the first time this season at No. 24 following a 49-13 win at Wyoming on Saturday. 

Oregon (3-0) sat just outside of the top 25 in both polls last week. 

Five Pac-12 teams reside in the AP Poll: No. 5 USC (3-0), No. 7 Washington (3-0), No. 18 Washington State (3-0), No. 23 Utah (3-0) and Oregon. 

Five Pac-12 teams are ranked in the Coaches Poll: No. 5 USC, No. 6 Washington, No. 18 WSU, No. 21 Utah and Oregon. 

Stanford (1-2) fell out of both top 25 polls after losing 20-17 at San Diego Sate. 

 

Oregon winning with swag, but now things get real

Oregon winning with swag, but now things get real

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Oregon coach Willie Taggart concluded an on-field postgame interview moments after his team had easily dispatched of Wyoming, 49-13 at War Memorial Stadium and then began to jog toward the stadium exit to meet his team in its locker room. 

Taggart, however, quickly changed direction and instead headed toward the hundreds of thrilled Oregon fans still cheering from the stands near the field exit. He then ran alongside the railing, slapping hands with fans before working his way out of the stadium. His action brought about more cheers from the Oregon faithful that had made the trip to Laramie for the game. 

There is no denying that Taggart, with his charisma and engaging personality, has won over the hearts of many Oregon fans who had no idea who he was before UO hired him last December. The Ducks' 3-0 start has justified the hype he generated over the offseason by hiring a strong staff and getting out to a dizzying start as a recruiter. 

The question now is: Where is all of this leading to this season?

Could the Ducks indeed be Pac-12 Conference contenders in year-one of the Taggart rebuilding process? Or, is the quick start simply a product of a young and talented team having played a weak schedule to date? It's difficult to tell. The only thing that we can say for sure is that these Ducks have been much stronger on defense than they were last year when the team went 4-8, they remain an offensive powerhouse under Taggart's guidance (at least in the first half of games) and there is enough youth playing key roles to expect continued improvement.

Taggart acknowledges the holes in his team. The offense, for the second week in a row, struggled in the second half scoring only one touchdown after being shutout after halftime by Nebraska last week. The defense dominated, but against a team that entered the game with 30 total point over two games. 

“It’s great when you can win and there’s so much more you can improve on,” Taggart said.

Indeed. Improvement is the key. The Ducks as they sit right now are not good enough to contend regardless of their record, shared by six other Pac-12 teams, including three within the North Division. They have not played well enough to expect that they have more than one sure win on their Pac-12 schedule. Oregon State (1-3) is the only team on paper that anyone could clearly say the Ducks should easily defeat. Every other game on UO's schedule should be approached with great trepidation. 

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Oregon is certainly building toward something. You can sense that the Ducks, under Taggart, and with such a young roster led by a star sophomore quarterback in Justin Herbert, has championship potential. It just probably won’t happen this season. And that's okay. 

This is a team that is exciting, fast, fun to watch and loaded with intriguing student-athletes. Plus, they appear to be a tight-knit group, which only makes them more endearing. Taggart, who instituted several team-bonding exercises during the offseason, said that the team's camaraderie is paying off in games. 

“Now I think these guys are seeing how it can make a difference with this football team," he said. "The beauty of it, again, is that when things go bad you don’t see anyone pointing fingers or complaining or anything.”

That's good because things are about to start going badly at a much higher rate. Oregon hasn't had much go wrong this season, winning its opener 77-21 over Southern Utah and then jumping out to halftime leads of 42-14 and 42-10 in the past two weeks. The Pac-12 won't be as kind. 

Most will score more often and not be as accommodating on defense. We will see numerous games still in doubt well into the second half. Such games will truly test just how far this team has come since last season.

The Ducks next play at Arizona State (2-1), which scores points, but right now could be regarded as the second weakest game on UO's remaining schedule. Then they host California (3-0), which is playing strong defense, and then No. 21 Washington State (3-0), which is led by a future NFL quarterback in Luke Falk who just threw six touchdown passes at OSU. 

Then the Ducks play at No. 19 Stanford (1-2 and struggling), at UCLA (2-1), host Utah (3-0 and about to become ranked) and then play at No. 6 Washington (3-0). 

That's seven tough games before the Ducks host Arizona (2-1), which has scored 60-plus points twice. 

There will be enough wins found in that schedule to expect at least seven for UO. Beyond that, it's a crapshoot. How many victories UO does earn will be determined by how much Oregon's hot start is the result of its play or the soft schedule that includes a 42-35 win over Nebraska, which just lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois. 

That all said, Oregon is taking care of business, and doing so with swag and confidence. The Ducks can't help whom they have played to date. All they can do is handle their own business. 

Whatever happens the rest of the way, the Ducks are on to something. It just might take another season for it to marinate before Taggart is greeting fans following a championship victory.