Willie Taggart

Thomas Graham Jr.'s success a product of his family's plan

Thomas Graham Jr.'s success a product of his family's plan

EUGENE – Thomas Graham Sr. rose to his feet in a reaction of excitement and surprise so quickly he experienced a head rush that sent him right back down into his seat in Autzen Stadium.

His son, Oregon cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., had seemingly come out of nowhere to intercept a pass in the fourth quarter of the Ducks’ 42-35 win Saturday over Nebraska. 

“I almost passed out,” Graham Sr. said.

While Graham Sr. gathered himself, his wife Tamisha Graham jumped up and down while screaming: “That’s my baby, that’s my baby.”

Her “baby” right now is very much the man on Oregon’s defense, which appears to have greatly improved over last season thanks in part to the play of Graham Jr.  Through two games, the former four-star recruit out of Rancho Cucamonga High School in the California city of the same name already has two interceptions and two pass breakups, one leading directly to an interception.

Graham Jr. is sure to experience his share of lows this season. Too many elite quarterbacks and receivers operate within the offensively-driven Pac-12 Conference for that not to happen. Nevertheless, he appears to have the makings of becoming an elite cornerback. Not simply because of his extreme athleticism. Graham Jr. has embraced the nuances of the sport he loves to become as mentally prepared to perform at a high level as he is physically. And this is all by design. Part of a plan put forth by parents that demanded excellence from their two children and to avoid the mistakes made by a father who admittedly failed to reach his athletic potential due to lack of guidance and a poor attitude. 

The result is a daughter who is an elite hurdler and a son who could become a dominant defensive back for a program desperately in need of difference makers on that side of the ball.

“He’s a big-time player,” UO coach Willie Taggart Taggart said following Saturday’s game. “For him to be as young as he is and know as much football as he does, he’s great to have and it’s great to know he is gong to be here for a while.”

--- Team Graham 

Graham Sr., a graduate of San Diego High School, grew up playing football and participating in track & field. The son of a single mother, his athletic career peaked at San Jose City College because, the former cornerback said, he lacked academic focus and missed not having the guidance of a father to push him.

“I was a guy who never wanted to take responsibility for my actions,” Graham Sr. said.

Tamisha played softball in high school and grew up academically driven, eventually earning her masters degree in counseling. 

The couple has two children, Thomas, 18, and Jasmyne Graham, 20, forming what the family calls “Team Graham.”  Dad took charge of preparing the children for sports.  Mom handled the academic side. Team Graham's goal has been to assure that their children remain focused and driven to succeed.

Oregon does not allow true freshmen to speak to the media. Jasmyne recalls life as a Graham child. 

“Growing up, my dad would always tell us not to disrespect his name,” she said.

Graham Sr. repeatedly asked his children: “What do Grahams do?”

“We give 110 percent,” his children would respond in unison.

At times, they grew tired of the mantra.

“We get it, dad,” they would say.

Later on in life, they truly got it.

“As I got older I realized what he was trying to do,” Jasmyne said. “Everything we do we’re doing it in honor of ourselves.”

Graham Sr. said he demanded that his children live in the moment and strive to excel.

“Not just in athletics," he said. "I want them to compete in life...It doesn’t matter what you do. If you are a fry cook at McDonalds, be the best fry cook you can be.”

His children, as it turned out, were destined for much greater heights.

Dad coached them hard leading up to high school. He often blurred the lines between father and coach. 

“I’d have to say, ‘dad, turn off the coach switch,'” Jasmyne said with a laugh.

Graham Jr. rarely did. He pushed as the bad cop while mom mostly played the good cop.

It all paid off.

Jasmyne became an elite hurdler, earning a scholarship to USC before transferring to UNLV this year. She hopes to qualify for the 2020 Olympic team. 

--- Chasing big sister

Graham Jr.'s road toward becoming a college athlete began with chasing big sis as a small child.

Her success as a youth often made Graham Jr. invisible to outsiders.

“Nobody knew we had a son,” Graham Sr. said. “Everybody thought we just had a daughter because she was so successful.”

Jasmyne showed zero mercy to her little brother. She’d roughed him up a little from time to time if he got out of line. But she did most of her damage in races, repeatedly dominating her little brother in head-to-head races. She’d mock his times at track meets, pointing out that hers were much faster.

“I’d say, ‘you’re slow,’” she recalled. “He was.”

Jasmyne drove her little brother nuts.  But, Graham Jr., who started playing tackle football at age 6 and competed up a level all of his life, wasn’t obsessed with sports as a little boy. Math and animals peaked his interest the most. The National Geographic Channel held his attention more so than televised games and highlights.

“He was always eager to learn,” Graham Sr. said. “I didn’t think he would be sports minded.”

Still, Jasmyne remained Graham Jr.’s white whale. Until he finally caught her, past her and won a race in the eighth grade while she was a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in Corona, Calif.

“He got tired of being her little brother,” Graham Sr. said.

Jasmyne didn’t take the loss well. At first. She blamed gender.

“He’s a boy,” she said with a laugh. “Him winning was an issue for him, not me. He should be faster.”

The dynamic between the two changed. Graham Jr. went from 5-foot-3 (the same height as his sister) to 5-9 in just over a year. Suddenly, Jasmyne was looking up at her little brother.

“Once he got taller and started lifting weights, I knew that if I hit him, he was going to hit him back,” Jasmyne said.

Graham Sr. noticed a change in his son. He became more confident.

“Once he started beating his sister, he thought he was the king of the house,” Graham Sr. said.

He was, at least when it came to speed. Jasmyne didn’t like it but what was done was done. Dad came next on Graham Jr.’s race list.

During a junior high football practice, Graham Jr. was dominating teammates in races. Dad decided to take him on.

Big mistake. It would be the last race they ever had against each other.

--- Student of the game

Once Graham's confidence grew, he went all in on football. He trained harder and studied harder. He dove into watching game video. His games. College games. NFL games. It didn't matter. He studied and learned. 

“He knows the routes from teams he played in 7th and 8th grade,” Graham Sr. said. “ He has a really great memory…I think he’s going to be a coach when he is done playing.”

Graham Jr. played varsity as a freshman at Roosevelt High where his sister graduated from in 2015. He transferred to Rancho Cucamonga before his junior year. There, he blossomed into a superstar and began receiving numerous accolades.

Graham Jr.’s high school coach, Nick Baiz, said his star cornerback/receiver was a little shy early on. By his senior year, however, his personality blossomed. Graham Jr’s positive energy proved infectious to his teammates, as did his study habits.

“He’s always kind of been a student of the game,” Baiz said. “His intellect and maturity allow him to understand what the coaches are telling him on film”

Whenever Baiz would get worried before a game, Graham would be there to pick him up.

“He’d always tell me before a game, ‘coach, we’re about to whoop that (butt). Don’t worry,'" recalled Baiz.

Graham Jr. rarely got beaten during a game. But when he did, his support system would all look at one another and know it was go time.

“Let’s go, baby boy,” they’d scream.

Then, something bad would happen for the other team.

“Any time he’s ever done something bad he comes back and does something better to erase that,” Jasmyne said. “He takes it to another place.”

Recruiters flooded the Graham’s home with letters and calls. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 12 cornerback in the nation. Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska, the entire Pac-12 and a host of other major programs pursued Graham. But most of them were all wasting their time. Graham Jr. committed to USC, his dream school, in July of 2015 before his junior season.

That lasted a year. In the summer of 2016, the USC staff failed to reach out to Graham Jr. for a few weeks. So, he decommitted. USC tried to get him back on board. No dice.

Jasmyne, who had been looking forward to attending college with her little brother, was not happy. But she understood. Graham kept his options open all the way through his senior season.

Graham Sr., always the tough critic, wondered if his son had what it took to play for a team in the Southeastern Conference. He wondered if his son was a ‘UCLA kid,’ which in their household of USC fans, including a Trojan for a daughter, meant “soft.”

Tamisha, however, had greater belief in his son’s abilities.

“I’d said he was a ‘UCLA kid’ and she’d say he could play in the SEC or anywhere he wants to because he’s that guy,” Graham Sr. said. “Thomas and her are like Starsky and Hutch. A Stick and a clutch. They go together.”

Graham Sr. wanted his son to go to Notre Dame. Jasmyne liked Nebraska best for her brother, after USC, of course. Tamisha envisioned her son attending Arizona State.

Graham Jr. remained undecided.

Then, Willie Taggart entered the picture. 

--- Oregon bound

Oregon introduced Taggart as its new head coach on Thursday, Dec. 8.  That weekend he traveled to Rancho Cucamonga to visit the Grahams.

By Dec. 15, Graham had committed. Taggart’s smile, personality and honesty won over Team Graham. 

“Taggart changed everything,” Graham Sr. said. “He sat down and it wasn’t all about football, it was more about life. He said he had a plan to help make Thomas a better man.”

Unlike most recruiters, Taggart didn’ boast about preparing Graham Jr. for the the NFL. He didn't promise him that he would start right away. Taggart simply offered Graham Jr. a chance to compete and to get an education in a disciplined yet nurturing environment.

Graham Jr. had already visited Oregon while being recruited by former Ducks defensive backs coach John Neal. Graham Jr. liked the small-town atmosphere of Eugene and became enamored with the Oregon's scenic outdoors. 

“I could see myself living here,” he told his mom.

Graham Jr. couldn't wait to get started at Oregon so he enrolled during the winter term. Tamisha and her daughter were against that idea. They wanted him to enjoy his senior year. 

"I was also worried because he was only 17 and that's my baby, but I knew he was mature enough to handle it," Tamisha said. "My fear was letting go."

When he returned home for spring break, Jasmyne discovered a different person. 

“He proved me wrong on so many levels,” she said. "He was a totally different person. He had grown up. He was still that goofy, funny, little kid, but he had matured in so many ways.”

The siblings have grown closer as they've gotten older. Jasmyne said despite their childhood spats, she's always viewed him as a very giving and generous person who she now leans on from time to time. 

“There are times when I feel like I can’t do something or I’m down and I know that if I call him he will say, “you need to remember who you are,'” she said. "That always makes me feel better."

Graham Jr. was one of the centerpieces of recruiting class that ranked No. 18 in the country. Immediately during winter drills, Taggart began seeing signs that Graham Jr. could be special. Taggart noticed his maturity and appetite for knowledge. Plus, his energy and determination. He was Taggart's type of player. Someone who wanted to compete at everything, which had been Graham Sr.'s goal for his son all along. 

Graham Jr.'s first roommate, former safety turned receiver Brenden Schooler, said the freshman clearly had natural football ability and instincts and a desire to learn. The two often sat around talking about the strengths and weaknesses of other players.

"He's just a football guru," Schooler said. "He loves it."

Sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell said Graham Jr.'s attention to detail is clear in his play.  

"Thomas has great knowledge of the game plan and that accentuates his athleticism," Mitchell said. 

So much so that he immediately jumped into the mix at cornerback during the spring. That carried over to the fall where he has been competing with senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugochukwu Amadi for playing time. Those two started the first game when Graham had five tackles as a backup. He made his first start Saturday against Nebraska. 

--- The head tilt

Knowing he would field questions about Graham Jr. following his performance against Nebraska, Taggart spoke to his star freshman before entering the post-game press conference. 

"He told me to tell you that he is excited," Taggart said. "That's why he came to Oregon to help this football program and to help turn this program. He said to, 'make sure to tell them, coach, that I appreciate you for coming down to recruit me.'"

Laughter ensued. 

“I’m serious, he did say that," continued Taggart. 

If Graham Jr. could speak to the media, one obvious question would be how he reacted to his day getting off to such and up-and-down start against the Cornhuskers.

On Nebraska's first play from scrimmage, Graham Jr. trailed a receiver who was eyeing a sideline pass over the cornerback's head. At the last second, Graham Jr. threw his hands out and tipped the pass, which was then intercepted by senior safety Tyree Robinson to set up Oregon's first touchdown.

Later that quarter, Nebraska senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El beat Graham Jr. on a jump ball in the right corner of the end zone. He had solid coverage but failed to look back for the football. Had Graham Jr. done so he might have made the interception. He also made contact with the receiver before the ball arrived and still got scored on to make the score 14-7, Oregon.

The play left his parents stunned, looking at each other with faces that read: “Did that just happen?”

But, just like when their son was in high school, they knew such a moment would only fuel their ultra competitive son. They also saw that signature head tilt to the right that Graham Jr. does when he is about to turn up the heat on his opponent. 

"When that happens, game on," Tamisha said. 

“If you beat him at something he is going to die trying to beat you back,” Graham Sr. said. “He’s a poor sport. He’s a poor sport to the fifth power.”

That competitiveness traces back to simple things like board games, video games, dominoes, card games and racing his big sister. 

"When he loses, he won't let you leave until he wins," Graham Sr. said. 

Late in the second quarter Graham Jr. intercepted Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee at the Nebraska 34 to set up a touchdown that gave Oregon a 42-14 lead. In the third quarter he broke up a pass. In the fourth he made the interception that left his father woozy.

Graham read and then jumped the pass intended for Nebraska's tight end over the middle and returned it 28 yards to the Nebraska 31.

“In the last six months he’s proven to me that he’s a high-caliber player,” Graham Sr. said.

After the game, Graham Jr. didn't have much to say about the game. He doesn't brag much. 

“He goes back into lala mode,” Graham Sr. said. “He wanted to go home and play video games. The most you can get out of him is ‘it was solid,” or ‘it was lit.’”

Watching on television from afar with great pride was sister Jasmyne, who will travel to Wyoming to see her brother and the Ducks play the Cowboys on Saturday. She remains Graham Jr.'s first major conquest. Now she looks up to and is inspired by her little brother. 

“I’m a fan of my brother,” Jasmyne said. “I feel like I’m his number one fan and number one supporter…It took so many fights to get here.”

It also took a lot of Team Graham pushing both along to the point where now the Graham children are thriving on their own. 

Oregon's defense improving in time for Wyoming QB Josh Allen

Oregon's defense improving in time for Wyoming QB Josh Allen

EUGENE - The best thing to come out of Oregon's 42-35 win Saturday over Nebraska at Autzen Stadium was that the Ducks' defense demonstrated legitimate signs of being - gasp - decent. 

The Ducks held Nebraska to 361 yards of total offense, and more importantly, 102 yards rushing. The fact that the Cornhuskers converted on just 2 of 14 third down attempts proved even more impressive.  

“It was great to see our defense step up and make plays,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

The defense did so time and time again while the Ducks' offense fell to pieces in the second half after getting the team out to a 42-14 halftime lead. 

Oregon's offense turned over the ball twice in the second half and couldn't muster up much in the way of any offense. That helped put Nebraska in position to score 21 points in the second half. That's still a high number for UO's defense to choke down but the Ducks came up with with numerous stops and key interceptions in the second half (four on the day) to help protect the lead. 

This is a defense that was much maligned the previous two seasons, and deservedly so. One consistent presence on the defense since 2015 has been senior cornerback Arrion Springs, who said Saturday that he hoped the way the defense's performance earned some appreciation from the fans. 

“I guess it was fun that it had to be on the defense’s shoulders this game toward the end,” Springs said. 

The game-clinching play came when senior linebacker Jonah Moi blitzed, ran through a tight end and then forced Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee into a bad pass that lofted into the hands of junior cornerback Ugochukwu Amadi. 

“(Outside linebackers coach Raymond Woodie) always preaches that we have to win one-on-ones with the tight end," Moi said. "I just drove him back and I saw the quarterback’s arm come up and I just hit his arm."

The Ducks weren't making such plays last season when they allowed 41.7 points per game. This, of course, is a more experienced defense in many spots but does have its share of youth, including freshman cornerback Thoma Graham who intercepted two passes on Saturday. 

“I’m more proud of our defense for stepping up when we needed them to,” Taggart said.

Oregon is going to continue to surrender yardage. Anything under 400 in this day and age is pretty darn good, especially considering the pace of the Ducks' offense. If you're going to score, or not score, in possessions that last two minutes, one can't expect the defense to completely shut down teams.

“Nowadays in football people are going to get yardage," Taggart said. "I think what’s important is to take the ball away from them.”

Oregon forced just 12 turnovers last season (nine interceptions and three fumbles). So far this year, the Ducks' have taken the ball away six times (all interceptions). 

Next up is Wyoming  (1-1) and junior quarterback Josh Allen. He is being touted as a potential high first-round NFL Draft pick but so far this season has been unimpressive. 

He did light up Gardner-Webb University (Big South Conference) on Saturday for 328 yards and two touchdown passes during a 27-0 win at home. However, The week before he passed for just 174 yards and had two passes intercepted during a 24-3 loss at Iowa.

Allen might certainly be headed to the NFL but he doesn't have much NFL-level talent around him and could experience another tough day against what appears to be a solid Oregon defense. 

---

Oregon at Wyoming

When: 4 p.m., Saturday, War Memorial Stadium, Laramie, Wyo.  

T.V.: CBS Sports Network. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 13.

Records: Oregon (2-0), Wyoming (1-1).

Last week: Wyoming won 27-0 at home over Gardner-Webb. Oregon won 42-35 at home over Nebraska.

Past meeting: Oregon defeated Wyoming 48-14 at home in 2014. Saturday's game will complete the home-and-home contract. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (42-45, 2-0 at Oregon); Cowboys' Craig Bohl (119-57, 15-25 at Wyoming). Bohl is the former coach of North Dakota, where he won three consecutive FCS national titles (2011-2013).

Cowboys' impact players: Allen's top two targets are Austin Conway (186 yards) and C.J. Johnson (152 yards). The running game is iffy, at best. The Cowboys have just 124 rushing yards on the season at 2.1 yards per carry. Wyoming gained just 59 yards on 30 carries against Iowa.

Defensive end Kevin Prosser has seven tackles with four for loss, including two sacks.

Fear factor (five-point scale): 2.5. Other than this being a road game, the Ducks shouldn't encounter many difficult obstacles on Saturday. Wyoming lacks the firepower on offense to hang with Oregon. The Cowboys' defense has played well, but hasn't seen anything like Oregon's offense. 

Final pick: Oregon, 44-24. Allen will make enough plays to keep the game entertaining but the Ducks' overall team speed will overwhelm the Cowboys. 

Oregon still unranked but closing in on top 25

Oregon still unranked but closing in on top 25

The Oregon Ducks failed to crack the top 25 in both the Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls this week but did inch closer toward breaking through.

Maybe had UO not allowed a 42-14 halftime lead over Nebraska turn into a 42-35 nailbiter, the Ducks (2-0) would find themselves ranked today. Chances are that a 30-point win over Nebraska (1-1) might have done the trick. As it stands now, Oregon could possibly creep into the top 25 with a win Saturday at Wyoming. 

In the AP Poll, Oregon moved up to 30th in total points with 61. That's up from 31st last week with 44 points. In the Coaches Poll, Oregon moved up to 28th with 68 points, up from 31st  with 41 points.

The Pac-12 Conference is represented well in both polls.  The AP Poll includes No. 4 USC, No. No. 6 Washington, No. 19 Stanford, No. 21 Washington State and No. 25 UCLA. Utah is 28th with 101 points and Colorado is 30th with 66 points. 

The Coaches Poll includes No. 4 USC, No. 6 Washington, No. 19 Stanford, No. 22 Washington State and No. 24 Utah. Colorado is 27th with 70 points while UCLA is 29th with 57.

Oregon's 42-35 win over Nebraska raised more questions than it answered

Oregon's 42-35 win over Nebraska raised more questions than it answered

EUGENE - If you're confused about what to make of Oregon's 42-35 win over Nebraska Saturday at Autzen Stadium, don't be alarmed. You're not alone.  

The Ducks' Jekyll and Hyde performance included them leading 42-14 at halftime only to find themselves clinging to a 42-35 lead with under three minutes remaining and the Cornhuskers in possession of the ball.   

Of course, Oregon coach Willie Taggart put a bow on this game that the Ducks pulled out with a game-clinching interception by referring to what it was: a win. The reality, however, is that it was a win that raised more questions about this team than it answered. Even Taggart was left stuck in the middle about what to make of his wildly inconsistent Ducks.

“We were good the first half," he said. "Second half, not so good. But it was great that our guys found a way. To me, that’s what’s more important than anything. Not necessarily how we played. Our guys found a way to win a ball game.”

Nevertheless, how the Ducks (2-0) play from here on out will ultimately decide their fate. A team can't survive for long giving away big leads. Yes, Oregon did gut this one out and deserves credit for doing so. Then again, the Ducks put themselves in position to have to worry about the outcome at all. 

Thoughts of Oregon possibly making things interesting this season in the Pac-12 North Division were warranted by halftime when the Ducks made a solid Nebraska (1-1) team appear to be out of its league. 

Maybe, it seemed, that these Ducks were for real, having scored 119 points in six quarters this season, counting the 77-21 win last week over Southern Utah.  Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert looked like a future Heisman Trophy contender. Senior running back Royce Freeman ran as if he should already be in the NFL. UO's defense, although penetrable, displayed enough speed and talent to create turnovers and tackles for losses when needed. 

Then, the second half started. 

Oregon's offense looked awful. Like, Toilet Bowl awful. The defense, which deserves praise for holding on to this win for dear life, still gave up 21 points. Suddenly, flashbacks of Oregon's Alamo Bowl loss two seasons ago when it blew a 31-0 lead in the second half to lose had to be running through the minds of many UO fans.

Taggart himself admitted to thinking about Texas A&M blowing a 34-point lead at UCLA last week to lose 45-44. 

Herbert, who threw for 313 yards in the first half, managed just 52 in the second half. Freeman, who ran well in the second half, fumbled at UO's 22 with 4:56 remaining to set up Nebraska's final score.

It appeared that Oregon became more conservative on offense following an interception in the third quarter on a pass over the middle to receiver Dillon Mitchell that was first tipped. Taggart disagreed that his play-calling lost its pop and instead pointed to the loss of tempo because of a lack of execution on first down and penalties. Oregon earned 12 flags for 103 penalty yards on the day. 

“Second half, we kind of slacked on (tempo) and weren’t going as fast as we should be,” senior receiver Charles Nelson said.

Lack of overall execution, Taggart said, allowed Nebraska to adjust on defense, both in personnel and scheme, and make life tougher on Oregon. 

If so, isn't that an indication that Oregon's offense might not be good enough to produce big numbers without the element of surprise as an advantage? If so, that could be a problem moving forward.

From the coach's standpoint, he could point to how despite all of the issues the defense made a big play to seal the deal with an interception by cornerback Ugochukwu Amadi off of a poor throw from Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee forced by pressure from Jonah Moi. 

“That’s what you call a team,” Taggart said. “And it was great to see.”

However one chooses to shake and twist this game, the bottom line is that we didn't get out of it what should have been expected. A win over Nebraska should have provided clear answers regarding what Oregon is about? Instead, the win left things where they were before kickoff, wondering just who exactly these Taggart-led Ducks will be this season. 

One thing for sure, they won't be boring. 

Ducks tried so hard not to lose that they almost did

Ducks tried so hard not to lose that they almost did

Some thoughts on Oregon's harrowing win over Nebraska Saturday:

  • Why is it that every fan in America can see when his or her team is playing too conservatively while trying to hold onto a lead, but the coach of said team just doesn't seem to get it? Willie Taggart got so worried about losing that game that he almost lost it. Justin Herbert was passing the Cornhuskers silly in the first half but the Ducks pretty much shut down the vertical passing game and tightened their shirt collars. It was a classic example of getting away from what got you a big lead and just trying to run out the clock.
  • The Ducks are an offensive juggernaut and should not idle that machine until very late in a game.
  • I do not blame the second-half Nebraska comeback on the Oregon defense. The offense put too much pressure on the defense.
  • To me, this game reinforced every reason the Ducks' athletic administration had for bringing in a new coaching staff. Coaching matters and coordinators matter. Oregon's defense is much more sound. It tackles much more reliably. Night and day. If nobody else but me says it -- good job, Rob Mullens. You made the right move when you cleaned house.
  • And speaking of that, when people talk about Taggart "rebuilding" the Oregon program, I smile. Folks, this team wasn't down and out. It was just unmotivated last season. I'm not saying they were bad coaches, but I am saying it was time for a change.
  • With a little better quarterbacking, Nebraska would have won that game. There were a lot of open receivers to hit and a lot of the time, they weren't hit.
  • The Ducks won't get shut out in a half the rest of the season. Unless they decide to go into their conservative mode again.

Ducks staring a 3-0 start right in the face

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USA Today

Ducks staring a 3-0 start right in the face

Two weeks from today the Oregon Ducks should be preparing to enter Pac-12 play at Arizona State on Sept. 23 with a 3-0 record. 

Oregon (1-0) hosts Nebraska (1-0) at 1:30 p.m. today before traveling to Wyoming (0-1) next week. Both the Cornhuskers and the Cowboys should have trouble standing up to Oregon's firepower, which will overcome any mysteries that still surround the Ducks' defense. 

Nebraska struggled to handle Arkansas State, 43-36, last week at home, while Wyoming, once thought to have a high-powered offense, got trounced, 24-3 at Iowa.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley will be looking for his first win at Autzen since 2007 and that one only came about because UO quarterback Dennis Dixon was lost for the season with a knee injury. Riley told reporters Thursday that he expects his team to be able to handle the noise generated by fans in Autzen.  

"I really, really hope that we're ready because I've seen teams in that stadium not function for the first quarter," Riley said. "You can see it on film when you're watching the video.  I feel confident in the preparation that we've had."

Riley mostly lost past games at Autzen because he simply had inferior teams. He has a much stronger team now than he had during most of his tenure at Oregon State. But his roster shouldn't be enough to defeat this Ducks' team, which is going to be an offensive force all season long. 

"Defensively we have to stop the run, or control it, as best we can," Riley said.

Good luck with that.

We will all have a much greater idea of what Oregon is all about after today. We saw glimpses of a very good team during last week's 77-21 win over Southern Utah. But such performances against FCS programs can be deceiving.

While a win over Nebraska wouldn't signal that the Ducks are Pac-12 contenders, a victory would at least give reason to beleive that Oregon is capable of an eight-win season. And after UO went 4-8 last year, doubling up the win total would be a huge step in the right direction under new coach Willie Taggart. 

---

Oregon vs. Nebraska

When: 1:30 p.m., today, Autzen Stadium.  

T.V.: FOX. 

Betting line: 14.

2016 records: Oregon (1-0, 4-8 last season), Nebraska (1-0, 9-4 last season).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (41-45, 1-0 at Oregon); Cornhuskers' Mike Riley (109-91, 9-8 at Nebraska).

Cornhuskers' impact players: Nebraska junior quarterback Tanner Lee is a far better passer than last year's quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr., but not nearly as good of a runner.  Lee completed 19 of 32 passes against Arkansas State for 238 yards and two touchdowns. 

The Cornhuskers remain mostly about the running game. Nebraska rushed for 225 yards against Arkansas State with sophomore Tre Bryant going for 192 and a touchdown on 31 carries. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5 (downgraded from a 4 earlier this week). There's no reason to believe that Nebraska has any shot at slowing down Oregon's offense. 

Final pick: Oregon, 44-34.  

Oregon freshmen nose guards Scott and Failou will be tested by Nebraska

Oregon freshmen nose guards Scott and Failou will be tested by Nebraska

EUGENE - We will find out what Oregon freshmen nose guards Jordan Scott and Austin Failou are all about when the Ducks (1-0) host Nebraska Saturday at Autzen Stadium. 

The pair saw their first collegiate action during Saturday's 77-21 win over Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium and by all accounts played well despite neither registering a statistic in the game. 

"They didn't stumble," UO defensive line coach Joe Salave'a said. "That's a good thing. You always learn about those things. But those guys have a different temperament about the game and it's refreshing. With that, we'll continue to push and prod those guys to continue to advance and improve."

Both will receive a new education against the Cornhuskers, who return most of their offensive line from last season when Nebraska (1-0) averaged 162 yards rushing per game. The team rushed for 225 in its opener against Arkansas State with sophomore Tre Bryant going for 192 and two touchdowns on 32 carries. 

That Scott and Failou didn't register a tackle isn't a huge concern given that the nose position usually doesn't generate gaudy statistics. The position's job is to command a double team in order to allow the inside linebackers behind the nose to make plays. Sophomore Troy Dye had 10 tackles. Junior Kaulana Apelu made five stops. 

"Without them keeping the center off of me, keeping the guards off of me, I wouldn't be able to make the tackles that I did make," Dye said. "All of those tackles should go to them. They should each have five and I should have zero."

It's a nice sentiment, but one would think that one of the two nose guards would at least accidentally end up with at least an assisted tackle against a vastly inferior opponent. The last starting nose for Oregon was Alex Balducci (the Ducks ran a 4-3 defense last year). He made 40 tackles in 2015 with 7 1/2 for loss and 3 1/2 sacks. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart, when asked if Scott and Failou were ready to deal with a Nebraska offensive line that might shove them around, took exception to the word choice of "shoved."

"We're not necessarily going in thinking Nebraska is going to shove our guys around, or anything," he said. 

One would think not. However, there will be some shoving and some hitting and it will be done by a veteran offensive line that might not be as impressed with Scott and Failou and Oregon's coaches and players are. That said, Taggart pointed out that the pair has got in plenty of work against Oregon's offensive line. 

"They are young guys, they know how to play football," Taggart said. "Again, they've been competing against our offensive line all training camp and we've got a pretty good offensive line, as well...We feel like those guys are ready to compete and they will be read to compete against Nebraska this Saturday."

In the long run, we could see graduate transfer Scott Pagano (Clemson) become the answer at nose guard. He is working his way back from an injured foot. Pagano mostly played defensive end at Clemson but also dabbled inside. Ideally, he would be at defensive end opposite senior captain Henry Mondeaux. But if push comes to shove, and the Ducks' freshmen indeed are losing most of those shoving matches on the field, it could be time to turn to Pagano.

But, for now, the two freshmen have a chance to prove they can anchor the Ducks' 3-4 defense inside. 

"I thought they showed that they are good enough to play here," Mondeaux said. "Everyone has things to work on but they showed good motors and they ran around and made some plays. I think they did a good job at doing their job."

Taggart, who has experienced his share of hurricanes, monitors Irma

Taggart, who has experienced his share of hurricanes, monitors Irma

EUGENE - Oregon coach Willie Taggart, born and raised in Palmetto, Fla., has his eyes on Hurricane Irma which is expected to hit Florida Sunday morning.

"All my family is back in Florida and we have some kids on our team that are from Florida," Taggart said Wednesday following practice, "so we're monitoring that often and want to make sure that everybody is safe and prepared like they should." 

Irma is a Category 5 hurricane with winds of up to 175-mph. The storm recently went through the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands. Irma is expected to still be a Category 4 hurricane when it hits Florida on Sunday. The eye of the hurricane is not expected to pass over Tampa, which is 47 miles north of Palmetto along the west coast of the state. 

Several players on Oregon's roster are from Florida and Taggart, who coached at South Florida before coming to Oregon, has recruited hard in that state. 

As a child, Taggart said he experienced many hurricanes. Sometimes his family toughed them out at home.

“It was scary because we stayed in our apartment,” Taggart told CSN while in Florida during the filming of a documentary on the coach. “We didn’t go to the shelter.”

Officials in Florida are recommending that anyone within striking distance of Irma evacuate. Irma is considered to be more powerful than Hurricane Harvey, which recently led to flooding in Houston, Texas. 

On Wednesday, Taggart said one never truly gets used to a hurricane.

"You pray everyone is safe and healthy and hopefully it takes a turn," he said.

Oregon remains unranked in AP and Coaches polls

Oregon remains unranked in AP and Coaches polls

Voters for the Associated Press Top 25 and Amway Coaches Poll seemingly weren't all that impressed by Oregon's 77-21 win Saturday over Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium. 

Oregon this week is essentially No. 31 in the AP Poll with 44 voting points. That's up from No. 33 last week when the Ducks received 31 points. 

The Ducks also inched up to No. 31 in the Coaches Poll with 42 votes after sitting at No. 33 last week with 37. 

Oregon (1-0) hosts Nebraska (1-0) at 1:30 p.m., Saturday at Autzen Stadium. 

Nebraska received just one point in the AP Poll but have 30 in the Coaches Poll. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart's former program, South Florida, sits at No. 21 in the AP Poll and at No. 20 in the Coaches Poll. 

 

Oregon's plan for Royce Freeman: "Feed the horse."

Oregon's plan for Royce Freeman: "Feed the horse."

The Oregon Ducks once again have a very deep group of running backs but that won't prevent coach Willie Taggart from making the most out of his top ball carrier, senior Royce Freeman.

“Royce is our guy," Taggart said Monday. "Feed Royce then everybody else will get their carries as they go. We're going to feed the horse."

That horse went for 150 yards on 23 carries and scored four touchdowns during a 77-21 win over Southern Utah on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks rushed for 348 on the night with redshirt senior Kani Benoit gaining 107 on just seven carries. Redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James gained 32 on nine carries.

All told, eight Ducks carried the ball with some attempts going to receivers on fly sweeps, a play Taggart used prominently while at South Florida. But all of that came against an FCS program. Rushing yards won't be as easy to come by against stronger competition, such as Nebraska, which plays at Oregon on Saturday afternoon. 

In such games, Freeman must be the guy, just like LaMichael James and Jonathan Stewart were before him. Both former Ducks running backs played alongside strong backups but each carried the load while producing huge seasons. Taggart plans to follow that same pattern with Freeman, even though he said the Ducks are fortunate to have three starting-caliber running backs. 

“The beauty for us is that we don't have to change our offense because one guy is in the game," Taggart said. "We can continue to run the plays we want to run."

Oregon simply prefers to run most of them with Freeman. 

”And if Royce gets tired we will put the next guys in," Taggart said. 

Maybe no game in recent memory better defines Oregon's long-time depth at running back - thanks to the recruiting of former position coach Gary Campbell - than last year at Nebraska when Freeman went down early with 31 yards on five carries during the 35-32 defeat. 

In his place, Benoit went for 100 yards on six carries, Brooks-James gained 37 yards with three touchdowns, and Taj Griffin rushed for 68 yards on eight carries, including a 50-yard scoring run. 

Still, Freeman is Oregon's starter for a reason. The 235-pound running back, who should break James' career rushing record sometime in November, if not earlier, inflicts punishment on defensive players that pays off later in games. The fact that he can get a rest here and there only makes him stronger late in games while defenses begin to fade. 

"It definitely does (take the pressure off of me,)" Freeman said following Saturday's game. "And I feel like it takes pressure off of (running backs coach Donte Pimpleton), as well, knowing that he has a deep backfield and that if any one of us gets tired or any one of us has any problems out there, we have more than capable other versatile running backs behind me."