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.
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.
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.