Tony Brooks-James

Ducks' backs must outduel Bryce Love for UO to win at Stanford

Ducks' backs must outduel Bryce Love for UO to win at Stanford

Oregon's running game had better show up Saturday night at Stanford or this game will be over before Cardinal running back Bryce Love reaches the 175-yard mark. 

Forget about what happens at quarterback for the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12). Braxton Burmeister? Taylor Alie? Both? Doesn't matter at this point. Whatever Oregon gets from that position will be gravy and it's not as if Stanford's quarterbacks do much damage, either. 

What matters most for Oregon is that the offensive line doesn't let down the team again like last week during a 33-10 loss at home to No. 8 Washington State (6-0, 3-0) by gaining just 132 yards. The linemen admitted their mistakes. So did their leader, co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal. UO coach Willie Taggart made it clear that the players around the quarterback position must play better in order for the Ducks to win and he was mostly talking about the offensive line. 

"Just our entire performance was frustrating," Cristobal said. 

After a week to lament, the offensive line will have a chance to redeem itself and replicate the 328-yard rushing performance the team put forth two week ago during a 45-24 win over California. When the line is humming, the running back trio of Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James usually dominates. They are one of the best trios in the nation. But even they can't get loose with no place to run. 

Stanford's defense isn't playing as its usual dominant self. The Cardinal rank ninth in the conference in rushing defense (182 yards per game) while Oregon is averaging 239.3, good enough for third right behind Stanford (260.5). 

So, there's no excuse for the Ducks not to get the job done in the running game. Not even the reality that the Cardinal could key on the run, as did WSU, knowing that sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert isn't at quarterback to burn it with the passing game. 

Stanford hasn't needed strong quarterback play to balance out the run game. The Cardinal is averaging 188.3 passing yards per game with Keller Chryst and K.J. Costello having split the duties. But, they haven't turned the ball over much with just two interceptions thrown, both by Chryst. 

The Cardinal relies heavily on Bryce Love who has rushed for 1,240 yards on the season. That's 46 percent of the Cardinal's offense. The scariest part is that the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Love doesn't require much running room in which to operate. 

“This kid can find the smallest hole and get through it," Taggart said. "And that’s a challenge for a lot of defenses.”

Oregon, on paper, appears equipped to handle Love. Or, at least not let him run wild. The Ducks rank second in the Pac-12 an 10th in the nation in in rushing defense allowing 93.7 yards per game. However, UO has faced the two worst rushing teams in the conference, WSU (82.7, 125th in the nation) and Cal (96.8, 122nd), and the ninth-ranked rushing team, Arizona State (129.4, 97th). Nebraska (148.5) ranks 79th in the nation and Wyoming sits at 118th (100.4). 

Furthermore, none of those teams has a running back like Love. And, none run the style of offense that Stanford does. Nebraska comes close but Stanford's power running game with multiple tight ends and a pounding fullback working in concert with a strong offense line is another animal. For Oregon to be successful against Love, the Ducks cannot blow pursuit angles or expect that someone closer to the ball will make the play. 

"Stack the box," UO senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. "Staaaack the box. Everybody just has to be ready to stop the run. Everybody has to contribute. It's not just going to be the front seven."

Said Taggart: "We've got to gang tackle. It's not going to be one guy bringing him down. "He can get stopped for two or three plays and the next thing you know he will break one for 60."

So figure that Love is going to do his thing. The quarterbacks for both teams will be pedestrian, although Oregon's should be helped by the return of sophomore receiver Dillon Mitchell (concussion) and potentially, senior slot receiver Charles Nelson (ankle). 

That leaves Oregon's running attack as the only reliable aspect of the team that could lead the Ducks to a win. 

That's not a bad situation to be in if the offensive line brings its A-game. 

Oregon at No. 23 Stanford

When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium. 

T.V.: FS1. 

Betting line: Stanford minus 10.5.

Records: Oregon (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12), Stanford (4-2, 3-1).

Last week: Stanford won 23-20 at Utah. Oregon lost 33-10 at home to No. 8 Washington State (6-0, 3-0).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-47, 4-2 at Oregon); Stanford's David Shaw (68-17).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. If Burmeister (or Alie) improves dramatically overnight the Ducks will have a strong chance of pulling off the upset. But only if UO's rushing attack is on point. 

Final pick: Stanford 37, Oregon, 27.  UO shows improvement on offense but not enough to combat Stanford's rushing attack led by Love. 

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards. 

Ducks midseason report card: Offense

Ducks midseason report card: Offense

The Oregon Ducks have already matched last season's win total (4-8) with a 4-2 record. So, there is no denying that the Ducks are on the upswing. However, two losses in the PAC-12 raise questions as to just how far Oregon remains from being conference title contenders. 

Oregon's best asset right now is its youth. The Ducks are starting only four seniors on offense and three on defense (four depending on inside linebacker). That means 15 starters will return next season as well as a host of other young players who are seeing playing time. 

Oregon's offense, despite starting six freshmen and sophomores, has been one of the best in the conference averaging 43 points per game. 

Nevertheless, we all saw just how fleeting success can be when the starting quarterback goes down. Without sophomore Justin Herbert (collarbone), Oregon managed to score just 10 points during a 33-10 home loss to Washington State on Saturday. It's the lowest scoring output by an Oregon team since the Ducks lost 19-8 at Boise State to open the 2009 season. 

With that all said, here is a report card on the offense through the midway point of the season:

Quarterback - B-plus: Herbert picked up where he left off last season and continued to eleveate his level of play. He leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency (172.9). The only real knock on Herbert is that he struggled to generate points in the second half against Nebraska and Wyoming, and he couldn't get the team into field goal range on two final drives during a 37-35 loss at Arizona State. Neither situation, however, could be blamed solely on Herbert. 

The reason this position doesn't receive an "A" is because of the mediocre play of the backups, senior Taylor Alie and freshman Braxton Burmesiter.  Both looked out of place at this level in comparison to Herbert. The lack of depth at this position places Oregon in danger of struggling just to become bowl eligible. 

Running backs - A: Oregon is as deep and skilled at this position as it has ever been.

Senior Royce Freeman ranks third in the conference in rushing yards per game (109.2) despite leaving the win over California with a shoulder injury after having gained 51 yards in the first quarter. Freeman is tied for the conference lead with 10 touchdowns. 

Senior Kani Benoit has performed just as well in a backup role. He has rushed for 329 yards this season and leads the team in yards per carry at 7.3.  His 54.8 yards per game ranks 12th in the conference and his eight rushing touchdowns leave him tied for sixth. 

Tony Brooks-James hasn't gotten off to a great start with 158 rushing yards on 3.5 per carry but he has also caught 11 passes for 136 yards. 

Offensive line - B-minus: The offensive line has played very well most of the time but has also experienced enough lapses and has committed enough penalties to not warrant less than an "A" grade.

Oregon ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (239.3). However, a lack of production in the second half against both Nebraska and Wyoming can be traced back to an inconsistent running game. The line was absolutely dominant against California when the Ducks rushed for 328 yards even though Herbert and Freeman went out in the first quarter. But against Washington state, with Burmesiter at quarterback, the line failed to carry the team and the Ducks were held to 132 yards rushing. 

This is a very quality group but consistency has been an issue. 

Wide receivers/tight ends - C-minus: Losing senior slot Charles Nelson (ankle) for three games set this young group back. It's unfair to expect consistency from a corps that includes a converted cornerback (redshirt sophomore Malik Lovette), a converted safety (sophomore Brenden Schooler) and converted running back (junior Taj Griffin).

That said, the group has been about as spotty as expected. Freshman Johnny Johnson III looks like a future star and sophomore Dillon Mitchell is starting to live up to his potential. At tight end, redshirt sophomore Jacob Breeland has also played well. 

But that's a lot of freshman, sophomores and young men making position changes to expect greatness right away. What we've seen is very inconsistent play that has hurt Herbert at times and certainly didn't help Burmeister in his start. 

Still, in the end, the team's youth is its greatest asset and this position figures to be much better in the future. 

Next up: Defense and special teams.  

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. 

 

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."

Oregon Ducks out to prove the doubters wrong

Oregon Ducks out to prove the doubters wrong

EUGENE - Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs had some misinformation. He knew the results of the Pac-12 media poll released during media days last week had the Ducks finishing fourth. He just didn't realize that meant fourth in the North Division.

“I thought it was fourth in the Pac-12,” Springs said Sunday during Oregon's media day at Autzen Stadium. “Wow. Fourth in the North? That’s kind of sad, that’s real sad. But I guess they had to do that based off last year.”

Yes, they kind of did. And although such predictions aren't worth much more than the paper they are written on, the reality that those who follow the conference the closest have such a low opinion of these Ducks, 4-8 last season, is telling. 

Few are buying that new coach Willie Taggart will return this program to its championship ways in year one, which begins today with the team's first fall practice. Not many believe sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and senior running back Royce Freeman can compensate for a defense that finished 128th in the nation last season. And don't try to sell the idea that new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt can in one year elevate said defense to championship levels. 

For the first time in a decade, few believe the Ducks are championship contenders of any kind. Yet, Oregon's players are mostly concerned with how they view themselves. 

“It hurts to be ranked fourth like that,” redshirt sophomore guard Shane Lemieux said. “It’s basically kind of like a slap in the face. But at the same time a lot of us don’t care.”

The Ducks are embracing the underdog role. 

“I think we’ve kind of had that mentality that we’re just going to try to surpass the expectations,” Herbert said. 

Not having a target on the team's back could prove to be a bonus, according to sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, and it's something he sees Taggart using to fuel the team's energy. 

“You have no expectations," Dye said. "So you can go out there and play every game like it’s your last and just try to take somebody’s season away and build on top of yours.”

Springs agrees: "It’s great.  For the first time we don’t have any expectations. We can’t do anything but go up.”

What's truly realistic for this team? Could the Ducks overcome Washington State to finish third? Probably. But is it realistic to believe that Oregon could pull off upsets at Stanford and/or defending champion Washington to truly contend? 

Oregon certainly believes so. 

“Guys won’t settle for being fourth,” senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby said. “We want better.”

It's all a matter of believing in the process.

“At the end of the day we’re going to end up with the Pac-12 title if we just follow the course,” Dye said. “So we don’t really care about what people project.”

Senior wide receiver Charles Nelson said last season won't impact the team's mentality regarding 2017. 

“We feel like every other team does,” he said. “Every other team feels like they’re the best and we feel like we’re the best.”

Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James took things a step further.

“I see this team at the very least winning the Pac-12 but at the maximum going all the way,” Brooks-James said.

All the way as in to the national title game. That prediction might be a tad out there, but why not?

“We did have a really bad year last year," Lemieux said. "But this is a totally different team, a totally different coaching staff and a totally different atmosphere.”

The reality is that very few players remain that had an impact on the 2014 team, which won the Pac-12 and reached the national title game. Maybe, in the end, it's best that the newer Ducks aren't treated as if they had already accomplished what their predecessors had. 

“It’s good for a lot of new guys,” Springs said. “Most of these guys weren't on the championship team. So, it’s all new for them. They are really just trying to prove themselves.”

And, prove the doubters wrong. 

Oregon Spring game: Herbert and Team Free win 34-11

Oregon Spring game: Herbert and Team Free win 34-11

Team Free 34, Team Brave 11

How Team Free won: For starters, Team Free had quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for touchdown passes to lead his team to the win Saturay at Autzen Stadium. 

While it's unfair to judge a quarterback competition based on a spring game, the fact is that the sophomore, who started seven games last season, appeared to be vastly superior to Team Brave's quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen and freshman Braxton Burmeister

Herbert threw two touchdowns in the first half. The first went for 13 yards on a throw to senior receiver Darren Carrington II that ended a 75-yard opening drive for Team Free. 

In the second quarter, Herbert found Carrington for a 30-yard touchdown to make the score 14-3. 

On the other side, Jonsen had a couple of highlight plays in the first half. He escaped pressure and then flipped a pass into the left flat to redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James for a gain of 19 to the Team Brave 47. Later, Jonsen threw deep down the left sideline to sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell for 44 yards to the Team Free 30. That set up 36-yard field goal from redshirt freshman kicker Zach Emerson.

But other than that, Jonsen wasn't very impressive. He misfired on a couple of passes and had a deep ball intercepted when Team Free senior cornerback Arrion Springs snatched the ball out of the sky and fell to the ground at the 16. 

Burmeister flashed some serious running skills and certainly has a quality arm, but he also looked like a freshman. In the first half, he threw too early on a pass to senior receiver Charles Nelson, the pass was tipped and intercepted by freshman defensive back Billy Gibson.  

Herbert went 16 of 26 for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Jonsen was 5 of 15 for 86 yards with one interception. Burmeister was 3 of 7 for 63 yards and was sacked four times. He did rush for 57 yards on 

The game was limited to 24 minutes of running clock in the second half. 

Top performers: Brook-James gained 71 yards on 18 carries in the first half but was banged up on a pass play when Burmeister hung him out do dry on a deep ball and Springs hit him as the ball arrived. 

Brooks-James returned to action and in the fourth quarter scored on a one-yard run. He finished with 84 yards rushing and caught three passes for 43 yards. 

Freshman wide receiver Darrian McNeal caught four passes for 54 yards for Team Free.

Punter Blake Maimonte averaged 45.2 yards on four punts with a long of 49. 

Mitchell had three receptions for 75 yards for Team Brave. 

Carrington had three touchdown on four receptions for 116 yards. 

Royce Freeman rushed for 43 yards on 12 carries and a 1-yard touchdown for Team Free.

Plays of the game: Senior running back Kani Benoit, who finished with 105 yards on five carries,  took a hand off in the third quarter, cut left to open field then turned it up before crossing at an angle to the right side of the field to finish off a 95-yard socring run for Team Free to make the score 28-3. 

In the fourth quarter, Herbert heaved a deep pass down the right sideline toward a well-covered Carrington. But he leaped over the defender to haul in the pass for a 44-yard gain to the 17-yard line. 

Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Running back drills during Oregon's spring practices have been a bit light on the running backs. 

Senior Royce Freeman, redshirt senior Kani Benoit, and redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James have been the only three going through drills under new running backs coach Donte Pimpleton in what appears to be a thin crew of familiar faces. But appearances can be deceiving. The Ducks remain very much stacked at the position regardless of the overall numbers. And the group is as close as ever.

“We’re like brothers,” Freeman said.

Oregon's running game should look quite familiar next season in new coach Willie Taggart's no-huddle offense, but there will be more of an emphasis in running straight ahead (downhill) and being physical, both along the offensive line and for ballcarriers, especially the 235-pound Freeman.

Taggart, who has reviewed all of last season's game film, said he believes Freeman must run behind his pads better. Meaning, he must be more physical and allow his size and pad level to go through defenders rather than provide tackling angles that benefit defenders. The same points were made about Freeman under former running backs coach Gary Campbell. But in the team's old system, the running game relied a bit more on finesse than this new system under co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, who came to Oregon from power-running Alabama. 

Cristobal wants the offensive line to be more physical and has added some downhill running plays to Taggart's offensive scheme that the new run game coordinator wants to see Freeman exploit with his size and strength by delivering "body blows," similar to wearing down an opponent in boxing. 

“Come the fourth quarter, your yards per carry and your knockdowns you have, your trunk yardage plays and explosive plays should increase by a significant amount,” Cristobal said. "We want to make it so by the fourth quarter people don’t want to tackle Royce Freeman.”

Or, any other running back on the team for that matter. Cristobal said the entire group has shown toughness this spring. 

“You want to be around guys that enjoy collisions,” Cristobal said. “That search and seek opportunities to be physical and to be tough and to establish a mindset.”

Oregon's depth at running back will receive a jolt next fall. Junior Taj Griffin, who injured his knee late last season, could return at some point, or he could redshirt to save the year of eligibility. Either way, the Ducks will also welcome in freshmen running backs, C.J. Verdell and Darrian Felix. Cyrus Habibi-Likio could also play running back but is expected to start out on the defensive side of the ball. 

So, depth shouldn't be an issue. Then again, does a team really need more than Freeman, Benoit and Brooks-James to be successful? Not likely.

“You know you’re gong to get the same type of talent level [no matter who is] going in,” Benoit said. “There’s not going to be a drop off.”

Freeman said the group was reminiscing the other day about having been together for so long. Benoit will enter his fifth season at UO while Freeman and Brooks-James enter their fourth. The bond among the group, Freeman, said is strong. Benoit said that sense of brotherhood trumps any potential hard feelings about playing time. 

“We all feed off each other," Benoit said. "We all try to make each other better."

Pimpleton, Benoit said, has been working out well and in some ways is like Campbell in how he relates to the players.

“Really calm, but he gets his point across,” Benoit said. “We accept that well. He’s not a yelling coach, he’s not a berating coach. He tells you what you need to do, if not then you’ll come to the sideline. He’ll just waive you over.”

Pimpleton, who along with other assistant coaches who aren't coordinators hasn't been made available for interviews this spring, is putting a heavy emphasis on running backs learning to recognize defenses and fully understand the blocking schemes. 

"That helps us run a lot better knowing where our lanes are and where the holes are going to be," Benoit said. 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: Quarterbacks, Wide receivers/Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive lineLinebackersDefensive backs.

Today: Running backs.

New Ducks: Darrian Felix (5-11, 194, Fort Myers High School, Fort Myers, Fla.),  C.J. Verdell (5-9, 195,Mater Dei Catholic High School, Chula Vista, Calif.) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis High School, Mountain View, Calif.).

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210) and Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

The situation: Oregon is set to return four running backs that combined for nearly 2,200 yards rushing last season.

For that reason, finding playing time for any of the three incoming freshmen could prove to be impossible.

None of them has a chance to beat out Freeman for the starting job. Chances are that Brooks-James is too experienced and talented to be unseated at No. 2.

The only way one freshman would have a chance to rise into the rotation would be if Benoit transfers and/or Griffin is slowed in his return from the knee injury he suffered late last season.

While all three incoming freshmen were three-star recruits, Verdell is the highest-rated among them. Rivals.com had him as the 26th-ranked running back in the nation. He rushed for 2,399 yards and 36 touchdowns on 9.2 yards per carry as a senior.

Habibi-Likio, who says he also hopes to play linebacker or safety, wasn't quite as productive as Verdell but brings more size and power to the party. 

Felix is a burner with more size than Griffin. 

The verdict: Unless something gives, Oregon will have seven scholarship running backs on the roster next fall. That means the three freshmen will redshirt if all four returning backs are healthy and ready to go. If not, one of the freshmen could make a mark as a backup or on special teams. But figure that at least two freshmen running backs will redshirt in 2017.

Oregon 2017 Outlook - RBs: Royce Freeman's return means Ducks remain loaded

Oregon 2017 Outlook - RBs: Royce Freeman's return means Ducks remain loaded

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: Quarterbacks; Tight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

Today: Running backs.

Key loss: None. 

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210), Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

What we know: Freeman's return was not required for Oregon to remain potent at this position but having him back certainly gives new running backs coach Donte Pimpleton less to worry about in 2017.

Freeman, should he remain healthy, will likely break LaMichael James' career rushing mark of 5,082 yards. Freeman, who has 4,148 for his career, needs 934 yards to tie James.

What might be more intriguing than watching Freeman chase history is seeing how Brooks-James evolves as a player. He showed flashes of elite ability last season while filling in for an injured Freeman to the point where he became the primary ball carrier in several games, even starting at USC. Had Freeman entered the NFL Draft, next season would have been Brooks-James' time to shine as the starter, but he should still receive enough carries to surpass the 771 yards he racked up last season on 7.6 per carry. Brooks-James will likely be the featured back in 2018 should he stick around for his senior season. 

Benoit, like Brooks-James, has shown abilities worthy of a starter but he won't get that chance with Freeman's return. Nevertheless, Benoit (300 yards last season) gives Oregon a starting-caliber running back off the bench. 

What we don't know: Griffin was lost for the season with a knee injury in early November. He should be able to recover by the start of next season, but where he fits in as a specialty back in Taggart's offense remains to be seen. Chances are Griffin settles back into his role of receiving spot carries in the hopes he breaks a long one, as he did with a 50-yard touchdown run at Nebraska last season. 

UO has two running backs committed to the 2017 class. Both should plan on redshirting behind this group. 

Final word: This position carries with it the least amount of mystery on the team. Pimpleton should have the easiest transition out of all of Oregon's new assistant coaches.  

Position grade: A. Oregon should lead the conference in rushing once again.  

Next up: Tight ends.