Oregon Ducks

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card


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:


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. 


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. 

Crunch time is nearing: Oregon is No. 6 in College Football Playoff

Crunch time is nearing: Oregon is No. 6 in College Football Playoff

The College Football Playoff committee released its third rankings this season and Oregon remains at No. 6. The Ducks (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) are the third-highest one loss team ranked, behind SEC teams, Georgia and Alabama.

With three weeks left of the 2019 college football season, crunch time is nearing and the CFP picture is taking shape for Selection Sunday.

[READ: In search of his own legacy, Justin Herbert has one of his biggest nights with Marcus Mariota in the house]

No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson are all undefeated with clear paths to the playoff. The fourth spot could get interesting with plenty of drama conceivable.

Patience required

It’s going to take patience for Oregon to break into the top four spots. On a nine-game winning streak, Oregon has secured a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game as the North Division champion. Victories against upcoming opponents Arizona State and Oregon State won’t be enough to move the needle. 

The Ducks can make a real case as contenders on December 6th in Levi’s Stadium. A Pac-12 Title and a convincing win over a high-ranked Utah team would be the resume piece to make it interesting for the committee. Utah is currently ranked No. 7 in the CFB Playoff Poll.

Other teams fighting for the fourth spot?

No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 Alabama, No. 8 Penn State and No. 9 Oklahoma. Which means you can root for each of these teams to lose to boost Oregon’s berth chances. The Bulldogs still have to face Texas A&M and will be put to the test in the SEC Championship game vs. No. 1 LSU. No. 5 Alabama, without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, still plays No. 15 Auburn. No. 8 Penn State plays No. 2 Ohio State this Saturday. No. 9 Oklahoma plays TCU and No. 21 Oklahoma State.

Root for two other Pac-12 teams in conference play

  • Utah to finish conference play 11-1 (remaining games at Arizona and vs. Colorado)
  • No. 23 USC to blow out UCLA in its final game to finish ranked (Gives Oregon another win over a ranked opponent).

Smell that?

It’s roses. If Oregon wins the Pac-12 title game and doesn’t receive a CFP berth, the Ducks get the conference’s automatic bid to the Rose Bowl. Not a bad Plan B!

The CFB Playoff committee’s protocol is mostly based on eye test and places an emphasis on four things if teams are comparable: 1. Championships won. 2. Strength of schedule. 3. Head-to-head competition (if it occurred). 4. Outcomes against common opponents.

There is a lot of football to be played that could sort out the top four, but for now, the Ducks are in a good spot to strike. 

Headstrong: Former Oregon football lineman Zach Okun's message to those struggling with mental health

Headstrong: Former Oregon football lineman Zach Okun's message to those struggling with mental health

The month of November is Men's Health Awareness Month. ‘The Movember Foundation’ uses November to bring awareness to various men’s physical and mental health issues, as well as support to those tackling prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health, and more.

Throughout this month, NBC Sports will be releasing numerous videos that feature sports superstars discussing the importance of mental health as well as how they approach the subject. 


Zach Okun received his first collegiate scholarship for athletics in eighth grade. He was more than 300 pounds and as tall as his teachers. There was already a path laid out before him regarding his future: football.

For those who play the game of football, a certain edge is required to be successful in such a violent sport. Okun was just that, but there was more than meets the eye. In August 2019 during a preseason practice, Okun suffered a severe concussion. 

He battled with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts…

“I was terrified. That was my biggest fear, was people thinking less of me because of what was going on inside my head. To this day, if I think I did something wrong in class, I will think about it until it drives me insane or I fall asleep. 

Anything I did wrong was the end of the world. And that’s a hard way to live.”

Okun’s football career quickly ended, but his fight with mental health lives on to this day. He sought out therapy and now advocates to anyone who may be in a similar situation that he was and still is today.

He currently attends Santa Clara University and is pursuing a degree in law. 

Historically, quarterback Justin Herbert plays extremely well vs. ASU

Historically, quarterback Justin Herbert plays extremely well vs. ASU

Oregon (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) has secured a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game as the North Division champion and is in the running as a College Football Playoff contender. The Ducks have two conference games left and Arizona State (5-5, 2-5) is the next opponent they must beat. 

The Ducks look to stay unbeaten in conference play as they head to Tempe… Here are 10 numbers you need to know about the 4:30 p.m. kickoff at Sun Devil Stadium.


Coming off a season-high 333 passing yards vs. Arizona, quarterback Justin Herbert is displaying incredible accuracy. He’s completed 70 percent of his passes in three-straight games, connecting on 62-of-84 (73.8) over that stretch. Herbert has historically played well against ASU. In his career against the Sun Devils, Herbert is 69-of-111 for 1,032 yards, nine TDs and two interceptions. His career-best 489 passing yards came as a freshman vs. ASU in 2016.


The Ducks have outscored their opponents 56-20 in the second half on the road. Oregon is also 25-for-41 (.610) on third down conversions in the last three games.


Oregon has held six opponents under 10 points, which leads the nation and is a program best since 1960.


Oregon has 19 players who have scored a touchdown and 19 players who have at least a half-sack, both of which lead the nation.


A win would make Mario Cristobal the fourth head coach in program history to win 10 games in a season. 


Johnny Johnson III is coming off a four-catch performance vs. Arizona, including a 73-yard catch, the longest of his career and longest by a Duck in 2019. Juwan Johnson’s potential is also being realized, totaling 16 receptions, 263 yards and four touchdowns in the last three games. He led Oregon with five catches, one touchdown and 93 yards vs. Arizona.


Freshman defensive tackle Kayvon Thibodeaux has 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in the last two games. He’s coming off a season-high three tackle for loss performance against Arizona. The highest rated recruit in program history, Thibodeaux ranks 4th among all freshman nationally in sacks(5.5).


For the second time this season, Oregon left guard Shane Lemieux was named Pac-12 offensive lineman of the week. Against Arizona, Lemieux was the highest-graded (80.4) guard in the Pac-12 and third nationally. He has not allowed a hit, hurry or pressure on Herbert over 67 snaps and leads the Ducks with a season-high seven knockdowns.


A failed two-point conversion proved to be the difference in Arizona’s almost-comeback win at Oregon State. ASU rallied from two touchdowns down late in the game but the Beavers beat the Sun Devils, 35-34.


ASU has held eight of its last 10 opponents to under 150 total rushing yards (151 vs. Utah, 217 vs. UCLA). Although, the Sun Devils pass defense ranks 115th in the nation.

How Mycah Pittman's injury affects Oregon

How Mycah Pittman's injury affects Oregon

The Oregon Ducks (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) have lost one of their most dynamic offensive weapons most likely for the rest of the season, due to injury. Freshman wide receiver Mycah Pittman’s broken arm suffered in the first quarter of Oregon’s 34-6 win vs. Arizona will sideline him for six weeks and creates a need for more contributions.

Is Pittman done for the 2019 season?

Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal communicated the possibility of Pittman returning to play in the Ducks’ bowl game. The College Football Playoff semifinal (Dec. 28) or Rose Bowl (Jan. 1) are about six weeks out.

Already this season, Pittman rehabbed back from a broken collarbone that caused him to miss the opening four games.

"He’s proven before he’s a quick healer," Cristobal said. "Our training staff, our medical staff is second to none. I mean the very best in the country… And Mycah is a guy that attacks every opportunity to get better a hundred miles per hour. If anyone can heal quickly, it will be him, and if the timeline matches up, certainly that’s a consideration."

How does this impact the depth chart?

Oregon lists freshman Josh Delgado behind starter Jaylon Redd at slot receiver, in Pittman’s role. The Ducks moved Daewood Davis once again back on offense to add depth. Listed backups Davis, Josh Delgado and Bryan Addison will likely see increased playing time with Pittman out.

How can Oregon replace Pittman’s contributions?

In six games, Pittman has 14 receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns. His speed and relentless tenacity will be missed from the receiving corps. 

Without Pittman, look for starting playmakers Johnny Johnson III, Juwan Johnson and Jaylon Redd to continue their positive progress in the passing game with quarterback Justin Herbert.

Redd leads the team with nine touchdowns and has caught multiple passes in 13 straight games. Johnny Johnson III is coming off a four-catch performance vs. Arizona, including a 73-yard catch, the longest of his career and longest by a Duck in 2019. Juwan Johnson’s potential is also being realized, totaling 16 receptions, 263 yards, and four touchdowns in the last three games. He led Oregon with five catches, one touchdown and 93 yards vs. Arizona.

Who else is a possible backup receiver?

“Justin Collins is a guy last year in this game proved to be very valuable, caught a slant down there and got us in the tight red zone at the end of the half,” Crisotbal said. “He’s been coming along. He’s coming off an ACL as well.”

Cristobal also mentioned Isaiah Crocker, J.R Waters and Lance Wilhoite as options UO will explore. Although, Wilhoite and Waters are both coming off injuries and are likely not caught up to speed.

The Ducks travel to Tempe for their final conference road trip to face the Arizona State Sun Devils (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12) at 4:30 p.m., Saturday.

Oregon wide receiver Mycah Pittman undergoes surgery, out six weeks

Oregon wide receiver Mycah Pittman undergoes surgery, out six weeks

Oregon freshman wide receiver Mycah Pittman appears to have had surgery after suffering a broken arm injury in the No. 6 Ducks 34-6 win over Arizona.  Oregon coach Mario Cristobal confirmed Pittman's injury is a broken arm that has a six-week timeline for return. Cristobal said a bowl game return is possible, because “he’s proven to be a quick healer.” Below is a Instagram post from Pittman's mother.

Pittman has posted on Twitter and Instagram, indicating he will be back in 2020:

View this post on Instagram

When it get ugly, you gotta find a way.

A post shared by MJP (@mycahpittman) on

Pittman and quarterback Justin Herbert connected on an 11-yard pass and Pittman came down awkwardly after being tackled. Early indications suggest that Pittman's injury could be a broken wrist.

The freshman was escorted to the sideline and carted to the Oregon locker room and did not return.

Already this season, Pittman rehabbed back from a broken collarbone that caused him to miss the opening four games. In six games, Pittman has 14 receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns. One of Oregon’s most dynamic receivers, the loss of Pittman is a serious blow to the Ducks and their Pac-12 title goals.

Which college football team should Duck fans be rooting for now?

Which college football team should Duck fans be rooting for now?

The Oregon Ducks may hold their College Football Playoff fate in their own hands right now. A lot of people believe if they win out, whip Utah in the Pac-12 championship game, they will punch their ticket to the national playoff.

But I’m not sure Auburn – the only team to have beaten the Ducks this season -- doesn’t still own a big piece of Oregon’s postseason fate. That’s because the Tigers meet Alabama on 11/30 in a crucial SEC game. The Crimson Tide, of course, will be playing without its All-America quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is out for the season. If ‘Bama can somehow figure out a way to win at Auburn without Tagovailoa, I would guess it has a real shot at finishing ahead of the Ducks in the rankings.

Oregon lost 29-21 to Auburn on a neutral field with nine seconds to go, after leading all the way. But the Ducks had an edge in that game, playing the Tigers in the very first college game for Auburn’s true-freshman  starting quarterback Bo Nix. And although Nix was terrific late in the game, he was shaky early and Oregon didn’t take full advantage of that. If Alabama can beat the Tigers on the road, that would certainly make it easier for the committee to pick the Tide over the Ducks.

And I think the big problem for the Ducks is that Alabama is, well, Alabama. That game a week ago vs. LSU drew a terrific television rating and that counts for something, I would guess. Even though it’s not supposed to count.

Oregon must overcome the Alabama aura and also hope that Georgia doesn’t knock off LSU in the SEC championship game, which would probably push both those teams into the final four. along with Clemson and Ohio State.

Can the Ducks get into the final four? Yes, I think so. But remember, the final four is a football’s version of a dog show. It’s all about appearances. You better be ready to look charming, cute, adorable, etc. when the judges are looking.

You must not only be the best team, you have to look good doing it. And that’s not going to be easy, especially coming out of the Pac-12, where I believe it’s difficult for teams to improve throughout the long season because the caliber of opposition is often not going to be challenging. Just last week, Oregon wasn’t at its best but Arizona wasn’t good enough to even make the game close.

A lot still has to go Oregon’s way -- including Auburn putting a good beating on Alabama next week.

Injury updates to Mycah Pittman, CJ Verdell from Mario Cristobal

Injury updates to Mycah Pittman, CJ Verdell from Mario Cristobal

No. 6 Oregon (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) defeated Arizona 34-6 on Saturday night to officially claim the Pac-12 North crown and lock in a spot in the Pac-12 title game in December.

Before the Ducks can think that far ahead, they must also take care of business with their remaining schedule: at Arizona State and vs. Oregon State. 

Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal gave an injury update to true freshman wide receiver Mycah Pittman as well as sophomore running back CJ Verdell, who both left the game in the first half.

Mycah Pittman - right wrist

“Mycah hurt his arm. The severity of it, we’ll know but it’s a pretty good shot, everyone saw it on film. He took a pretty good hit there when he had his hand planted in the ground.”

Pittman tweeted the following this morning, further details have not been released:

CJ Verdell - arm

“CJ was more of a stinger. He got hyper-extended so he just wanted to get full strength back in his arm by the end of the game. He was back to full strength,” said Cristobal.

Sophomore running back Travis Dye finished with 14 attempts for 71 yards, but it was Darrian Felix, the back that has battled injury throughout his Oregon career, who made an appearance on Saturday and recorded 11 attempts for 49 yards.

More to come from Cristobal on the progress of these players when he gets a report.


In search of his own legacy, Justin Herbert has one of his biggest nights with Marcus Mariota in the house 

What they're saying: Oregon claims the North crown, clinches spot in Pac-12 title game

In search of his own legacy, Justin Herbert has one of his biggest nights with Marcus Mariota in the house

In search of his own legacy, Justin Herbert has one of his biggest nights with Marcus Mariota in the house

The No. 6 Oregon Ducks are Pac-12 Conference North Division Champions, contenders for the College Football Playoff, on a nine-game winning streak and have their first 7-0 start to Pac-12 Conference play since 2012.

In a 34-6 victory over Arizona, official King of the North quarterback Justin Herbert demonstrated how he helped lead Oregon (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) to those massive accomplishments.

“Magical” is how teammate senior linebacker Troy Dye described Herbert’s performance.

“You get the ball in (number)10’s hands and it’s ridiculous, anything can happen,” Dye continued. “He’s a magician with the ball…I’ll tell you what, he makes throws even crazier in practice.”

Herbert’s 333 passing yards marks his most this season and fourth most in his Oregon career. He became just the second player in Oregon history to surpass 10,000 total career yards and 100 total career touchdowns, sharing the milestone with former Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  

Witnessing from the sideline donning an Oregon-clad baseball hat pulled down, was Mariota. Despite his efforts to remain incognito, the camera found him, which brought 54,219 Ducks fans to their feet in a standing ovation. He took his hat off and bowed to the crowd in appreciation.

“I can always tell when he’s in town because it’s the loudest the crowd ever gets,” Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal said of Mariota. “There is nothing like being a player and seeing not only all the greats, former Oregon Ducks coming back and being around the program…I love it, will continue to invite them and want to see it happen much more.”

Cristobal stressed the top priority to bring the “Men of Oregon” back to strengthen the Duck legacy and “Oregon family.” He continued to share that when he was a player at Miami, meeting alumni was one of his favorite aspects of the game. Crisobal emphasized that it brings a perspective that the current Ducks are “borrowing the jerseys” and apart of something bigger.

The attention shifted back to the other sneaky-quick quarterback with an elite arm.

Herbert’s show started right away. On the second play of the game, he launched a 73-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Johnson III, the longest pass play of his season. The highlights continued with a reverse flea flicker 53-yard touchdown toss to an extended Juwan Johnson, worthy of a SportsCenter Top 10 nod. Herbert whipped his third touchdown with a back-shoulder bullet to Spencer Webb for 24 yards. Herbert’s fourth touchdown went to Travis Dye on a perfectly-timed 33-yard screen pass, extending Oregon’s comfortable lead before turning the reins over to back-up quarterback Tyler Shough.

Picking the best moment would be challenging. Good thing it’s not necessary. What is mandatory, however, is keeping the offensive momentum as the Ducks finish their two remaining Pac-12 games and beyond. Arizona’s defense is the worst in the conference and looming is a title game against the stout No. 7 Utah Utes.

It'll be the first time Oregon competes for the conference title since 2014 during Mariota's final season. When Mariota is in town, his legacy is loud enough to hurt an eardrum. Now, it’s Herbert’s opportunity to establish his own.

What they're saying: Oregon claims the North crown, clinches Pac-12 title spot

What they're saying: Oregon claims the North crown, clinches Pac-12 title spot

Goal accomplished.

It was said at the beginning of the season, that a goal was set out for a Pac-12 Championship. The No. 6 Oregon Ducks inched one step closer to that with a 34-6 win over the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night in a Pac-12 After Dark special in Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks advance to 7-0 in conference play and now, with two games still remaining on their regular season schedule, have officially locked up the north and are heading to San Jose in December.

Here's how the fans, players reacted to this accomplishment.


In search of his own legacy, Herbert has one of his biggest nights with Mariota in the house

Instant Analysis: Oregon beats Arizona, clinches Pac-12 North