On a perfect 70 degree early fall night in Eugene, Oregon, the Ducks won big. Yes, No. 15 Oregon crushed Montana in its final non-conference game, 35-3, as expected.
Would you like the many pieces of good news first or the bad news first? The game featured victories beyond the final score but let’s start with the area of concern.
The biggest win of the game would have been to exit Autzen Stadium without any mounting injuries heading into Pac-12 Conference play. Starting center Jake Hanson, starting cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. and No. 3 running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio all suffered injuries that kept them from returning to the game. A less than ideal situation for a team that is already coping with the loss of their most veteran receivers, Brenden Schooler and Juwan Johnson, plus starting defensive lineman Austin Faoliu and Gus Cumberlander, who did not dress in uniform.
After the game Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal gave a positive update. Cristobal said Graham suffered a "minor tweak" on his right ankle and that Habibi-Likio was dealing with some back spasms. Hanson’s status could be more serious but medical staff is evaluating an unspecified injury.
The Good - The Defense
Whew, now we can get to all the wins.
The Duck defense terrorized Montana. Oregon held the Grizzlies to eight(!) rushing yards, which is the fewest since playing Cal in 2017. Oregon put constant pressure on Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed and other than their one scoring drive, the longest Grizzlies drive was 34 yards.
"Our main emphasis this week was holding (Montana) to under 80 yards rushing," said Isaac Slade-Matautia. "We did a phenonemal job with that."
Two true freshmen made big impacts on the defense adding more promise to the future of Oregon football. Mase Funa and Mykael Wright took advantage of the valuable reps.
Funa, playing the STUD position, made a big impression early. After earning his first career start, Funa got a sack to end Montana's opening drive. He finished with two tackles for loss, totaling six already this season, which leads the Pac-12 Conference. He is the only freshman to have two sacks in a game this season in the FBS.
When Graham went down, Wright came in and lived up to the high praise that Graham has been preaching about the true freshman since arriving on campus. Wright grabbed his first career pick on Montana's opening series of the second half.
The Good - Pass Catchers
A triumph not to be overlooked is the improved play from tight end Jacob Breeland and wide receiver Johnny Johnson III, who were quarterback Justin Herbert’s main targets.
Coming off his first 100-yard receiving game, Breeland once again starred. The 6-foot-5 250-pound senior was the first Duck to find the end zone on a perfectly placed 5-yard touchdown pass from Herbert on the opening drive. Breeland scored again on a 16-yard pass in the second quarter.
Through three games, Johnson has already surpassed his season total receptions from last season (17). Johnson set a career high and led the Ducks in receptions with eight for 76 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Montana. His first touchdown of the night was a major highlight. Seconds before halftime in the red zone, Herbert scrambled out of two potential sacks and rolled to his right and whipped an 18-yard pass to Johnson in the back of end zone to extend Oregon’s lead to 28-0 before half.
"I have more confidence right now than I've had in my entire life," Johnson said after the game. "We are on our way."
The Good - Herbert
Herbert went 30 of 42 for 316 yards with five touchdowns, his second week in a row with a handful of scoring passes. The senior opened with 10 consecutive completions, including two scoring strikes to tight end Jake Breeland, and closed with two scoring throws to Johnny Johnson III and one to Jaylon Redd.
Herbert’s play was outstanding from the start. The senior began the game a perfect 10-of-10 for 113 yards and two touchdowns before throwing an incompletion. His final line was 30-of-42 passing for 316 yards with five passing touchdowns with two carries for 18 yards, both first downs.
Oh by the way, Herbert extended his nation-leading streak of 31 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. He also became the only quarterback in Oregon history to throw five touchdown passes in back-to-back games.
"They're just focused on getting better, and they've done a great job so far," Cristobal said. "And the best is yet to come, we really feel that."
Besides injuries and a slow running game, it was victories galore for the Ducks vs. Montana. Oregon has appeared sharp in its past two non-conference wins. Can the Ducks build on that experience against tougher competition? It’s time to find out, ready or not, conference play is here.