Oregon graduate transfer Scott Pagano has returned to action just in time to help the No. 24 Ducks take on the high-scoring teams in the Pac-12 Conference.
Pagano, who missed the first two games after undergoing foot surgery to repair a broken bone, saw minimal playing time on Saturday during Oregon's 49-13 win at Wisconsin. He did not record a tackle.
“He did alright the times that I did see him," UO coach Willie Taggart said following the game. "We knew there was going to be some rust to get off. But it’s good to get him to get some game experience before we get into Pac-12 play.”
Oregon's defense is off to a strong start. But the addition of Pagano as a graduate transfer from Clemson, which won last season's national title, was met with glee for a reason. He is the best defensive lineman on the team. Having him healthy for Pac-12 play will be a must if the Ducks' defense is going to stand up to the test of facing strong offenses on a weekly basis.
A fully healthy Pagano, however, could be weeks away for Oregon (3-0).
“I’m still not where I want to be right now,” Pagano said following Saturday's game.
Pagano estimated that is foot was at about 75 to 80 percent healthy. The plan is for him to play as much as he can without hindering the healing progress. When his foot begins to bother him, Pagano said, he would scale back his reps.
Senior safety Tyree Robinson said Pagano's mere presence has been a boost to the team given that all of the Ducks players know where he has been and what he can do. Taggart said that Pagano still must get into football shape and that UO hopes to increase his repetitions each week.
For Pagano, transferring from Clemson to Oregon, which played so poorly on defense last season, was helped along by the presence of the new coaching staff under Taggart. He called Joe Salave'a the best defensive line coach in the country and said that he saw signs of things looking up while watching a spring practice. Pagano said he could tell that the team was buying into what new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was selling.
The Duck are allowing just 23 points per game after surrendering 41.7 last year.
“I knew we were going to have a great defense,” Pagano said. “I knew I wanted to play with a team like this."
Next up for Oregon is Arizona State (1-2). The Sun Devils are off to a slow start but have far more speed and weapons on offense than every opponent Oregon has faced this season.
"This is going to be the most athletic team we've faced so far, by far," Taggart said.
Here is a quick look at the matchup:
Oregon at Arizona State
When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
T.V.: Pac-12 Networks.
Betting line: Oregon minus 14 1/2.
Records: Oregon (3-0), Arizona State (1-2).
Last week: The Sun Devils lost 52-45 at Texas Tech. Oregon won 49-13 at Wyoming.
Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-45, 3-0 at Oregon); Sun Devils' Todd Graham (89-57, 40-28 at ASU).
Sun Devils' impact players: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is off to a pretty hot start, averaging 308 yards passing with seven touchdown tosses and has yet to throw an interception. He has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. Wilkins, a redshirt junior, was the No. 6-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation when he came out of high school in 2014.
"This will be the first time we've had a good mobile quarterback that we've had to go against," Taggart said.
Senior running back Kalen Ballage has rushed for 179 yards and four touchdowns but is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.
Sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry is Wilkins' top target. The 6-foot-4 Harry has caught 24 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
ASU's defense is led statistically by two freshmen. Defensive end Jojo Wicker has three sacks on the season and linebacker D.J. Calhoun is averaging 10.3 tackles per game.
Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5. It's a road game. It's a conference game. It's against what will be by far the best offense the Ducks have faced this season. There's a lot to be worried about for Oregon. However, ASU is about as bad on defense as the Ducks were last season. If the Ducks take care of the football they would once again surpass 40 points. We will know after this game if UO's defense truly has bite if it can keep the Sun Devils in check.
Early pick: Oregon, 47-33. Oregon's defense will be challenged but it won't give up enough points to waste what should be a strong showing by the Ducks' offense.