Going into the season, the Oregon Ducks were expected to have their best season in years after Mark Helfrich and Willie Taggart’s disappointing tenures. They currently sit at 5-2 as they prepare for a matchup with the Arizona Wildcats this Saturday night.
We talked to Rob Stewart of our sister site at SB Nation, Addicted to Quack, to hear what he has to say about Oregon before this weekend. Here’s our Q&A.
Oregon could easily be 7-0, if not for a fluky loss to Stanford and a rough start in Pullman. Does 5-2 feel frustrating for this team?
I think most Oregon fans are cool with it. We’re on our third head coach in three years, so most reasonable Ducks fans (haha right) understand this is a rebuilding project of sorts. If you told me preseason that we’d go 1-2 against the trio of Stanford, UW and WSU but the lone win would come against the hated Huskies, I’d gladly take that.
After the recruiting downturn during the Helfrich era, Oregon’s thin at a lot of positions — especially WR & DB — and our defense is still trying to recover from its historical awfulness a couple years ago. Combine that with a wholesale identity makeover from up-tempo to more of a physical ball-control offense, and well, it’s a long-term process.
The good news is that coach Mario Cristobal is doing and saying all the right things, has elevated recruiting to probably its best ever at UO, and has already substantially changed the culture of the team from the doldrums of the post-Kelly seasons. At times we’ve looked excellent. So early returns are he might be a keeper, but check with me on that in a couple years.
I should note that this season’s nonconference schedule was possibly Oregon’s easiest of the past 20-30 years, so even the 5-2 record is probably a little inflated.
How special of a player is Justin Herbert?
He’s good. Smart, strong arm, accurate, faster than he appears, with the height and other physical measurables that NFL scouts drool over. He might check off the most Likely To Succeed In The NFL boxes of any Oregon QB prospect from the past generation.
Been a challenging road for him, though. As I mentioned above, a new head coach every year. Season-ending collarbone injury in 2017. So it’s been a little tough to gauge his upward progress. He certainly has things to work on — putting more touch on his passes, taking what the defense gives him rather than going for the home run, recognizing and adjusting to defensive pressure, etc — and it’s possible the hype has exceeded his actual accomplishments so far. But when he’s “on” he’s capable of taking over a game even if the opposing defense is playing well.
Are you happy with the defense’s performance this year?
Let’s go with TBD. We’ve been pretty excited about how DC Jim Leavitt has turned around a really really bad defense from 2015-2016 (hard to overstate what a sh*tshow that was), but they’ve struggled at times this season.
Particularly last week against WSU when we seemed unprepared for defending Leach’s Air Raid in general, and basic swing passes specifically which seemed to net 6-15 yards a pop. Also tall receivers like Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside and UW TE Drew Sample have given our diminutive CBs a lot of problems.
On the positive side, our DL has played well and we have some future defensive help coming in the form of promising young players & recruits.
Who’s a lesser-known player likely to have an impact?
Let’s go with a fan favorite, DL Jordon Scott. He’s a 6-foot-1, 330-pound DT recruited out of Florida by Willie Taggart who then decided to stay in the Northwest when Taggart bailed. He’s big, obviously, but surprisingly agile with great instincts. Like most linemen he doesn’t always get the stats, but keep an eye on #34 and you’ll see he’s often the guy blowing up the play so someone else can swoop in and clean up.
What are your expectations for the rest of the season?
Continue to see development and improvement, and win the games we’re supposed to win. If we do so, and then everything breaks perfectly, I guess we could still contend for the Pac-12 North. But that seems unlikely.
Before the season started I predicted an 8-4 type team, and that still seems about right.
What, if anything, scares you about visiting Arizona?
Pac-12 After Dark in a hostile stadium, against a team that was one of the most explosive in the conference just a season ago? And a Ducks team that’s been inconsistent? And your leading WR (Shawn Poindexter) is 6’5”? No outcome would surprise me here.
I have some bad memories of Tucson games — Dennis Dixon crumpling to the ground in 2007, or the “Hey did you know Scooby Wright was a 2-star?” blowout in 2013, etc. And some great ones — Zona fans trying to rush the field in 2009 only watch Jeremiah Masoli break their hearts is a fond recollection. Really runs the spectrum, strange things happen in the desert.
Lastly, what’s your score prediction for the game?
Assuming the Ducks can re-assert the physical running game they lacked against WSU, I like Oregon to cover at something like 35-24. If they still struggle in the rushing department, I got no idea.