Pac-12 preseason favorite Oregon pays a visit to Memorial Stadium on Saturday for what once was considered a potential North Division showdown.
The 4 p.m. kickoff is still intriguing enough that ESPN picked up the game, but the winner no longer has the inside track to a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.
The Bears, who were picked second in the North behind Oregon in the preseason media poll, are still seeking their first victory. The 21st-ranked Ducks are hoping to recover from a 41-38 upset loss to rival Oregon State, which essentially doomed their College Football Playoff dreams. Oregon slipped eight spots to No. 23 in Tuesday’s second CFP playoff rankings.
For a closer look at the Ducks, we sought the assistance of beat writer Ryan Thorburn of the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore. We provided Thorburn five questions about the team covers and he shares his answers here:
1. What has happened to the Oregon defense this season? The Ducks rank among the nation's worst in run defense and total defense. How did they fall off so dramatically this year?
It's a puzzling development considering the same starting defensive line -- four-year starters Austin Faoliu and Jordon Scott and preseason All-American Kayvon Thibodeaux -- from last season's dominant unit are all back. Oregon lost its leading tackler the past four seasons, linebacker Troy Dye, but has filled the hole with five-star recruit Noah Sewell, who is leading the team in tackles for loss and sacks. Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said tackling drills will be the primary focus in practice the rest of the season, as well as providing the unit with a clearer picture of the game plan earlier in the week.
2. Tyler Shough had huge shoes to fill after the departure of Justin Herbert. Seems like he has played very well. Describe his skill set and, especially, is there anything he is doing better than you expected?
Shough isn't quite as thick as Hebert but he is listed at 6-5, 221 pounds and was already considered a team leader behind the scenes last year. He is playing with five new starters on the offensive line that he developed chemistry with when they were backups. His ability to create explosive plays with deep passes or timely quarterback runs in Joe Moorhead's system has been a pleasant surprise for fans who wanted to see the previous offensive coordinator (Marcus Arroyo) unleash Herbert's athleticism much more.
3. The Ducks had to totally rebuild their offensive line, yet they lead the Pac-12 in total offense. How strong is the group, and who have been the standouts?
I would say the unit has a lot of work to do to meet the standard set by the 2019 group, which featured Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell and three other players now on NFL rosters. But considering Sewell opted out, Oregon's offensive line has held up well. This is an area where the program has recruited very well. Mario Cristobal and his trusted position coach, Alex Mirabal, have an expertise in developing offensive linemen. The strength of the group right now is in the middle with left guard T.J. Bass, center Alex Forsyth and right guard Malaesala-Laulu.
4. How shocked were the Ducks -- and their fans -- by the loss to Oregon State? What has been the reaction around the program?
I don't think anyone who was paying close attention was shocked. Oregon's defense struggled to stop the run and looked vulnerable against two backup quarterbacks and a true freshman quarterback during the first three weeks of the season. It was a perfect matchup for Jermar Jefferson, the best running back in the Pac-12, and improving Oregon State quarterback Tristan Gebbia to deliver a breakthrough victory for Jonathan Smith in the rivalry game. It was the first time the Ducks had lost a game since Nov. 23, 20019. Cristobal said he was upset after the bitter last-minute defeat but he has been pleased with the way the players have dissected the flaws of the team and reacted in practice this week.
5. What do you expect their response to be in Berkeley this week against a Cal team that was expected to be much better than it has performed?
I would expect Oregon to play its best game of the season to date. The defense had some key opt-outs (Brady Breeze, Thomas Graham, Jevon Holland) after the Pac-12 postponed the season but there is still a lot of young talent on the field capable of showing out in the sprint to the finish. If Moorhead's offense just cuts down the turnovers and runs more plays, the Ducks will be able to pile up even more points and yards than they have been already, which would take some pressure off the defense. Nothing has gone right for the Bears this season, including catching an angry Oregon team off a loss to Oregon State. The Ducks will still be highly motivated to win and set up a showdown for the North Division against Washington at Autzen Stadium.
*** Cal coach Justin Wilcox talks about Oregon QB Tyler Shough:
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