Here we are. It's already week 4 in the 2021 season and the Ducks are about to kick off Pac-12 play against Arizona.
Sitting at No. 3 in the AP poll with a 3-0 record, this team looks great on paper. But it's been an interesting journey getting to this point. A close 31-24 home win over a then unranked Fresno State squad raised some eyebrows in Eugene.
The following week the Ducks looked like they silenced a lot of doubters when they traveled to the heart of the Big Ten and upset No. 3 Ohio State at home in the Horseshoe. Oregon's roster has steadily improved year after year, but they were still outmatched by Ohio State at most positions from a recruiting perspective.
A win looked even more unlikely when Kayvon Thibodeaux and Justin Flowe were ruled out leading up to kickoff. But they came out and executed, had control for four quarters, and executed Mario Cristobal's vision all while relying on younger players for significant snaps.
Following that game, I asked Mario Cristobal what he was going to have to do in order to carry the momentum forward this season. His response boiled down to preparation, stating that how the Ducks approached Stony Brook coming off a huge win would determine whether their trajectory was for that of a great football team or a good football team.
Last weekend, it looked like the team may have been a bit emotionally drained against Stony Brook, leading only 17-7 at the half, albeit without a lot of notable players following a physical contest in Columbus. Oregon put Stony Brook away in the second half when Ty Thompson stepped in for Anthony Brown, but let's be honest, that shouldn't have been a game for any period of time.
So now we ask. Is Oregon a good team or a great team as they welcome Arizona to town?
For me, this answer is a mixed bag. We've seen a lot of flashes of greatness, but also plenty of room for improvement.
For starters, the players have adapted swimmingly to Tim DeRuyter's defense in year one, leading the Pac-12 and tied for fifth in the country with eight takeaways through three games. The secondary has looked strong so far, and should only continue to improve with DJ James playing some stellar football after missing fall camp and week 1. Bennett Williams has been another steady contributor who has been all over the field as one of the more reliable tacklers.
To no one's surprise, Noah Sewell continues to thrive, and the Ducks will need everything he has after losing Justin Flowe to an injury in week 1. Brandon Dorlus is really stepping into a major role, and I was banging the drum that he was a dude all of last year.
That said, the Ducks have flourished defending the run, but have largely struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, which is my main concern for the defense moving forward. It sounds like Kayvon Thibdoeaux should return soon, perhaps even Saturday against Arizona, but his main backup Bradyn Swinson, who has helped boost the pass rush is listed as doubtful/questionable. Regardless of player availability, this is an area that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, as KT has a limited number of games left in the green and yellow.
Coupled with that, Jake Haener and C.J. Stroud were both able to extend a lot of plays, which will be problematic as Oregon's secondary faces the likes of Stanford and UCLA with a lot of talent at the skill positions.
Flipping over to the offense, it's been productive so far, but not explosive as it should be given the wealth of talent that has been added to the roster in recent recrutiing cycles. The team has a habit of starting slow (See Fresno State, Stony Brook), something they'll need to kick if they want to make a deep push into the offseason.
After a shaky start to the season against the Bulldogs, Anthony Brown was surgical against Ohio State, leading the offense and playing with confidence and poise in a hostile environment. Joe Moorhead hasn't been afraid to run him, and he hasn't backed down from anyone, even lowering his shoulder to get some first downs and diving for touchdowns.
WATCH: Tetairoa McMillan Scores Multiple Touchdowns in Big Win
The Oregon wide receiver commit made huge plays on both sides of the ball
I'd like to see some more down-field throws, something that could come with more consistent offensive line play. After dominating an elite front in Ohio State, Mario Cristobal described the trench play as "below average" in the first half against Stony Brook.
CJ Verdell has been as consistent and versatile as any back in the country, leading the Pac-12 with 99.3 rushing yards per game and 298 total rushing yards.
We're still waiting for Troy Franklin to get more touches, but the freshman class has been quick to make an impact, particularly in wide receiver Dont'e Thornton and tight ends Terrance Ferguson and Moliki Matavao. Kris Hutson also continues to emerge after flashing in 2020.
Case in point, this is a good team, not a great team. A close win over Fresno Statee might not look so concerning now considering it was the first game and the Bulldogs would go on to upset UCLA. But Oregon will hope for them to win out to improve their resume. Ohio State appears to be a bit off to start the season, but at the end of the day that's a road win over a legitimate college football playoff contender year after year. That's huge.
The offensive execution hasn't been consistent enough and the slow starts continue to be a hurdle. The Ducks should've put Stony Brook away a lot earlier and I'll look to see them play a complete game and keep the pedal to the medal for four quarters against Arizona Saturday.
The overall execution flat out hasn't been consistent enough for this team to reach its goals.
The Ohio State win was great, even historic. Whatever you want to call it is probably fitting, but it won't mean much this season if the Ducks don't take care of business and continue to raise the standard in Eugene.
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