Willie Taggart sure knows how to make an entrance and Royce Freeman is still the man.
Oregon made a splash right away when Tony Brooks-James returned the opening kickoff 100 yards to put the Ducks on the scoreboard. That was just the first of many trips to the end zone as Oregon defeated Southern Utah easily 77-21 in front of 52,204 fans inside Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks’ point total set an Autzen record and was the most points they have scored in one game in 101 years. It was also the first time Taggart has won his opening game with a program.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of that tunnel. I heard that motorcycle and it gave me goosebumps,” he said on the anticipation of coming out on the field and getting the season going. “I wanted to put pads on. The guys were fired up and had lots of energy. It wasn’t artificial. It was the real deal. The enthusiasm is contagious. It’s how we practice and how we play.
When the game was somewhat in doubt, Freeman racked up 150 yards and four touchdowns, which tied a career high for the senior tailback. Quarterback Justin Herbert had a nice opener as well, going 17-of-21 for 281 yards and one touchdown.
“I’m impressed and proud of him,” Taggart said of his sophomore quarterback. “His energy was good, especially on the sideline. He’s getting better and he has a football team willing to play for him. He’s been dynamite these last few weeks. I just want him to keep doing everything the same way.”
Kani Benoit finished the game with 107 yards on the ground and three touchdowns of his own as well.
Oregon didn’t need to throw the ball a whole bunch as the offensive line was able to push Southern Utah around almost at will. The Ducks rushed for 348 yards and gained 703 total yards. If there was a stat Taggart can’t be happy with it’s the penalties. The Ducks were flagged 12 times for 115 yards.
Southern Utah could have easily been held to just seven points. Their second score was a 64-yard touchdown where the defender fell down and its last score came thanks to a Duck turnover deep within their own territory.
In the Thunderbirds’ only true scoring drive, which happened to be their opening drive, Southern Utah went 70 yards on nine plays to tie the game 7-7.drive.
“I want our DBs to play tighter,” Taggart said of his defense’s first attempt. “It was like we were playing Randy Moss. But we did a good job stopping the run.”
Southern Utah gained just 99 yards on the ground.
According to defensive back Arrion Springs, that first drive didn’t go how they thought it would.
“They did some things we didn’t practice for,” he said. “We talked about it on the sideline and handled it a lot better after that.”
The defense was able to keep the Thunderbirds off the scoreboard for the entire second half, something that could never have been said last season.
Troy Dye led the team with 10 tackles, five solo, a sack and an interception. Justin Hollins managed six tackles, three solo and a sack.
Oregon grabbed the lead for good when Herbert found Jacob Breeland for a 14-yard touchdown and the 14-7 lead. The Ducks took the game over with a 97-yard, eight-play drive that was set up with a Ugo Amadi interception.
The Ducks used a little bit of everything on their second scoring drive that began on their own three-yard line. The big play was Freeman’s 32-yard run to get the Ducks out of the shadow of their own end zone and away they went.
Oregon was up 21-7 with 6:17 remaining in the opening quarter. The two-possession lead seemed to relax all involved and the Oregon defense to become more aggressive and put Southern Utah on its heels.
Linebackers AJ Hotchkins and Dye teamed up for an interception with Hotchkins putting the hit on a would-be Thunderbird receiver that forced him to cough the ball up in the air and right into Dye’s arms. Oregon took over on the Southern Utah 30-yard line and scored seven plays later with Freeman’s three-yard run for the 28-7 lead with 10:03 left in the first half.
Among the many shortcomings the Duck defense suffered through last season, the inability to force turnovers was near the top of the list. But in the season opener, Oregon managed to force – turnovers.
Southern Utah didn’t do itself any favors by going on a fourth-and-one on the Duck 41 and getting sacked at midfield. Oregon didn’t waste any time, going 50 yards in five plays resulting in Benoit’s second score of the day, a 29-yard jaunt right up the middle and the 35-7 advantage.
Freeman scored yet again with 3:32 left on a 16-yard run to make it 42-7. It was also his 50th career touchdown as a Duck. Oregon’s last scoring drive of the half went 80 yards in six plays.
Herbert wasn’t flashy in the first half, but he was efficient. The sophomore from Eugene was 13-of-15 passing for 173 yards and a touchdown.
Southern Utah answered on a 64-yard catch-and-run from Landon Measem where he took advantage of a botched coverage. The Thunderbirds managed to make it 42-21 after Brooks-James coughed the ball up again on the ensuing kickoff. The usually sure-handed junior also fumbled earlier in the game on the one-yard line, negating a probably touchdown. Southern Utah scored 36 ticks on the clock before halftime.
It might have been a game if the Thunderbirds could have somehow scored on their first possessions of the second half, but that didn’t occur. The Duck defense held SUU to a three-and-out and then the offense remained proficient with a six-play, 49-yard scoring drive that saw Freeman’s third trip to the promise land. Instead of a possible 42-28 score, Oregon extended its lead to 49-21 with 11:48 left in the third quarter.
Charles Nelson wanted to get in on the act on the next drive with a fingertip catch good for 50 yards to the Southern Utah three. Nelson scored on an end around two plays later to give the Ducks a 56-21 lead.
Oregon will now prepare for its first real test of the season with a 1:30 pm date with Nebraska next Saturday at Autzen. The Ducks will look to exact some revenge on Mike Riley’s Husker team after they defeated Oregon 35-32 back in Lincoln last year.
~ Don Smalley