This Saturday, the UCLA Bruins will head on up to Eugene to take on the Oregon Ducks. In order to better get a handle on our opponents, I sent some questions to RB Stewart over at our sister site Addicted to Quack and he was kind enough to answer them.
1. Our big elephant in the room question for you guys: will Justin Herbert play, and if so will he play well? Because he missed last year’s matchup and it helped UCLA pick up a victory, and he was in concussion protocol earlier this week, so it’s been on our minds since the preseason.
RB Stewart: It sounds like he’s been cleared to practice since Wednesday, so he probably plays.
If he doesn’t, yikes. His primary backup last year, Braxton Burmeister, was well…. not good. You may recall he passed for 74 yards with an INT against UCLA last year. True freshman Tyler Shough hasn’t gotten any meaningful playing time thus far, so is an unknown quantity, but reading between the lines re: practice reps hasn’t shown the coaches he’ll be any more effective than Burmeister.
In my opinion, Herbert’s a little bit of an enigma and probably also the victim of some early season overhyping. A few self-proclaimed NFL Draft gurus like McShay & Kiper described him as the #1 QB prospect this season, and eager for some positive momentum I think a lot of Ducks fans elevated their expectations of him accordingly.
And Herbert sure can throw pretty passes – when he’s “on” he’s one of those players that can reliably beat good coverage by sheer accuracy, very much looking the part of a 1st round draft pick.
But… he’s never really been able to string those performances together with any consistency. He has trouble reading & adjusting to pressure, at times locks on the #1 option and misses open guys later in the progression, and tends to go for lower-percentage long throws rather than taking the easy yards. He apparently is quite shy (commentators have said “painfully so”), so leadership is a question in a position where by nature you have to be fairly vocal. Certainly when things start going south you don’t see him trying to rally the team, and it doesn’t appear any other offensive players have stepped up to fill that void.
If you get Good Herbert on Saturday, watch out. But the Bad Herbert could just as easily show up. We really have no idea at this point.
2. You guys had an interesting offseason, with Willie Taggart leaving Oregon after one season and Mario Cristobal stepping up to take over the program. How has Cristobal done in his first season at the helm? Also how big was retaining Jim Leavitt to Oregon’s continued success?
RB: I’m pretty happy with Cristobal so far. He’s elevated our recruiting to a level rarely if ever seen up here in our far-off corner of the Pacific NW, worked to establish a more physical identity, and seems to be a natural fit leadership-wise (in contrast to smarmy con-artist Taggart and/or piece of soggy bread Helfrich).
But being on your 3rd coach in 3 years isn’t a recipe for success, so I’ve tried to keep expectations tempered - in our Pac-12 preview I predicted a 7-5 record, which still seems like a good ballpark once December rolls around.
Again, I think some early season success – easy nonconference schedule, near-win against Stanford, victory over the hated Huskies – got some fans’ expectations a little out of whack. It’s going to take a couple years to establish Oregon as a contender again.
There’s also been some fan grumbling about OC Marcus Arroyo & predictability on offense, which will happen when you suddenly start sucking. Some of our film breakdowns seem to indicate it’s unwarranted at least in part (i.e. more of an execution issue rather than playcalling), but is something to keep an eye on.
Far as Leavitt goes, he’s done a solid job improving a historically bad defense from two years ago. We’ve regressed a little mid-season however, so I’ll be looking for a strong performance the last few games.
3. We all know Herbert is a potential top NFL draft pick, should he choose to leave, so who else on the Oregon offense should Bruin fans be watching in this game?
RB: Probably WR Dillon Mitchell – he’s our only reliable threat in the receiving corps at this point, and as I mentioned earlier Herbert tends to lock onto him and ignore other options. In Herbert’s defense, the other WRs have trouble consistently getting open and have been plagued with drops (something UCLA & UO have in common this year!).
None of our RBs really stand out – Oregon’s been spoiled by great backs for a number of years, now falling back to earth a little – but of those look for CJ Verdell to handle the majority of rushes.
4. Same for the defense: who are the big players we should keep an eye on, and who might steal the show?
RB: My favorite is 6’1” 330lb DL Jordon “Fat Mac” Scott. He’s a big boy, but surprisingly nimble. Other defenders may wind up with the tackle or sack, but he’s usually the one blowing the play up.
5. Before we get to predictions, let’s talk about Chip Kelly real fast. Duck fans got to watch him work for 4 years, so what words of advice would you give to any uneasy UCLA fans who may be considering jumping ship?
RB: The Ducks fan in me will love Chip forever. He made Oregon football incredibly fun to watch and was able to instill a laser-focused culture of excellence – both in conditioning and execution – with proven results every single year.
But… the Philadelphia Eagles fan in me watched him inherit a pretty solid roster, then succumb to hubris with an ill-advised GM power grab, overall never really seeming to adjust to the professional game. Week in & week out, those Eagles teams were aesthetically super unpleasant to watch. Something was clearly wrong.
So the 10 million dollar question is – did Chip Kelly merely catch Oregon lightning in a bottle with a high tempo offense that most teams weren’t yet prepared for, during a down period in the Pac-12? Now that everyone & their mother runs tempo, can he come up with similar innovations in other areas? No idea! Should be interesting to watch.
The one legit strength that he brings IMO is the aforementioned culture of excellence. In hindsight it became obvious what an advantage it truly was after his successor Mark Helfrich gradually lost that magic and the roster became unfocused, selfish, and ultimately ineffective. I see no reason why he can’t replicate that culture at the college level (NFL might be a different story). It’ll take a couple years though. Gotta be patient.
6. Let’s get that prediction: Who wins and what’s the final score?
RB: Kills me to say this, but when the ATQ writers picked all the Pac-12 games preseason I predicted UCLA with the win here. I’m going to stick with it. Bruins 33-30. Hopefully I’m wrong.
7. We end our Roundtables with the Extra Point, which is just a question where you can talk about anything. So go ahead and have fun with it!
RB: Well... I’m voting today, so got elections on the brain. Up here we’ve had exclusively vote-by-mail since 1998 (as I understand it California’s opt-in?), and I seriously cannot imagine voting by any other method. Aside from the convenience factor, it also encourages sitting down with your ballot & researching candidates & measures one-by-one. Plus you can do it as a group rather than curtained off in a polling booth, resulting in a more participatory & collective experience. We need to institute this shit nationwide.
Go get yo’ vote on, everyone! Hope to see a great game Saturday!
Again, thanks to RB Stewart at Addicted to Quack for taking the time to answer our questions. Go check out their fantastic coverage of Oregon football (and Oregon athletics ,in general) for another outlook on our opponents, and check out our responses to ATQ’s questions.