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UCLA Football 2018 Opponent Preview: Oregon Ducks

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The Ducks could be poised for a breakout in 2018, if their QB can stay healthy.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Oregon Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.

This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 10 opponent: the Oregon Ducks.

Last Year

I said in the Arizona preview that the Wildcats had the most interesting year in the Pac-12, but Oregon definitely has a case to be made for that spot. Let’s run down what happened for them:

  • They hired a coach! Willie Taggart was hired from South Florida to take over after Mark Helfrich was let go after a 4-8 season (and if you were keeping score at home, you’d notice that Oregon, which hadn’t fired a football coach since the 1970s, was more willing to fire a coach after 4-8 than UCLA. Though I guess it all worked out in the end). Taggart had a history of turning programs around, and didn’t have any prior connection to the Oregon program, so this was an exceptional hire. Taggart also brought Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt with him, an inspired coordinator choice who promised to turn Oregon’s defense around.
  • They found a quarterback! Justin Herbert started the year, and the Ducks went 6-1 in games he started, averaging 52 points a game in those games! That second number is helped by a 77 point explosion in the opening game against Southern Utah, but that’s still a strong offensive performance. That said, the best win in that stretch was against Arizona, with Herbert not playing against top-tier opponents like Washington and Stanford.
  • It also leaves out that Herbert was injured for 5 games, in which the Ducks went 1-4. The Oregon offense fell off a cliff without Herbert, averaging less than 11 points a game in these games. Without Herbert as a threat to pass or run, teams were able to key in on the Ducks’ running backs, and show 0 respect for the passing game of the backup QBs.
  • Taggart left! Florida State found itself with a coaching vacancy after Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M, and went after Taggart, who is a Florida native and known for his ability to aggressively recruit the state.
  • Finding itself in need of a coach after one year, the Ducks kept things in-house and turned to co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to take over the reins. Cristobal had previously been the head coach of Florida International from 2007-2012, where he took a team that had gone winless prior to his arrival and got them to their first-ever bowl game four years later. He had been fired from the position in 2012 after the AD believed the program was taking a step back, which is a hilarious position to take considering the program did not exist prior to Cristobal’s arrival. After FIU, Cristobal ended up at Alabama as the assistant head coach and co-OC before leaving for Oregon.

So yeah, that’s a lot of stuff.

With all that said, Oregon should be poised for a breakout this year. Even though Cristobal made his mark as an excellent recruiter, I feel he’s still a fairly good head coach, and Taggart left a solid foundation and program momentum for him to take advantage of. Plus, he was able to retain Leavitt, which should do wonders for the team in year 2.

Offensive Outlook

Oregon’s entire offensive outlook really begins and ends with Justin Herbert. Herbert’s passing ability is what unlocks the Oregon offensive juggernaut, as he’s a consistently on-target passer who can beat you repeatedly if you try to stack the box against the run, which means you can’t stack the box, which means Oregon is going to run all over you, which is what they really want to do. Herbert excelled at making reads, and completed 68% of his passes, while also averaging 7.2 yards per run (on non-sacks), showcasing his ability to move the ball on the ground and keep the defense honest. Those numbers in the last section regarding Oregon’s points per game with and without Herbert again showcase just how important Herbert is to this team; a healthy Herbert can get this team to 10 wins, while a hurt one could see this team struggle to get to bowl eligibility.

The good news for Herbert is that he’s going to have a great relationship with his receiver core, as the Ducks return 5 of their top 6 receivers from last year, including leading receiver Dillon Mitchell and Johnny Johnson III (who led the Ducks in yards per catch from the receiver position). The Ducks also return tight end Jacob Breeland, who only caught 18 passes last year, but averaged 17.8 yards per catch on those and had 5 touchdowns, and welcome in Wake Forest grad transfer and possession receiver Tabari Hines. Oh yeah, and they have a bunch of blue-chip talent coming in at the skill position this year.

There’s some new looks in the Oregon backfield this year. Royce Freeman is finally gone after what seems like 50 years in a Duck uniform, and the Ducks look like they will turn to Tony Brooks-James as the primary ball carrier. Brooks-James got some run last year backing up Freeman, but it will be interesting to see how he does in a more featured role, especially because there’s not a lot of experience backing him up.

The good news for those running backs is that the Ducks will have experience along the line, with 3 starters returning from last year’s squad. Among those starters were 2 all-conference honorable mentions in center Jake Hanson and tackle Calvin Throckmorton, which should go a long way towards keeping the run game on schedule.

Defensive Outlook

Jim Leavitt arrived at Oregon with the assignment to fix a defense that had been broken by previous defensive coordinator Brady Hoke. Hoke’s defense were great at stopping the big play, but consistently let the opponent march down the field instead to score (wow, sounds familiar). In other words, Hoke’s defense was great at stopping explosive plays, and bad at stopping efficient plays. In year one, Leavitt flipped the script, as Oregon became much, much better at forcing 3 and outs and limiting efficient offensive plays, but were amazingly inept at preventing the big play. Still, forcing more 3 and outs is preferable to giving up the occasional big play, and Oregon’s defensive S&P+ rose from 119th in 2016 to 61st last year.

Oregon will be lacking experience up front this year, which could hurt their continued defensive growth. Four of their top 8 tacklers along the defensive line are now gone, but they will continue to have Jalen Jelks this year. Jelks led the Ducks with 15 TFLs, and will be a big part of the havoc creation that Leavitt’s defenses rely upon.

The better news for the Ducks is that the linebacker corps will have more than enough experience to spare. Juniors Troy Dye and La’Mar Winston Jr. and senior Justin Hollins are all back, and between the three of them they had 33.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed. There is more support waiting in the wings as well, with Isaac Slade-Matautia looking to make an impact after a redshirt season.

The secondary is where Leavitt’s continued employment should produce the biggest impact. Last year, the Ducks played a pair of freshman at corner in Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir, and they were average, which was to be expected, but that year of experience could pay off in a big way this year, as both men were highly-regarded prospects. Safety saw a similar level of inexperience last year, which should improve with seasoning, and the secondary has senior Ugo Amadi to rely upon if things get bumpy.

Bold Prediction

This one really depends on who is starting at QB for the Ducks. If Herbert is still healthy and starting for the Ducks in Week 10 (not a guarantee after last year), then you have to give the edge to Oregon. If Herbert isn’t good to go, UCLA has a shot, especially in Chip Kelly’s return game to Eugene.

But, for the purposes of this, I’m going to assume Herbert is playing, so I’ll go with a 38-27 Ducks victory.

Go Bruins!