Ducks debut hits highs, lows

September 4, 2016 GMT

EUGENE — A year ago, Oregon opened the season with an FCS graduate transfer at quarterback and picked up a win over an FCS team.

The Ducks did it again on Saturday, but there were marked differences in the two debuts.

In 2015, Vernon Adams Jr. showed up his old team, Eastern Washington, to the tune of 61 points. This year, Dakota Prukop led the Oregon offense to 53 points against a UC Davis team coached by Duck alum Ron Gould.

Where the real difference came was on the other side of the ball. Eastern Washington, with Adams’ understudy, put up 42 points against a Ducks unit that — while it had new cornerbacks — was expected to be better than a season-long question mark after UO played in the BCS National Championship game the previous January.

Oregon’s defense gave up double-digit leads to both Washington State and TCU in a season that finished with a 9-4 record and record levels of defensive ineptitude. There were entire games when the question of whether the defense would record a sack, or even a tackle for loss, seemed to be legitimate concerns, and the the point totals allowed were staggering: 42, 31, 28, 62, 24, 45, 20, 55, 28, 36, 28, 42, 47.

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That stupendous 488 points allowed led to a change at defensive coordinator, with former Ball State and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke coming in to rebuild the unit. Hoke, who was an assistant coach at Oregon State in the Jerry Pettibone-era, remade the unit and declared the Ducks would create pressure and cause havoc for opposing offenses.

One play into the 2016 season, and there was no question about creating pressure.

Junior defensive end Henry Mondeaux got to Aggies quarterback Ben Scott for a sack. The Ducks were also bringing a corner on a blitz on the play.

By game’s end, Oregon had given up 28 points to an FCS team, not a promising statistic in its own right, but the Ducks made more plays on defense than they gave up, something that couldn’t be said about the 2015 unit that boasted the Pac-12’s best defensive lineman in DeForrest Buckner.

Oregon’s offense wasn’t consistent with four freshmen starting on the line.

Yes, there were promising numbers from Prukop, who threw for 271 yards and three scores and ran for 36 and a TD.

All-purpose star Charles Nelson was a standout with 288 total yards, 251 on punt and kick returns. However, even he wasn’t immune to the yips that bothered the Ducks. He muffed the first punt of the game, leading to a UC Davis TD, and he fumbled a kickoff return while fighting for more yardage.

Oregon’s standout running back Royce Freeman broke a 49-yard run in the second half, but his other 10 carries gained just 37 yards as he finished with 87 yards and a rushing TD.

What was consistent, from first whistle to last — which arrived after Sheldon graduate Justin Herbert handed off on his one play of the game — was the belief that this was just a start. Oregon is not a finished product.

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The Ducks are a true work in progress and the mistakes that were made featured full effort. The secondary gave up a couple big plays — a 50-yard completion and a 25-yard scoring run highlighted a three-play Aggies scoring drive — but the cornerbacks played better overall than at any point in 2015.

Fourth-year head coach Mark Helfrich has a week to improve the Ducks’ performance before Virginia comes into Autzen Stadium for a game under the Saturday Night Lights. Unlike a year ago, there’s a sense that Oregon will legitimately improve in that week of practice.

Was the defense perfect in the 4-3? No, but perfection isn’t what the Ducks needed. A perfect performance would have masked what they need to improve.

A college football season is a marathon, not a sprint, even if Oregon tries to make every game into a sprint.

Will the Ducks be back atop the Pac-12 at season’s end? Probably not. They will be in a bowl game, and a good one. They’re likely to win at least nine games with Prukop behind center, and this is a young team with six seniors among the 28 starters.

There’s reason to believe this season will see the Ducks grow toward another Bowl Championship Series Playoff appearance, perhaps by 2018. There was growth over the course of this game to show that to be a real possibility.