EUGENE, Oregon — The Ducks are trying to become bowl eligible with one win in their next two games. Oregon is also looking for a resume-building victory during the first year of the Willie Taggart era. Defeating Utah was great, but beating the Wildcats would be the cherry on top.
The success of this team does not hinge on the next two games. Yet, it would leave a great impression if the Ducks finished the season strong. In the first year of a major culture change, a program can experience many different ups and downs.
With Taggart at the helm, Oregon has taken a step in the right direction in 2017. Injuries derailed the possibilities of a spectacular run, but all hope is not lost. The Ducks can secure momentum heading into the offseason with a strong finish.
The chief concern of this team is the health of No. 1 quarterback Justin Herbert. With him taking snaps from center, the Ducks believe they can win every game they play. The bye week certainly enabled the players and their QB time to rest and heal.
“Justin’s doing well,” Taggart stated. “His bone is healing good. Had a good practice yesterday. The guys seemed to have fresh legs after a few days off. Very enthusiastic practice. They’re going to be ready to roll.”
It could be any day now that Herbert is cleared medically. Taggart joked that he wanted to conduct the final check-up himself. Regardless, the good news is that the sophomore is nearing full strength.
“He’s getting close,” said Taggart. “He’s getting really close.”
There is no advantage for Oregon if Taggart announces his starter today. So, don’t expect a decision until around game time on Saturday.
“I guess we’ll see as the week goes on,” Taggart said. “Probably get another x-ray and see where he is. Hopefully, he’s completely healed and ready to roll.”
The head coach couldn’t help but mentioning the most helpful ingredient throughout Herbert’s recovery.
“Milk helps, I promise you that.”
As for the quarterback of the defense, there are no worries regarding linebacker Troy Dye. The sophomore is back on the field practicing after exiting the Washington game prematurely.
“Troy, he’s back and he's ready to go,” Taggart said without hesitation. “He’s a kid that loves to play football and competing. He loves being around his teammates. It’s fun to watch.”
Taggart couldn’t resist the opportunity to gush over his nationally-ranked linebacker.
“It’s fun to have him around. He don’t take a practice off. When it’s time to compete, he’s ready to go. Those are the guys you go after when you recruit.”
Over the weekend, the Ducks had a unique opportunity to watch their next two opponents in one game as Arizona matched up with Oregon State.
“I really wasn’t paying attention to what Oregon State was doing,” said Taggart. “I was more focusing on Arizona and what they’re doing on both sides of the ball, special teams. And what we can do to try and exploit some of their weaknesses.”
The head coach went on to add that after Saturday’s contest, all his attention will be paid to Oregon’s in-state rival from Corvallis.
“Come next week, we’ll focus a lot more on Oregon State. They did do some good things, especially in the second half.”
The brother of Brenden Schooler, Colin leads the Arizona defense into Eugene. Oregon’s head coach has not missed the glaring similarities between the brothers, but also recognizes that Colin is a special player in his own right.
“He’s a really good football player,” said Taggart in reference to the other Schooler. “I like him. He’s a football player. He’s like his brother. Loves to play the game.”
With Brenden playing wide receiver for the Ducks this season, you could see a Schooler-Schooler matchup at times on Saturday.
Just like Oregon, Arizona’s defense is predicated around youthful, athletic players. The Cats are the No. 116 overall defense in the nation, but they’re better than the stats would indicate. Arizona is ranked No. 65 overall in rush defense.
“You look at their team, their young on defense,” Taggart stated. “A lot of young guys playing for them right now. They play hard. They try to disrupt what you’re doing up front in your blocking schemes.”
For as good as the Arizona defense has been during moments, they have been just as bad when their aggressive nature doesn’t pay off. And that is why Rich Rod’s pass defense is ranked No. 126 nationally.
“They’ll give us some things,” replied Taggart. “But, they’ll also give something in return because of how aggressive they are. They do a great job of intercepting the ball. We got to be on our ‘A’ game both running and throwing the ball.”
True freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister originally committed to the Arizona, before de-committing and signing with the Ducks.
“We haven’t even talked about that,” said the UO lead man. “We haven’t even brought that up since that happened. Braxton and I just talk about him and his development.”
Quinton ‘Winky’ Flowers is the superstar quarterback Taggart left behind when he accepted the Oregon job. After a shaky start to his collegiate career, Taggart turned his prized recruit into one of the best QB’s in the country.
This season, Flowers has only excelled further on the field as he demonstrates the teachings of his former coach. Regardless, Taggart wanted to remind Burmeister where his former star came from at the start of his career.
“I told him about the freshman I started at South Florida,” said Taggart. “His first two passes were interceptions. Everyone said the kid sucked and he couldn’t play. He’s amazing now, a hero! So, I shared that story with him and let him know we believe in him. He will continue to improve.”
As the media began to speak of the talented quarterbacks in the conference this season, the Wildcats’ signal-caller was at the top of Taggart’s list.
Khalil Tate has taken the nation by storm, as he leads the No. 6 ranked offense in the land. Not to mention, Tate has helped guide Arizona to the No. 3 national running rank while they’re averaging 347.7 rush yards per game.
“I like that one,” he said in reference to the Arizona quarterback.
In his last four games, Tate has amassed 1,305 total yards and 11 touchdowns. Yet, he’s also been intercepted five times over that stretch, while averaging just 163.7 passing yards per contest.
His skill above everything else is the running ability. He’s an elite talent with the ball in his hands. Since his third appearance this season, Tate is amassing an eye-popping 201.1 rushing yards per game, including 11 rushing scores.
For the season, Tate has completed 65-of-106 passes for 998 yards, eight tallies and six interceptions. On the ground, he has 1,293 rushing yards on 111 carries (11.6 YPC) alongside 11 tallies. Additionally, the Wildcats are 7-2 and have a top-ranked offense.
Oregon’s head coach was asked how he prepares for a talent like Tate.
“Pray. No one has stopped him yet this year. He’s a heck of a talent. Big-time football player and he’s good with the football in his hands. Defensively, we have to be disciplined. Guys got to run to the ball. Most importantly, we got to get lined up.”
Fortunately for Jim Leavitt, the run defense is their strength above all others. Oregon currently possesses the No. 51 ranked defense in the nation, alongside the No. 30 ranked rush defense. It will be strength vs strength on Saturday when Oregon’s defense and Arizona’s offense meet.
After watching film on the Cats this week, Taggart noticed one detail that can’t be overlooked heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 showdown.
“A lot of the big plays they make are when the defense isn’t aligned right. Part of it is because of tempo and not getting set up. I don’t think you can complicate things, that will get you too.”
The Ducks are halfway through a very intense practice week. The juice is back after a quick hiatus. Following the bye week, players are healing and becoming fresh once again. At the end of the day, you’re only as good as you feel and UO is feeling better.
Entering the final two games of the regular season, Oregon wants to give their most complete effort of the year. Don’t envision this team needing motivation as we start the home stretch.
Oregon’s (5-5, 2-5) ready for their final two home games of the regular season. One win will make UO bowl eligible. The Arizona Wildcats (7-3, 5-2) and Rich Rodriguez invade Autzen Stadium on Saturday. Kickoff is slated for 4:00 p.m. PT via the Pac-12 Network.