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The Film Room: Oregon’s freshmen defenders face another dual-threat challenge

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ASU’s Manny Wilkins created havoc for the UO defense

NCAA Football: Oregon at Arizona State Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Ducks enter their final stretch of the 2017 regular season with back-to-back home games. First up, the surprising Wildcats from Arizona with an electric running game highlighted by quarterback Khalil Tate. Oregon’s freshmen need to make a statement.

Over the first few weeks of the season, we evaluated the entire Oregon team and highlighted each player that stood out on game day. Now that it’s conference season, we will select an individual player/group to evaluate from the previous Duck game.

OREGON’S 2017 RESUME

  • (5-5, 2-5)
  • 32.3 PPG
  • 323 TOTAL POINTS
  • 30.1 PA
  • 28.2 MOV
  • 4,287 TOTAL YARDS
  • 428.7 TOTAL YPG
  • 173.5 PASS YPG
  • 11 PASS TD
  • 30 RUSH TD
  • 255.2 RUSH YPG
  • 5.1 YPC
  • 28:29 AVG TOP
  • 44-for-44 XP
  • 5-for-7 FG
  • 377.7 YAPG
  • 8 INT
  • 30 SACKS
  • 73 TFL
  • 52 PD
  • 6 FF
  • 7 FR
  • 1 SPECIAL TEAMS TD

Key Players: Royce Freeman (1,362 YDS, 10 TD) and Troy Dye (84 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 4 SACKS)

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington
Myles Gaskin is bottled up on one of his 17 carries vs the Ducks on Nov. 4 from Seattle. Linebacker Jimmie Swain led the Ducks with a game-high 13 tackles (5 solo) in a 38-3 loss prior to the bye week.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
  • We can easily look back at the UW game to see the issues plaguing this team right now. In all honesty, my gut tells me it has a lot to do with the quarterback situation (wink). At this point, it has less to do with skill and more to do with team confidence.
  • Every time the defense takes the field without Justin Herbert playing, they know they must be perfect or it’s going to be a long day. On more than a few occasions, a great start was muffled by an offensive mistake. When the defense is constantly facing a short field against a rested offense, problems are bound to occur.
  • Additionally, the penalty issues of the offense create nothing helpful for the defense. We must also remember it’s a youthful defense led by a sophomore linebacker. That is no excuse, but there is room for improvement. Each week, you can see a little growth more than the previous. Some will disagree with a .500 record, but the wins will come with time. The players are trusting the process, even if it seems bleak at times.
  • The freshmen defenders will play a key role in the Arizona game. It made more sense to go back and watch the Arizona State game when the Duck defense faced dual-threat QB Manny Wilkins. He became a household name around Pac-12 homes that evening with 347 passing yards and three total scores (two rushing) vs Oregon, 37-35.
  • It also made more sense to review that game because that was Herbert’s last complete game. If everything goes according to plan, it should be a similar situation that the Ducks hopefully handle differently the second time around.
  • Thomas Graham Jr. was attacked mercilessly by Wilkins in this game, yet he held his own and played really stand-up football. He did not relent, even when he gave up a long completion. Wilkins continued to key on Graham and he exceeded expectations for a true freshman cornerback in his first Pac-12 contest, on the road no less.
  • Oregon’s freshman corner from Rancho Cucamonga led the team in tackles vs ASU with eight, all solo. He added a pass deflection on a deep ball from Wilkins and seemed to not be credited for another in the third quarter.
  • Tate is an exponentially bigger running threat than Wilkins, yet Manny is far ahead of Arizona’s QB on a passing level. In turn, this becomes the KEY TO THE GAME and that is slowing the rush attack of the Cats and forcing Khalil Tate to fling it. It should be easier said than done, but with freshman nose tackle Jordon Scott, it’s possible.
  • Wilkins rushed 14 times for 35 yards and two tallies. He had a long of 20 yards, but it wasn’t his rushing stats that won the game. It was the threat of the running game that kept Oregon’s defense honest, thus enabling Wilkins ample passing time. Without the threat of constant pressure and blitzes (which UO used sparingly), he picked apart the secondary.
  • Scott has been really impressive during spurts this season. He is an absolute beast on the run, plugging the gaps up front. Scott’s presence forces the defense to run toward the edges and sideline. In the ASU game, he was still finding his way in the college game. He secured three solo tackles, but his presence was felt by Wilkins who was forced from the pocket on a few occasions by Scott.
  • Last week vs UW, the true freshman registered a career-high five tackles. Nevertheless, he hasn’t recorded a TFL or sack since the Stanford game. Scott needs to step up and play his best game of the season on Saturday or the Ducks have no chance of slowing the best rushing attack in the conference.
  • Arizona enters Autzen leading the Pac-12 in rushing by a wide margin. Currently, the Cats have amassed 3,477 total rushing yards on 474 team carries. Overall, Arizona is averaging 347.7 rush yards per game, alongside a conference-best 41 touchdowns on 7.3 yards per carry.
  • Tate is averaging a college football-best 11.7 yards per carry and Arizona is the No. 3 overall rushing offense in the country.
  • In a battle of strength vs strength, Oregon possesses the second-best rush defense in the Pac-12 this season. The Ducks are yielding just 129.0 yards on the ground per contest. UO has allowed 1,290 total rushing yards on 353 carries this year. They are yielding just 3.7 yards per carry for the season, good enough for second-best in the Pac-12.
  • If Scott and Graham illustrate their growth over the last two months, they will be key factors in a victory for the Ducks. Both represent a different level of the defense that can control a game with a dominant effort due to their overwhelming talent.
  • Aside from the aforementioned freshmen, my third key freshman defender is safety Brady Breeze. After predicting him to be the opening day starter, following the move of Brenden Schooler from safety to wide receiver, he has methodically earned his stripes with Willie Taggart.
  • Earning the start against Utah was a credit to his determined work ethic. Breeze is also a team-favorite guy that is loved by his teammates, so he definitely has the support of his colleagues. Not to mention, his steady improvement makes him an impact player on the back end of the defense.
  • Against the Utes, Breeze was causing havoc for the dual-threat QB Tyler Huntley. He was all over the field, recording four total tackles and a huge pass deflection. Let’s not forget, when Breeze makes a tackle he lays the wood. He can instantly change the momentum of a game with one massive hit. The true freshman from Lake Oswego illustrated this against the Utes. It’s no coincidence that was one of the best efforts by the defense all season.
  • Last week, Breeze intercepted Jake Browning at the end of the first half. He literally restored faith and energized the locker room with that huge turnover just before halftime. It’s plays and players like Breeze that are the difference makers in big games like the one Oregon is about to face.
  • If Breeze can keep his balance and not bite on any play action fakes vs Tate, the Ducks could be in good shape. It all starts up front with Jalen Jelks, Jordon Scott, Justin Hollins and Henry Mondeaux. If the run game has nowhere to go, that is when Graham and Breeze will step in for their public demonstration. If the offense scores some points, Oregon will more than hang with the Wildcats.
  • With Herbert taking snaps, it would allow the defense some leeway. One play may not cost the team a win. Whereas without a QB, one error can lead to the floodgates opening against an offense that has no answer.

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.

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