EUGENE, Oregon — The Ducks manhandled Southern Utah by a score of 77-21 on Saturday in their season opener. The Willie Taggart era started with a bang, as the Ducks broke two historic records at Autzen Stadium on their way to win No. 1 of the campaign.
By scoring 77 points, the Ducks accomplished a feat that had never occurred in Autzen’s 50 years. Oregon broke their all-time record for points scored in a single game, as the previous mark was 72. In 1916, the Tall Firs defeated the Willamette Methodists 97-0.
Additionally, Oregon set a record for the most rushing touchdowns scored in a single game (9) by one team at Autzen Stadium. The previous record of seven was accomplished on four separate occasions. What better way to celebrate Autzen’s 50th anniversary?
Oregon exploded for 703 yards of total offense on Saturday. The running backs amassed 348 yards, while Justin Herbert and Taylor Alie combined for 355 net passing yards.
“I thought our guys were ready to play all week,” Taggart stated. “Our guys went out and performed the way they should have. It wasn’t as pretty as we would like it to be.”
The Ducks were led by their senior workhorse Royce Freeman. He wasted no time reminding the nation what he’s capable of on a football field. The California product was awarded the ‘game ball’ after he recorded 153 rushing yards on 23 carries and four scores. He added four grabs for 50 receiving yards.
“It reminded me of the first two years when we were a dominant o-line,” said left tackle Tyrell Crosby. “Our run group did a good job.”
However, he passed his game ball onto Coach Taggart in a wonderful display.
“It means a lot to me,” said Taggart. “When the players give you something. It’s special to me because it’s my third time taking over a program and the last two I lost the first.”
If Taggart was looking to make an immediate impact, he did so just 10 seconds into his Oregon coaching career. Tony Brooks-James started the season by returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for the touchdown, 7-0.
Nevertheless, it didn't take long for Southern Utah to respond. Thunderbird quarterback Patrick Tyler led his team on a 9-play, 70-yard drive in 3:08. Before the Duck faithful could celebrate the early lead, the game was tied, 7-7.
Oregon’s first offensive drive of the new year was finalized when Justin Herbert found his sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland wide open down field. After the 20-yard scoring connection, UO regained the lead, 14-7. The Duck pass-catcher caught two balls for 45 yards on the first offensive possession of the season.
Moments later, cornerback Ugo Amadi created the first turnover of the season with his interception at the 9:20 mark of the first quarter.
Running back Kani Benoit placed the Ducks ahead 21-7 just three minutes later after he was untouched on his 10-yard touchdown.
The first official challenge of Oregon’s season came with 7:24 left in the first. Malik Lovette came down with a catch in bounds but was initially ruled out. The call was overturned by the Pac-12 officiating crew to a thunderous round of applause.
The next defensive stand, linebacker Jonah Moi took down Tyler for Oregon’s first sack of the season. After an incredible fall training camp, the senior is poised to make an impact in his final season.
If you saw the Oregon sideline during the game, it was a total team effort of support. Whenever the special teams were on the field, the sideline would interlock arms and sway back-and-forth in unison. Starting cornerback Arrion Springs has a name for it.
“That’s swag surfing,” said Springs with a smile. “You’re going to have to look that up in the Urban Dictionary.”
Following a long drive, TBJ fumbled on the goal line as Southern Utah recovered to derail Oregon from points. Chinedu Ahanonu forced the fumble, while Taylor Nelson recovered it for the Thunderbirds. It was Brooks-James’ first of two lost fumbles on the day. Overall, the Ducks lost nine fumbles in 2016.
However, Oregon answered right back as they forced a turnover of their own. Troy Dye intercepted a Tyler pass with 11:50 left in the second quarter. It was the second of the first half for the Ducks.
Freeman concluded the drive with his first of four tallies to open his senior season. The first placed Oregon ahead 28-7 with 10:03 in the second quarter. It was TD No. 49 of his storied Duck career.
The defense began to fly around after a few early stops. Then, Justin Hollins recorded his first sack of ‘17 with just over eight minutes left in the first half. The junior linebacker impressed his coaches throughout camp.
Benoit garnered his second touchdown of the first half with 6:44 left to play. The tally extended Oregon’s lead to 35-7. His first three carries amounted to 47 yards and two scores.
On the next offensive possession for UO, Freeman scurried to the house untouched for his second TD of the first half. It was the 50th overall score of his collegiate career. He entered the locker room at halftime with over 100 yards rushing and two TDs.
After 35 unanswered points were scored by the green and yellow, the Big Sky’s Thunderbirds finally responded late in the first half. Landen Measom caught a pass and rumbled 64 yards after some questionable tackling for the score, 42-14.
Their next drive, running back James Felila blew through a host of tackles to rumble in from four yards. His touchdown cut the deficit in half, 42-21, just before halftime. He finished with 35 yards on five catches, alongside 63 rushing yards on 20 carries.
Freeman found the end zone to open the second half. He ran 13 yards for the hat trick, placing his team ahead 49-21 with 11:48 remaining in the third quarter.
A 50-yard completion from Herbert to Charles Nelson set-up Oregon’s next points. Following the big connection, Herbert then handed off to Nelson on a reverse for the rushing score, 56-21. With that TD, the Ducks had a larger lead vs SU on Saturday than in any game last season. It’s not saying much, but it’s still something positive.
It only took the Ducks three plays to travel 49 yards for their ninth touchdown of the night. As Freeman crossed the goal line for the fourth time on Saturday, Oregon elevated their lead to 63-21 with 2:00 left in the third.
The senior concluded his evening with 150 rushing yards on 23 carries and four TDs. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry, with a long of 28 yards to begin his swan song. Freeman completed his night with 200 total yards exactly.
Benoit added the cherry on the top of his day once he relieved Freeman for good in the third quarter. The No. 3 RB on the depth chart registered his third score, alongside eclipsing the 100-yard mark with 107 yards on seven carries.
After relieving the starter Justin Herbert, senior Taylor Alie entered the game and played admirably going 6-for-6 with 74 yards. He added 10 rushing yards and a score.
Meanwhile, Herbert completed 17-of-21 passes for 281 yards and a score.
“Continue to do what you’re doing,” Taggart said of his sophomore QB. “I told him after the game I was proud of him. I thought he was efficient throwing the football.”
Nelson led the receiving charge with five catches for 99 yards. He added a rushing score after carrying the ball three times for 14 yards.
“I wouldn’t say this was like anything before,” Nelson said after the game. “We definitely had a lot more energy. I just feel there is something there that is going to stick with us.”
Jalen Jelks blocked a field goal attempt in the second half, his first of the season.
Johnny Johnson III made his first collegiate grab in the first half on a 2-yard quick screen. Later, he made a SportsCenter-worthy play with an incredibly difficult catch in traffic. He finished with two catches for 39 yards.
“They’ve done a really great job,” said Herbert about his receivers. “Guys like Johnny Johnson have stepped up big time. Johnny had a heck of a catch.”
Aside from his special teams’ heroics, Brooks-James finished with 33 yards on nine carries and a score, including two catches for 49 yards. However, he left the game in the third quarter with cramps. Details will be revealed next week.
Troy Dye led the defensive attack for the Ducks with a team-high 10 tackles, an interception, and a sack. He was clearly all over the field to open the season.
Ahanonu secured a game-high 11 tackles, including one TFL for Southern Utah.
For the Thunderbirds, they were led by their quarterback Tyler. He completed 18-of-34 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown. He rushed 10 times for 36 yards and a score, as well.
Nevertheless, Measom highlighted their effort with five catches for 106 yards and a TD. He had a game-high 64-yard reception that helped his numbers greatly.
Rashaan Miller punted a game-high seven times for a total of 281 yards for SU. He averaged 40.1 yards per punt, forcing the Duck offense to carry the load.
Oregon (1-0) is looking forward to their rematch with Nebraska next weekend. After falling to the Huskers in Lincoln last year, 35-32, the Ducks want to return the favor. Kickoff is slated for 1:30 p.m. PT from Autzen Stadium on Saturday.