EUGENE, Oregon — Head coach Willie Taggart intensified his focus this week in preparation for the Ducks’ Pac-12 opener in Tempe on Saturday. No. 24 Oregon’s lead man seems determined to accomplish more than just a great start to the season.
After an unbeaten start to the year (3-0), Taggart knows his team needs to continue to execute with great consistency, especially on the road. However, most coaches will ask for too much from their team to begin the conference season.
Taggart goes about his business a little differently. Coach T believes if the focus remains high and the execution is always consistent, then the effort and result should remain the same.
“If we go out and continue to have a great week of practice, first and foremost. If we go out with the same mindset and execute, there is no telling what we can do. Our guys go out and play the best game they can.”
Arizona State hasn’t beaten the Ducks since 2004, but that doesn’t mean a thing to Taggart.
“We have to get better at everything we do,” Taggart replied. “Tackling we’ve been better but we’re not where we want to be. We’ve been better, but we’re not where we want to be when it comes to stopping the run. Continue to get takeaways. And get off the field on third down. We got to continue to focus on those things to get better.”
The Sun Devils have a different offense this season, compared to years past. Instead of possessing a gunslinger with an above average running game, they now have a dual-threat quarterback and a subpar rush attack.
Manny Wilkins will keep Oregon’s defense on their toes. He has completed 69-of-101 pass attempts for 924 yards, seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions through three games. His problem has been the lack of running room, however. Wilkins has amassed just 16 yards on 34 carries with zero scores this season.
“He’s very athletic,” Taggart said. “He can beat you with his feet as well as his arm. It’s important that we continue to plaster for our DB’s to stay with their receivers and do a great job of staying in their gaps.”
When speaking of ‘plastering’ and the great play of his defensive backfield, the coach had a tough time avoiding the recent performances of safety Nick Pickett. His freshman continues to earn admiration from his teammates and coaches.
“He came in here and he really wants to be (great),” said Taggart. “He continues to learn from the older guys. Nick is giving everything he’s got. He earned the respect of his coaches and teammates.”
If the defensive backs are succeeding, a large part of gratitude is owed to the Duck defensive line who is creating the chaos up front. This season, Oregon’s shallow d-line has stepped up and answered the call to be better and more consistent in 2017.
“We’ve gotten better at that every week since Week 1,” Taggart said confidently. “Some of the blitzes we ran have been helpful getting Troy Dye in there bringing pressure. Of course, the pass rush has been critical for our DB’s to get some of those interceptions. Even tipped balls by our pass rushers have been helpful for us. Joe has (Salave'a) done a great job with our d-line. I think those guys will continue to get better.”
The best part is Oregon has done most of their early-season damage without the help of d-line newcomers Scott Pagano and Malik Young. With the Pac-12 season on the horizon, their timing could not be more precise.
“Malik is getting better each and every week. That’s the biggest thing with him right now is getting in football shape,” Taggart stated. “He’s a lot better than he was when he first got here. He’ll continue to make plays for us. It’s a great time now that Pac-12 play has started. He’s coming along and we feel good about where his future is.”
As for his championship-pedigree senior transfer from Clemson, Taggart is just waiting for Pagano to get into shape before he unleashes him consistently on the opposition.
“Scott (Pagano) is just like Malik. He’s got to get himself into football shape. As soon as he gets in better shape, he’ll get more reps to help out this football team.”
Pagano brings more to the table than just football ability. When reading between the lines as to why he left Clemson after winning a national title, it seemed like the Tiger program did not respect or appreciate the player that Pagano is on the field.
Fast forward one year and the senior defensive tackle is a leader to the young guys, alongside providing championship insight to the entire team. At the end of the day, Pagano has more rings than his head coach so why not utilize his experience?
“He teaches our guys what it’s like to work and to be a champion out of Clemson. It’s been good for Scott since he decided he wanted to be part of our team,” said the Oregon head coach. “He brings himself here (Oregon) where guys really appreciate him and what he can do. I see him with a lot of the younger guys. Scott is a guy that will help our football team from a lot of different perspectives.”
Positive signals continue to flutter around this team and it began back in the winter when Taggart took over. After three games, the Ducks still have a goose egg in the loss column while the new regime continues to figure it out.
The transition to conference play usually separates the men from the boys. No team can afford to overlook any opponent at this point in the season, especially a young squad like the Ducks. UO is looking for a good start, nothing more and nothing less.
Oregon (3-0) will open their Pac-12 Conference schedule vs Arizona State (1-2) on Saturday. In their fifth Pac-12 game last season, the Ducks won their first conference contest against ASU, 54-35, at Autzen Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 7:00 p.m. PT from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.