Ken Woody | For The Register-Guard
With his team third-and-6 on the UCLA 44-yard line, Bruins coach Chip Kelly calculated that with only six seconds left in the first half, why not let his quarterback, Chase Griffin, heave a Hail Mary into the Oregon endzone.
After all, Griffin was 10-of-12 — what’s the worst thing that could happen?
Kelly would later lament the decision that cost his team the game. At halftime, he admitted that the interception was not Griffin’s fault but his, the play caller.
Did I leave out the results of the call? The Ducks, not playing the usual “quarterback takes a knee to run out the clock” call, got some rare pressure on Griffin and he was hit as he threw a wobbly ball that was intercepted by safety Jordan Happle, who weaved his way down the left sideline for a 58-yard touchdown return.
Happle, a graduate transfer from Boise State, picked an opportune time to snag the first interception of the year for Oregon’s maligned defense. The pick led to a semi-comfortable 24-21 lead instead of a 21-17 deficit at the half.
Griffin, a true freshman, was leading the Bruins as a result of Dorian Thompson-Robinson being wacked by the dreaded coronavirus, just as Stanford’s starter was derailed in Oregon’s opener at game time by the same test (that we learned later was a false positive).
Griffin, who had never thrown a pass in a college game, was cool in the pocket. When he had to, he tucked the ball and ran — showing a lot of moxie for a freshman.
Kelly, who always brought an excellent offensive plan and well-prepared team to his games at Oregon, was at his best in this one. He stretched the Oregon defense nearly to the breaking point, leaning on his favorite part of the game: running the football. The Bruins rushed for 267 yards, often looking invincible like his Oregon teams of years ago.
Oregon’s defense was on its heels from the start and did not dominate as it did in earlier victories over Stanford and Washington State. UCLA’s offensive line, with a lower pad level, blew the Ducks off the line of scrimmage, and held them, illegally, often on plays that attacked the edge of Oregon’s defense. Defensive coaches have to shake their heads at the holding the referees allow offensive players to commit, but there were times (not as many) Oregon was also guilty of the same thing.
The Ducks, as in the first two games, missed a lot of tackles, but many times it was due more to moves by the Bruin running backs that led to misses, as opposed to those made by faulty fundamentals and loafing. UCLA’s Demetric Felton was a whirling dervish, rushing 34 times for 167 yards; he was nearly impossible to tackle by only one player. Brittain Brown added 53 yards on nine carries. For the game, the Bruins outrushed the Ducks 267 to 88, a drastic imbalance that requires attention before this week’s Black Friday matchup at Oregon State.
The Ducks’ Travis Dye did some whirlin’ and twirlin’ of his own with 40 yards on 10 carries and caught a nifty touchdown pass while running mate CJ Verdell had a fumble and only 10 yards on 18 carries. Shough, who rushed for more than 160 yards in the first two victories, carried the ball 11 times for only 31 yards and was sacked four times.
Cristobal will say that you have to run the ball, with superior “push” — leverage and thrust that comes with a lower pad level than the guy you’re attempting to block, behind an explosive get-off at the snap of the ball. His offensive line was inconsistent in this category throughout the game — hence, only 88 yards rushing.
Cristobal and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had a conversation with Shough at halftime. He had faltered like a sophomore at times, hesitating at the looks UCLA’s defense was showing, obviously confusing him and perhaps his coaches, too. He completed only 8-of-16 throws in the half and, under heavy pressure, missed receivers with high throws.
The Bruins came at Shough, often with five rushers (blitz) from a variety of formations that had him noticeably out of sync. Cristobal revealed the Bruins were often overloaded with eight defenders committed to the line of scrimmage in an effort to stymie Oregon’s potent run offense. It mostly worked, but the Ducks were not helpless: They passed on run-pass-options for touchdowns to Hunter Kampmoyer and Dye, both uncovered by the gambling UCLA defense.
In the second half, Shough bore down, settled his footwork, and was 11-of-14 standing solidly in the cup with pressure all around him, throwing accurate, catchable balls. Moorhead helped him out with timely run-pass-option plays that burned the Bruin defense that was overplaying the run. The Ducks’ run game was anemic. In sticking with it, it set up play action passes that gave Shough some time, and room, to get his game together.
The offensive line’s pass protection was better than it seemed; part of the problem was that receivers weren’t getting open. Maybe it was because the type of play called did not coordinate with the time the receivers had to get open. Moorhead and the rest of the offensive staff will have to look at opportunities the Ducks overlooked or were outfoxed and anticipate that opposing defenses will copy the same tactics that stalled Shough and the offense.
Look for improvement in the passing game. It is tied to success on first down and Oregon only averaged 2.1 yards on first down after averaging nearly 8 in the first two games. If you’re second-and-8, the defense is holding all the cards and is more likely to blitz; play-action opportunities the Ducks usually execute with panache are eliminated.
Moorhead has designed some clever drop-back pass plays for long yardage situations. Twice, a receiver from the left side of the formation crossing the field at about 10 yards caught a safe, quick pass and ran to the right side of the formation, where multiple receivers had run routes not to catch a ball but to drive their defenders deep and, after the catch, set up and block. It was like a downfield screen pass on third-and-long and might have been successful if the receiver catching the ball had not slipped cutting up field.
Oregon’s offensive line looked inconsistent, but as the game grew tighter there was a noticeable increase in its effort. Look for pad level to show that: At times it’s hard for a 6-foot-6, 300-pounder to get his pad level down, especially when the game wears on and fatigue sets in. Perhaps viewing a film session of the departed Penei Sewell, who was the best offensive lineman in the country as a sophomore for the Ducks last year, would be helpful?
One good thing about playing in an empty stadium: kicker Camden Lewis does not hear a chorus of boos when he comes on for a field goal attempt. After working himself out of a similar malaise last season (9-of-14 field goals, with four misses from 20-29 yards), this year Lewis is a paltry 1-of-4, with one miss (against UCLA), from only 23 yards out. He has what appears to be an inconsistent finish, both with his kicking foot and balance of his upper body.
The shortened Pac-12 schedule was set back to late October and the last half is going to be played in lousy, winter-like weather. Under such conditions, the kicking game is often the decider. Field goals are a glaring weakness in the arsenal of a team ranked nationally in the top 10. It might be time backup kicker Henry Katleman gets a shot and see if he is more disciplined and consistent.
Kelly was done in by four turnovers, one that was his — the bad call with only six seconds left in the first half. The Ducks scored 28 points off turnovers, a direct product of the focus Cristobal had his defense practice all week.
After Kelly moves past his personal pain, he can be somewhat satisfied with the obvious improvement the Bruins showed the past two games, something sorely missing in Westwood the previous three years. He has explosive offensive stars and a rapidly improving defense that is capable of shaking up the Southern Division of the Pac-12. That is, if they can get by this season’s bewildering bogeyman: pregame coronavirus tests that are crippling teams and canceling football games.
Next up for the Ducks: the Beavers on Friday in Corvallis. The Ducks better take this game seriously. OSU is better than its record shows. The Ducks might not be as good as their record shows. Like Kelly at UCLA, Beavers coach Jonathon Smith is silently improving his young team, and he has a running back that can also spin like a top.
Ken Woody coached college football as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Utah State and Washington State and head coach at Whitman College and Washington University-St. Louis.