BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Despite second half stall against Huskers, UO shows its mettle

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - University of Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert has good numbers so far as a sophomore, and UO is 2-0, but the offense stalled against Nebraska in the second half, when Herbert had few passing opportunities.EUGENE — A 2-0 record with hope must feel better than a 4-8 record with uncertainty for the Oregon Ducks.

The second half of last weekend's game notwithstanding, the Ducks have put together good games against Southern Utah and Nebraska to start the Willie Taggart era. The defense appears better, the offense has regained its swagger, new players already have made impacts and Taggart and his staff have reinvigorated the Ducks with energy and enthusiasm.

The third game is 4 p.m. Saturday at Wyoming, and should the Ducks win in Laramie, they would be 3-0 entering Pac-12 play and might just enter the Top 25 polls.

"I still don't know how good we can be," Taggart says. "We're working hard and playing for one another. When you get that, winning comes easy."

Whereas the offense was expected to be stellar with second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, standout running back Royce Freeman and an experienced offensive line, the defense under coordinator Jim Leavitt was the big question mark. The Ducks had digressed to being one of the worst defensive teams in the country.

But the Ducks have contained the run — 208 yards allowed on 67 carries (3.1 per carry). They've held quarterbacks to under 50 percent completion percentage and 5.8 yards per attempt and intercepted six passes, including Ugo Amadi's pick to seal the Nebraska win on Saturday. They have forced 14 punts. They have seven sacks. They have been great on third down, allowing only 6 of 32 conversions.

The defensive front has held its ground. The linebackers, led by Troy Dye (21 tackles), have been solid. The secondary hasn't been beaten deep, and has used numerous players. The Ducks, who have given up two touchdowns on short fields, have played tough, making opponents work for their yardage. They battled Nebraska.

"There were quite a few new faces. It's a very good looking defense, physically," says Nebraska coach Mike Riley, the former OSU head man whose team often had trouble moving efficiently in UO's 42-35 win last weekend. "Angular, tall, good-looking guys. As a unit, they functioned real well and reminded me of Oregon defenses of the past when they were a 3-4 team when Chip (Kelly) was here. They looked real good."

Says Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf: "They were fast. They have a group that flies around. They did a nice job on our outside runs and ran them down a little bit. They gave us some trouble on some of our stretch plays. They give you a nice change of coverage; a lot of different looks there. They do a nice job. They're well-coached. Their speed was a factor."

With defense playing well, it would seem Oregon has quite a chance to make an impression in the Pac-12,

because its offense has cruised — other than going scoreless in the second half versus Nebraska.

"We feel like we've got a pretty good defense," Taggart says. "Got to show it."

Says cornerback Arrion Springs: "Coaches talk about us going out there and earning respect. ... Coach Leavitt talks about putting the team on our back and winning games this year."

Even Freeman weighs in on the improved defense.

"It's big," he says. "Gives offense the juice. Just to see them grow, it makes us excited for the future."

One would think the Ducks should improve defensively, especially with Leavitt calling the shots. Two true freshmen (Austin Faoliu, Jordon Scott) play on the defensive line, and two other players (Scott Pagano, Malik Young) soon could join the D-line ranks. Pagano, the Clemson transfer, suited up for the Nebraska game. And the unit has one of the better D-line coaches in the country in Joe Salave'a.

Secondary competition has been intense, because of the impact of true freshmen Thomas Graham Jr. (who had two interceptions versus Nebraska), Nick Pickett and Billy Gibson, who have all played well in games, as well as Deommodore Lenoir. Depth has helped, because Brady Breeze and Tyree Robinson have missed time with injuries.

Graham Jr., one of Taggart's first recruits, from Rancho Cucamonga, California, has adjusted well to the college game.

"He's so excited. It's why he came to Oregon, to help turn this program around," Taggart says. "He's a student of the game. So competitive. He's a big-time player."

Through six quarters, the UO offense had scored 119 points. Then, it was zero points in the second 30 minutes against Nebraska. Drives ended with a punt, interception, on downs, missed field goal, punt, fumble, punt. Taggart blamed lack of execution, urgency and tempo. As much as 119 points in six quarters was an eye-opener, ineptitude for 30 minutes was shocking.

"It's on all of us," Taggart says. "I call the plays, and they go out and execute. Didn't happen."

Players weren't too concerned.

"We were a little complacent," Herbert says. "We didn't move the ball as fast."

The Ducks threw only eight passes in the second half — after Herbert topped 300 yards with three TDs in the first half — and Oregon appeared to try to kill time off the clock with its running game. Some would call that "conservative," but maybe it's the way Taggart and co-offensive coordinators Mario Cristobal and Marcus Arroyo feel comfortable closing out games.

Then again, Freeman and backups Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James usually can be relied upon late. Running with more authority in Taggart/Cristobal's power-run philosophy, Freeman has 303 yards on 52 carries (5.8 average) and six touchdowns. He's closing in on LaMichael James' career rushing yardage and rushing TD records.

"He's a good back," Nebraska linebacker Chris Weber says. "He runs hard downhill. He's going to make you bring it on a tackle."

Herbert had sensational games last year, throwing for six touchdowns against Cal, racking up the second-most single-game yards in UO history (489 vs. ASU) and leading a fourth-quarter comeback at Utah with great scrambles and a pinpoint last-second TD pass to Darren Carrington. Herbert has picked up where he left off — he is 42 of 54 passing (77.8 percent) for 646 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception (on a tipped ball).

Taggart predicted much growth for Herbert, and it has happened, especially in the leadership department.

"It's just his confidence," the coach says. "He's a smart kid."

The offensive line has played physically, thanks in part to the return of tackle Tyrell Crosby. Talented tight end Jacob Breeland has a touchdown reception. A big loss was Carrington being dismissed and then landing at Utah, but Charles Nelson, Dillon Mitchell and Brenden Schooler had TD receptions against Nebraska, and Nelson has 13 receptions for 216 yards.

Schooler converted from safety in training camp.

"We always felt he had great ball skills," Taggart says.

The one true freshman making an impact on offense, starting receiver Johnny Johnson III, had a spectacular 51-yard diving reception against the Cornhuskers.

"He did that all the time in high school," Taggart says of the Chandler, Arizona, product. "I tell him, 'Stop diving, run through the ball.'"

The receiving corps has been a pleasant surprise, so far, because of Mitchell, Johnson III and some other freshmen.

"I told you they'd be special when they stepped on the field," Nelson says.

Adds Mitchell: "We're adjusting well to Justin."

Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was impressed with the UO offense.

"They were a talented group of players, and hard-nosed, tough coaches and a good innovative system," he says

Areas of concern? The Ducks had 24 penalties in two games, many of the 15-yard variety, including pass interferences. The offense put up a goose egg in the second half against Nebraska.

Oregon ventures on the road for the first time this week. It's a winnable game, although Wyoming sports one of the country's top NFL prospects in QB Josh Allen. Wyoming scored three points at Iowa and only beat FCS Gardner-Webb 27-0.

And, a competitive Pac-12 schedule awaits.

But it's been a good start for Taggart & Co.

"Our guys didn't fold when adversity came," the coach says. "Great job handling adversity. That's what you call a team. Great to see."

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