UO ends skid in time to face Huskies
The Oregon Ducks vanquished a three-game losing streak, a feeling of despair playing with a true freshman quarterback, and memories of a 42-point home loss to Utah just two years ago.
The Ducks, looking solid in every facet, whipped Utah 41-20 last weekend to draw within one win of bowl eligibility.
Now can they vanquish another very bad memory, an epic 70-21 loss to rival Washington only one year ago?
Before the Utah game, looking back to move forward, coach Willie Taggart showed his players video of the UCLA loss, the third in a row that added to the tally of being outscored 113-31 overall and 58-0 after halftime. He told them if they corrected mistakes and made adjustments and contributions to support true freshman QB Braxton Burmeister, they could come out on the winning end. After all, Taggart said the Ducks, despite being outscored 113-31 in three consecutive losses, had not been "dominated" by anybody. Running back Royce Freeman agreed.
"It's not a surprise," Freeman said after another stellar game for him —139 yards on 20 carries, as he topped 1,000 yards for a third time and led a 347-yard rushing output against Utah. "We were really close the past three weeks, we just had to give a little more. I'm proud of how our team got dialed in and focused and laid it all out there."
The defense shut down what appeared to be a dysfunctional Utah offense, highlighted by Ugo Amadi's strip of Darren Carrington and subsequent 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
A somewhat balanced offense showed up, as Burmeister went 9 of 12 — completing his first seven passes — for 47 yards and an early touchdown. That complemented the big rush game, and Charles Nelson broke a tackle and threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Jacob Breeland.
Even Aidan Schneider hit some important field goals, two of them, which extended early leads.
For one night, after a bit of reflection, the Ducks felt great about themselves.
"Can't put everything on Braxton, he goes out there every game and does his best," linebacker Troy Dye says, about the realization among UO teammates about how they had to change. "Everybody picked up the slack around him."
Says Taggart: "Good to see those dudes having fun with each other. It's a good group of men who really want to do well. It's great to see them put everything aside and go out and do everything they're capable of doing. When they do it that way, they can score on anyone, and win any ballgame we play. They gotta believe; it can't be me believing. They gotta play for each other. The way you play has to be like a gift to your teammates. That's what we saw out there (vs. Utah)."
But it gets much tougher at 7 p.m. Saturday, when the Ducks (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) play at Washington (7-1, 4-1).
The Huskies may have lost some key defensive players (such as Budda Baker) and some offensive parts (including receiver/returner John Ross) from last year's Pac-12 championship/College Football Playoff team, but they have plenty of personnel and one of the Pac-12's best coaches in Chris Petersen.
The Huskies, who rank behind only Arizona at 38.6 points per game, feature a steady quarterback in Jake Browning, two good running backs in Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, and a standout receiver/punt returner in Dante Pettis. And Washington sports the league's best defense; statistically, it's not even close — UW leads the Pac-12, allowing 12.1 points and 236.2 yards per game, including 71.6 rush and 164.6 pass.
Has Oregon turned the corner offensively, especially with Burmeister showing incremental improvement? Burmeister appears to have become more comfortable in his QB role, although because he hasn't been allowed to talk with the media, per Taggart's policy about prohibiting true freshmen from talking with media, one has to simply speculate on how and why.
"That's what happens when you get reps, you tend to get better," the UO head man says. "He was in more control. I thought the game plan by the coaches did a nice job of making sure he knew exactly what we needed him to do."
Says Freeman: "We want to see (injured QB Justin Herbert) healthy, and we know he cares about this team a lot. It's hurting him that he can't be out there with us. Braxton is gaining a lot of confidence out there, and the offense keeps moving. To rely on him is pretty big."
Has Burmeister made his final start of the season? Taggart says "if we needed to play Justin, he could have played" against Utah. Herbert practiced last week, and threw the football, but his left broken collarbone has to heal to prevent re-injury.
"Not one doctor told me that he couldn't play," Taggart says.
So a returning Herbert could change the dynamic at Washington, which certainly would try to harass Herbert with its ferocious defense. The Ducks can support Herbert — or Burmeister — by continuing to run the ball well, with Freeman and Kani Benoit and the outside speed of Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin. They combined to average 9.0 yards per carry against Utah.
"This game (vs. Utah) gave us a little confidence moving forward," Freeman says. "We can't get complacent with the performance we put up."