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Oregon Football: Ducks Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Oregon Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal

Oregon Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal

A thrilling, overtime win to top rival (and heavy preseason Pac-12 favorite) Washington capped an impressive first half to the 2018 season for the Oregon Ducks. Were it not for a late-game clock-management snafu against Stanford, Oregon would be at the forefront of College Football Playoff conversation.

Nevertheless, it's been a solid beginning to Mario Cristobal's tenure as Ducks head coach. And with Oregon likely to be a favorite in each of its six remaining contests, a return to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the third time since its inception in 2011 is very much in the cards.

Ducks fans may just need to be Washington Huskies fans the rest of the away. Once you're done feeling queasy with that prospect, Oregon faithful, understand a perfect Ducks finish and a Stanford loss sets UO up for a North division title.

Offensive MVP: QB Justin Herbert

The ABC/ESPN2 telecast of Oregon's Oct. 13 win over rival Washington displayed a graphic showing that Herbert had put up passing numbers through five games that were almost identical to those of Marcus Mariota in his Heisman Trophy-winning 2014 campaign.

While it may not be an apples-to-apples comparison as a result of Oregon's weak non-conference schedule, Herbert's two touchdowns passes with an interception were crucial to pulling off the upset of the No. 7 Huskies. Herbert's settled in since the Ducks got to Pac-12 play, on a pace to throw for more than 3,200 yards with 34 touchdowns in the regular season.

Defensive MVP: LB Justin Hollins

Oregon's front seven has been among the most productive in the Pac-12, and Hollins is a big reason why. Hollins is third among all Ducks with 34 tackles, and leads in a variety of other categories, including tackles for a loss (9), sacks (4), and fumbles forced (3).

Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's system thrives with an intimidating pass rusher setting the tone, and Hollins provides that necessary element for the Ducks defense to be at its best.

Best Moment of the First Half: C.J. Verdell's OT TD to Sink Washington

The first-ever overtime contest between bitter rivals Oregon and Washington appeared headed to a second frame, when the first two snaps on 1st-and-goal from the six-yard line produced nothing. Another misfire against a Huskies defense boasting some of the nation's most impressive red-zone numbers would have left it up to a field goal attempt against heavy winds, on a day when neither team kicked particularly well.

But the Oregon offensive line, down starter Dallas Warmack, who left earlier in the game due to injury, created a hole not many teams get against Washington. Verdell exploded through for an untouched score that put the Ducks on a potential course for the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Best Newcomer: RB C.J. Verdell

The departure of all-time leading Pac-12 rusher Royce Freeman left a considerable void in the Oregon backfield. Would veteran change-of-pace back Tony Brooks-James become the No. 1? Perhaps the talented Taj Griffin, moved to wide receiver due to a logjam at the position previously, could emerge in that role.

Instead, Verdell burst onto the scene as one of the most productive freshman in all of college football, and a cornerstone of the Oregon offense. At 531 rushing yards, Verdell's on course for a 1,000-yard season.

Biggest Surprise: LB Kaulana Apelu

Apelu has made an impact on the surprising Oregon defense this season, already surpassing his tackle total of a season ago (37 thus far and 20 in 2017), while tacking on five tackles for a loss — both second on the Ducks.

The junior has become a key cog despite being undersized for his position. He's hard-hitting all the same, and a tenacious ball-hawk who embodies the attitude of the Ducks defense.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. Finishing strong

There's no telling the possibilities awaiting Oregon if the Ducks can run the table the rest of the way. They need help to get to the Pac-12 Championship Game, which is ultimately out of the Ducks' control. Otherwise, though, Oregon can and should be able to control its destiny quite nicely.

Two marquee road trips to Washington State and Utah loom, but it's likely Oregon will be a Las Vegas favorite for both. A strong finish is the theme for the back-half — and pays off a lesson learned earlier in the campaign.

Mario Cristobal reflected on the squandered, three-score lead Sept. 22 against Stanford in the days leading up to the Washington. He said that the way that game ended stuck with his team. Expect the memory to be reflected in the Ducks' play down the stretch.

2. Herbert for Heisman?

Despite a rocky start (two interceptions apiece against Bowling Green and San Jose State with completions percentages below 50), Herbert, a likely 2019 NFL Draft first-round pick, has settled into a starring role. His ability to spread the ball all over the field overwhelmed Cal in a road, divisional win, and kept the outstanding Washington defense off-balance in a huge win.

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That huge win, with its prominent placement on the day's docket, just might provide the foundation for a late Heisman push.

The Ducks sneaking into the Pac-12 Championship Game and perhaps even College Football Playoff discussion could make Herbert a viable Heisman finalist if he can get into the neighborhood of 40 touchdown passes while continuing to limit his interceptions.

3. Physical fowl

The hallmark of this version of Oregon football, in contrast with even the title-contending teams of recent years, is how much more physical the Ducks play on both lines. That hard-hitting approach Cristobal brought from his time as a player and assistant at Miami, surprising success at FIU, and assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama, has suited Oregon well.

And the scariest prospect for Ducks opponents moving forward is that Oregon continues to make strides in that regard each week.

With a defensive front featuring run-stopping Jordon Scott, Jalen Jelks, Drayton Carlberg on the line, and Troy Dye, Justin Hollins and a host of others at linebackers, opponents will likely find points at a premium against the Ducks moving forward.

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1. Oct. 20 at Washington State

Mike Leach's Washington State teams have been a thorn in the Ducks' side, winning each of the last three meetings — including the past two by 18 and 23 points.

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The impending matchup at Martin Stadium marks the first-ever visit of ESPN College Gameday to Pullman, promising to electrify an already-raucous crowd. With quarterback Gardner Minshew leading the nation in passing, and coming off a bye week, the Cougars' potent passing attack will present the Ducks' secondary with a serious challenge.

2. Nov. 10 at Utah

Since a heartbreaking loss Sept. 29 to Washington State, Utah ripped off blowout wins over Stanford and Arizona. The always-tough Utah defense seems to have found offensive life, with Zack Moss running the ball hard; Britain Covey making explosive plays; and dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley beginning to click.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

3. Nov. 3 UCLA

Never mind that UCLA began 2018 with the program's worst start since 1943: A brutal first-half of the schedule seemed to pay dividends for a Bruins bunch that showed continuous improvement. That likely comes as no surprise to Oregon faithful, who witnessed the most prosperous era in Ducks history under current UCLA head coach, Chip Kelly. His return to Autzen Stadium should be rife with emotion.

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4. Nov. 17 Arizona State

A hot start to the 2017 season ironically cooled in the Pac-12 locale with the highest temperatures. Last September's defeat against Arizona State in the waning moments could be viewed as a revenge game, despite featuring new head coaches on both sidelines. Arizona State's first-year leader, Herm Edwards, has emphasized a more physical style akin to Cristobal's efforts in Eugene.

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5. Oct. 27 at Arizona

Since losing back-to-back games to Arizona in 2013 and '14, Oregon won two — the 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game and last year's meeting at Autzen Stadium — by a combined 58 points.

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Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate's season-long ankle issues came to a head Oct. 12 at Utah, throwing his status for this game into possible doubt.

6. Nov. 23 at Oregon State

Four decades of coaching continuity in the tree at Oregon ended unceremoniously in 2016, when Oregon State drilled the Ducks in a rain-soaked Civil War. That was the last time the Beavers beat a Pac-12 or FBS opponent of any kind. First-year Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith has a massive rebuilding job ahead of him. It's going to be a while before the end-of-year rivalry produces any classic showdowns for conference titles, as was the case at the end of the 2000s.

College football rankings: Oregon State

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.