Oregon aims to parlay its best Pac-12 start since 2013 into its first conference championship since '14
Earlier this decade, Oregon became the flag bearer for the Pac-10/12 Conference when it introduced a hyper-charged spin on the hurry-up and spread-option offenses. The 2010s are drawing to close, and the Ducks are back as pace-setters in the Pac — only now, they're doing it with defense.
Oregon is midway through a season that opened with lofty expectations in the hunt for its first conference title since 2014 and a potential return to the College Football Playoff in reach. The Ducks rank third in the nation in points allowed at the midpoint, along the way holding five straight opponents to single-digit scoring. Oregon last put together such a streak in 1958 when the team was still called the Webfoots.
The schedule tightens up down the stretch for Oregon, which almost assuredly needs to run the table to make the playoff. No Pac-12 team has ever gone 9-0 in the conference; the last undefeated Pac-10 season was Oregon's in 2010.
Offensive MVP: Justin Herbert
Going out on a limb with this one, as the four-year starting quarterback is playing the best ball of his career. Herbert's numbers midway through the campaign may not be the gaudiest, but with a 69.1 percent completion rate and 17 touchdowns against just one interception, he's been the perfect leader for Oregon's methodical style.
Defensive MVP: LB Troy Dye
Much like Herbert, Dye is a four-year starter whose contributions have always been central to the unit's success. Thus, it's not really a shock he would garner midseason MVP recognition. Dye leads the Ducks with 33 tackles, is second with 5.5 tackles for a loss, third with three quarterback hurries, and has a pick and sack. In a scary scene Week 7 vs. Colorado, Dye collided with Jevon Holliday and came out of the game, but is cleared to return against Washington on Oct. 19.
Best Moment of the First Half: One Touchdown in 63 Possessions
While it's not a singular moment — in fact, it spans four games — Oregon's streak of possessions without giving up a touchdown is one of the most impressive defense feats in recent Pac-12 history. The Ducks have surrendered just a single touchdown in 63 possessions, holding three different opponents out of the end zone altogether in that span. Among them were conference foes Stanford and Colorado.
Best Newcomer: LB Mase Funa
Few pass rushers around college football have been as fearsome as Funa, say nothing of any of his freshmen counterparts. Funa has 6.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks, both team highs, as well as four quarterback hurries. Along with fellow frosh Kayvon Thibodeaux at defensive end, Oregon's pass rush should be on point for the foreseeable future.
Biggest Surprise: Andy Avalos' Defense
When Oregon hit its nadir in the 2016 season, the Ducks ranked among the very worst defenses in the nation with 41.4 points per game allowed. Willie Taggart's abbreviated tenure as head coach began with Jim Leavitt, a proven quick-fix defensive guru, engineering a turnaround comparable to that which he oversaw at Colorado.
Following the 2018 season, Leavitt left Eugene and the question of how a resurgent Oregon defense would continue its progression lingered. Not only has his replacement, Avalos, been adequate: He's putting together a strong case for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant coach.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Defensive dominance
The Pac's reputation has long been tied to offense, but recent results point to the best defenses winning the conference title. Through six games, there's little question which team has played the best defense in the Pac-12. The key for Oregon now is to continue imposing its will on opponents like Washington with its outstanding offensive line; Arizona's multifaceted run game; Arizona State and exciting freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels; Washington State's air raid; and Oregon State's potent, balanced attack.
2. More punch on offense
The Ducks' offense through six games has been efficient, if not uninspiring. Justin Herbert's savvy at quarterback makes for a perfect complement to the outstanding defense, but he needs a reliable explosive option in the passing game. That's especially important with his top target, tight end Jacob Breeland, declared out for the rest of the season because of a leg injury. Meanwhile, despite boasting one of the best offensive lines in the nation, the rushing attack has been somewhat underwhelming. CJ Verdell is coming off of 171 rushing yards against Colorado, his first 100-yard game of the season. That could serve as a springboard into a strong back-half for the talented sophomore.
3. Avoiding self-inflicted errors
A dropped touchdown pass in the end zone leading to a missed field goal, then a dropped exchange in the red zone are the difference in Oregon sitting at 6-0 and on the inside track to the playoff, and being 5-1 with no margin for error. With the schedule to come, the Ducks will likely face more tight games in which every possession counts for more. Special teams will be one area to watch, particularly with a freshman placekicker. Oregon ranks 30th in red-zone touchdowns but 100th in overall conversion rate within the opposition's 20-yard line. That's a result of inconsistency in the kicking game.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 19 at Washington
The historic rivalry with Washington has gained a new dynamic with both teams in contention for the conference title. Oregon's overtime win last season ushered in the Mario Cristobal vs. Chris Petersen era with style; 2019 promises a similarly intense affair. Washington's Pac-12 title hopes hinge on likely needing to be perfect down the stretch. The up-and-down Huskies looked their worst for a half Oct. 12 at Arizona, but their absolute best in the second 30 minutes.
2. Nov. 23 at Arizona State
The state of Arizona has not been kind to Oregon in recent years, with the Ducks getting upset as a nationally ranked team at Arizona State in 2017 and at Arizona in '18. Arizona State's 2017 win added another installment to what has been a wild and competitive series in recent years. In 2015, the Ducks won in overtime on a controversial scoring catch. That play loomed in 2018 when a similar grab for the Sun Devils was waved off at Autzen Stadium. Oregon's win in Eugene a year ago eliminated Arizona State from Pac-12 title contention.
3. Oct. 26 vs. Washington State
Styles make fights, as the cliche goes, and Washington State's style has been most vexing Oregon's faced in the last half-decade. Washington State owns a four-game winning streak in the series, including last year's haymaker delivered in Pullman, one week after the Ducks scored a marquee in over Washington.
4. Nov. 2 at USC
The Pac-12's historic banner carrier and the program that took up the mantle earlier this decade have not faced the Ducks since 2016. In terms of sheer talent, few teams in the conference approach the top-to-bottom quality of Oregon; USC might exceed it. The Trojans have the playmakers to beat any team in the Pac-12 — as proven against preseason favorite Utah.
5. Nov. 16 vs. Arizona
Arizona blindsided Oregon last October in a rout in Tucson. Expect the sour feeling from that one to motivate the Ducks as they begin the final quarter of their season. Arizona's been a very Jekyll and Hyde team through its first half, going 4-2 with a few high-scoring wins and a few defensive grinds.
6. Nov. 30 vs. Oregon State
A loss in 2016 ended Oregon's streak of eight straight Civil War victories, but the Ducks got back on track with wins in each of the past two seasons. Oregon State's explosive offense against the Ducks' dominating defense adds a fun element to this recently lopsided series.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.