No. 7 Oregon Ducks' plan for No. 5 Michigan State begins with redoubled effort – OregonLive.com
EUGENE — Like every college football team ending a month’s worth of monotonous preseason practices, the Oregon Ducks spent last week looking forward to their season opener if only to hit someone new for a change.
Instead, some Ducks were beating themselves up in the locker room Saturday night after a 61-42 victory in which Eastern Washington took the host’s paycheck and then took its defense for 549 yards before bowing out midway through the final quarter.
“Taking the win hard,” as head coach Mark Helfrich termed the atmosphere in the locker room.
In one way, Helfrich wished that hadn’t been Oregon’s reaction to its reward for weeks of preparation.
He also acknowledged, however, that it also wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have the seventh-ranked Ducks understand not all their kinks had been worked out during the previous month.
“I like that they’re not completely satisfied with the score or the stats or the way it all played out,” Helfrich said Sunday. “At the same time, they put in a lot of tireless hours to earn being out there and you have to enjoy that.”
If the season-opening celebration isn’t already over, it will be soon with a road date with No. 5 Michigan State (1-0) next on the schedule.
The Spartans jumped out to a 34-10 lead on Western Michigan and held on for a 37-24 road win to begin their season. Like Oregon in its own victory, Michigan State displayed an offense that started quickly, scoring three touchdowns on its first four drives, and a defense that’s susceptible through the air after allowing 365 passing yards.
Longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, considered one of the best innovators in college football, left to become Pittsburgh’s head coach in the offseason. MSU replaced him by promoting both secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers coach Mike Tressel from within.
“They’re outstanding,” said Helfrich, who noted some of Western Michigan’s big-yardage plays came late in the game. “Really good defensively. They’ve added quite a bit schematically from when we saw them last and they still make you earn every inch. They do a great job in their pressures of disguising and creating some issues.”
Perhaps Oregon’s most disappointing issue was not so much its lacking execution but effort defending Eastern Washington’s pass-heavy offense.
“The biggest thing I saw was not finishing,” defensive coordinator Don Pellum said Saturday evening. “Obviously you’re going to miss tackles but how are you going to compensate for that? Got to have another guy there. I didn’t see enough of that.”
Even when EWU starter Jordan West (23-of-34, three touchdowns and an interception) left the game due to injury, his backup Reilly Hennessey entered and rarely looked rattled en route to 14-of-21 completions for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Oregon’s pass rush got one sack and was nullified often by quick passes. It was also missing prized true freshman defensive end Canton Kaumatule, who is recovering from an unknown injury.
Of the Eagles’ 438 passing yards, an Autzen Stadium-record 246 went to Cooper Kupp, the junior receiver whose performance resembled an “all-galaxy” wideout, quipped Helfrich during a halftime interview.
A mistake stemming from effort is typically easier to correct than one that begins with trouble from knowing the playbook. And yet Helfrich and Pellum were irked a correction had to be made at all.
“That’s something that is non-negotiable in our program, just sheer effort,” said Helfrich, who was quick to not place blame on the secondary entirely, noting every unit was guilty of their own issues. “We had some good conversations about that last night during the game and after the game and certainly watching the tape those guys will see that and fix it. … If I’m the backside corner and the run is away, overanalysis doesn’t prevent me from sprinting to the other side. Again, those guys, we have good guys. They’ll see that and fix it.”
Another guy in fix-it mode? New quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., a player whose “pretty good” debut, as Helfrich termed it, would seemingly have offered fewer teachable moments after leading the Ducks to 731 yards of total offense — second-most in school history.
Adams has now passed for multiple touchdowns in 27 consecutive games and rushed for 94 yards on 14 carries.
But it wasn’t close to a perfect game — and he knows that.
“The biggest thing (Adams) gained in that situation was to know when you did something right and it worked and when you didn’t do something right and it still may have worked,” Helfrich said. “We had a play where he was pitching off to the wrong guy and we made a big play but he wasn’t correct. … The good thing is he always knew why. He knew what he did either correctly or incorrectly. That’s really big.”
So is the challenge, and the stage, before Oregon on Saturday in East Lansing. Within hours of beating the Eagles, UO coaches had already begun their film study.
— Andrew Greif
Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story noted Oregon is ranked fifth nationally. It is ranked seventh.