Ducks Roll To Opening Win
EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon is 2-0 in 2020.
More than 300 days after beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, the UO football team returned to action Saturday for its pandemic-delayed season opener. The long layoff might have been apparent at the start, but the No. 12 Ducks found their form late in the opening quarter and ran away with a 35-14 win over visiting Stanford.
The stands were empty, the crowd noise artificial. The quarterback was new, as was the offensive line.
After the opening minutes, none of those were issues. The Ducks piled up nearly 500 yards of offense in the debut of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
"For not having played a football game in 311 days, really happy with the result," UO head coach Mario Cristobal said after kicking off his third season at the helm of the program. "Obviously we did not start fast; it took us a little while to get in rhythm, both sides of the ball. As much as we've practiced in an empty setting throughout camp, it was different.
"Once we figured out we had to bring our own juice, our own energy, guys settled in."
Stanford, which announced prior to kickoff that first-string quarterback David Mills was out due to COVID-19 protocols, leaned on its running game early. The Cardinal's traditionally powerful offensive line created lanes, and Austin Jones scored the game's first points on a rushing touchdown late in the first quarter.
Oregon and new starting quarterback Tyler Shough saw their first possession of the game stopped short of midfield. But after Jones got Stanford on the board, Shough drove the Ducks to an equalizer courtesy of CJ Verdell. That was the first of four straight touchdowns by the Ducks, with Stanford not getting back on the board until midway through the fourth quarter.
"We'd been waiting for this for I don't know how long," Verdell said, harkening back to the Rose Bowl appearance that opened the calendar year. "Ever since that moment, we've been waiting to get back on the field. Tonight we got that chance, and we made the most of it."
Verdell ran for 105 yards on 20 carries. Shough was 17-of-26 passing for 227 yards and one touchdown pass, to tight end DJ Johnson, a converted edge defender making his first UO appearance on offense. Johnson was particularly dangerous as a target for Shough on the run-pass option plays that are a staple of Moorhead's offense, and Shough also ran 11 times for 85 yards.
"Tyler did an unbelievable job tonight," Verdell said. "I can't say enough about the job he did."
The Ducks weren't perfect, with Shough throwing an interception and Cyrus Habibi-Likio losing a fumble. Habibi-Likio bounced back with a rushing touchdown for the game's final points, becoming the fourth different Duck to rush for a score after Verdell, Shough and Travis Dye.
Those rushing touchdowns were scored behind an offensive line that replaced each of the top six players in last season's rotation. The Ducks went with a new six-man rotation Saturday, substituting liberally between George Moore, TJ Bass, Alex Forsyth, Ryan Walk, Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu and Steven Jones.
"I was really proud of what they did," Shough said. "And then I just tried to spread the rock around as much as I could."
Oregon's defense tightened up after the early touchdown, allowing only one more scoring drive, a fourth-quarter possession that began with an uncharacteristic explosion play of 73 yards. Continuing a trend from 2019, when Andy Avalos took over the defense, the Ducks were adept Saturday at forcing the opposition to settle for field-goal attempts — and the Cardinal was 0-of-4 on those attempts.
Mykael Wright and Isaac Slade-Matautia led the Ducks with five tackles each, and Wright denied the Cardinal on a couple of jump-ball passes into the end zone, the likes of which Stanford has used to hurt Oregon going back the last 20 years or so. Several Ducks had four tackles, including Verone McKinley III before his second-half ejection for targeting — which will sideline him for the first half next week at WSU — and also true freshman Noah Sewell, in his collegiate debut.
"Future star," Slade-Matautia said of Sewell. "He's big, he's physical. He really did impress me tonight."
Had Mills played for the Cardinal, or had its kicker been more efficient, Saturday's game might have featured more drama. The Ducks did their part, at least, overcoming the slow start to show flashes of being the kind of team that can challenge for a second straight Pac-12 title — and perhaps more.
"It's a great start," Cristobal said. "It's a great start to the year. And the best part about it is, there's so many things to get better at."