Ducks Click In Time To Avoid Upset
Entering Saturday, the Oregon football team had the two most recent Pac-12 championships in the rearview mirror, and a showdown with Ohio State looming farther up the highway.
The immediate order of business was taking on Fresno State in the 2021 season opener. With fans in the Autzen Stadium stands for the first time since November 2019, they saw an uneven performance for three quarters capped by a stout finish on both sides of the ball for a 31-24 victory by the No. 11 Ducks over the Bulldogs.
Trailing 24-21 early in the fourth quarter, Oregon got a turnover forced by linebacker Justin Flowe that set up a game-tying field goal by Camden Lewis. After the defense got off the field quickly again, with a three-and-out, quarterback Anthony Brown capped his first career UO start with a 30-yard touchdown run that put the Ducks ahead for good.
"I'm real proud of this team," said senior receiver Johnny Johnson III, whose 32-yard catch-and-run helped set up Brown's touchdown run. "Because we kept fighting. We had the feeling like, 'OK, we've let them play with us, and we need to step up and play our type of football.'"
Brown, the transfer from Boston College who played in Oregon's two postseason games last fall, finished Saturday's game 15-of-24 passing for 172 yards and a touchdown, plus 62 rushing yards. His game-winning touchdown play was an option on which he had the choice of pitching or keeping the ball himself; he opted for the latter, cutting back from the left side of the field to the right on his way to the end zone.
"AB had that play called for him and he went out there and executed, and won us the game right there," center Alex Forsyth said. "It was fun to be a part of."
Flowe's forced fumble capped a 14-tackle day by the former five-star recruit. Fellow former five-star prospects Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell also forced fumbles, each leading to an early touchdown as the Ducks built a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. CJ Verdell scored Oregon's first points of the season, and Travis Dye added another rushing touchdown.
The UO offense otherwise started inconsistently, when not gifted great field position by those turnovers. That unit finally got going late in the first, when Brown drove the Ducks to a touchdown that Johnson scored on a 32-yard reception. But by then Thibodeaux and starting middle linebacker Dru Mathis had been sidelined due to injury – Thibodeaux with an ankle sprain Cristobal said the Ducks hoped was "nothing too serious" – which seemed to sap the defense of its early momentum.
Fresno State (1-1) scored just before halftime to get within 21-13, then tied the game in the third quarter. The touchdown drive that made it 21-21 featured a couple instances of the UO defense losing contain, as Thibodeaux watched in street clothes from the sidelines.
"We played fast and we played physical; that's half the battle," safety Verone McKinley III said. "We can always make adjustments communication-wise and scheme-wise. I think we'll be OK, but definitely (we'll be facing) a great football team going into next week."
With the game tied, Oregon's offense had two empty possessions. The second ended with Brown being sacked and fumbling, a turnover the Bulldogs turned into a go-ahead field goal early in the fourth quarter. For several minutes, the Ducks were in line to lose their home opener for the first time since 2004.
"We know we didn't play clean enough," Brown said. "We'll get back on the film, fix what we have to fix and get ready for next week. … In order for us to go where we need to be, we have to be firing on all cylinders – which we weren't today, and that was obvious."
While the Ducks were spinning their wheels in the middle of the game, their kicking game was sublime, with punter Tom Snee averaging 46.8 yards on five punts. That included efforts of 53 and 56 yards, the latter of which pinned Fresno State at its 4-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Three plays after that Flowe forced a fumble, and moments later Lewis – who reclaimed the kicking job with a consistent performance in preseason camp – tied it 24-24 with 7:41 left in the game.
Brown's touchdown run made it 31-24, and the Bulldogs had 2:57 left to try and tie it. After a sack by Oregon's Brandon Dorlus set up fourth-and-10, Fresno State was moved even farther back by a false start penalty, one of a handful on the day that seemed to be influenced by the raucous crowd on hand.
"It felt unreal," Flowe said. "The fans were jumping. The feeling in Autzen Stadium was something I dreamed about. It was an honor to be out there."
The Ducks were able to get collegiate experience for 10 different freshmen from the class of 2021 on Saturday. They also welcomed back to the field tight end Cam McCormick, for the first since an injury in the 2018 season opener. McCormick's recovery was beset by setbacks but he returned to action in the second quarter Saturday, and threw a key block to help Dye convert a fourth down on the ground.
That was a feel-good moment for the Ducks, who celebrated another at game's end when the victory was secure. In between were some more harrowing moments, which Oregon will look to clean up on the practice field.
"We realize we do have a lot to work on," Forsyth said, speaking for his side of the ball. "You never apologize for winning, but I know we can execute better on offense."