October 13, 2017
One play can change the outlook on the entire season.
When starting quarterback Justin Herbert barreled into the end zone for a touchdown versus Cal on Sept. 30, the sophomore ended up breaking his collarbone, an injury that is forecasted to have him out of action for 4-6 weeks.
It was a steep price to pay for seven points, and it shifted the leadership that Herbert had shouldered onto the rest of the team. It’s now up to the defensive side of the ball to step up even further for the Ducks — who sit at 4-2 halfway through the season — to stay competitive and add to the win column.
“We’re good at times, but we got to keep doing it,” safety Tyree Robinson said. “That’s what great defenses do. We’re surely getting there.”
It wasn’t all there in last Saturday’s 33-10 loss to then-No. 11 Washington State. Granted, it was true freshman Braxton Burmeister’s first start at quarterback, so the Cougars loaded the box against the run game and limited the Ducks’ offensive attack, putting additional stress on Oregon’s defense.
“Our quarterback situation is kind of shifty because of everything that happened with Herbert,” defensive lineman Jalen Jelks said. “[The defense] just has to push the offense to keep them going.”
Although last Saturday didn’t go their way, there’s reason to believe that the defense can do what Jelks conveyed. Under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, the defensive unit has drastically improved from last season, in which the Ducks ranked among the worst in the nation in multiple statistical categories.
“We were really awful,” cornerback Arrion Springs said. “I figured it was all there and we were really hungry for it. We want to prove that we’re really good players.”
Oregon’s defense still has room for improvement but has already compiled a couple statement games under its belt. Second half interceptions sealed a 42-35 win versus Nebraska, and Wyoming’s NFL-touted quarterback Josh Allen was helpless in a 49-13 loss on Sept. 16.
The numbers back up the defensive turnaround, too. The Ducks rank 10th in rushing yards allowed per game, fifth in third down conversions, and are first in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total sacks.
Oregon has shown signs of life on the defensive end over the first six games of the season, however, all they’re able to do now is look ahead to the rest of the season. And that starts on Saturday at No. 23 Stanford in what is expected to be a physical contest between the Pac-12 north rivals.
“[Stanford] loves to run the ball, and that’s how they’re going to impose their will: just run it down your throat until you give up or quit,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “It’s going to test our strength and our toughness.”
For many years, it’s been the Oregon offense aiming to outscore the opponent. But with Herbert out and the offense in flux, it’s up to the defense to set the tone for both sides of the ball.
Follow Cole Kundich on Twitter @ckundich