EUGENE — Southern Utah made $500,000 to open its season against Oregon at Autzen Stadium on Saturday.
It wasn’t an easy paycheck to earn.
The Thunderbirds brought with them a defense that returned eight starters, including a pair that earned of all-Big Sky Conference honors last fall.
But Oregon returned Royce Freeman and two other veteran running backs eager to lift the Ducks off the mat after a disappointing 2016.
It proved to be an unfair fight.
Oregon rushed for 348 yards and a stadium-record nine touchdowns in a 77-21 victory against Southern Utah, which was pounded into submission by a Ducks’ ground game that averaged 6.7 yards on 52 carries.
Leading the way was Freeman with 150 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries.
“He’s one of the best running backs in the country,” Thunderbirds coach Demario Warren said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he was a high draft pick. We knew going into the game we were going to have to tackle him and we didn’t do a great job of that early in the game.”
Asked if his team was overwhelmed at any point in the game, Warren said, “Yeah, yeah. That kid is hard to tackle so he broke some tackles and I think it broke our back a little bit on defense, just not being able to bring him down even when we got a guy in the hole.”
Freeman wasn’t the only one having success. Kani Benoit had 107 yards and three touchdowns on seven carries, and Tony Brooks-James rushed for 33 yards on nine carries and also took the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
“They scored 77, so they were pretty damn good,” Warren said. “They lost their big-time receiver (Darren Carrington) so we were worried about (receiver Dillon Mitchell) stepping into a bigger role, (Charles Nelson) made a tremendous play and we knew he was explosive, (Brooks-James) was a guy we were worried about besides Royce Freeman, and he ran the first kickoff back. They’ve got a lot of skill players and lot of athletes and I expect them to be a great offense.”
DEFENSE SHINES: Oregon’s defense, which recorded only 12 turnovers all of last season, had two against the Thunderbirds and the Ducks made both count by scoring touchdowns on their ensuing drives.
The first was cornerback Ugochukwu Amadi’s first-quarter interception near the goal line on a deep overthrow by Southern Utah quarterback Patrick Tyler. Oregon followed with a 97-yard TD drive that put the Ducks ahead 21-7.
In the second quarter, linebacker Troy Dye caught a tipped pass to give Oregon the ball at the Southern Utah 30 and seven plays later, Freeman ran in from the 3-yard line to put the Ducks up 28-7.
Overall, the Oregon defense held the Thunderbirds scoreless in the second half and limited them to 365 yards of offense.
“That’s a good defense,” Southern Utah coach Demario Warren said. “They’re not the Oregon defense a lot of people expect them to be. They fly around, they’ve got some long athletes and I think they’ve got a bright future on defense.”
NO TIME TO WASTE: When asked about his freshmen class during fall camp, Oregon coach Willie Taggart made it clear he would play anyone ready to contribute. True to his word, nine true freshmen played on Saturday, including three who started — wide receiver Johnny Johnson III, defensive tackle Austin Faoliu and punter Adam Stack.
Also playing were cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir, safeties Nick Pickett and Billy Gibson, defensive tackle Jordan Scott and receiver Darrian McNeal.
BRINGING THE HEAT: The temperature at kickoff was 90 degrees, marking just the fifth time in the 50-year history of Autzen Stadium that a game began in the 90s. The stadium record is 91 set on Sept. 6, 2014 when the Ducks hosted Michigan State. The first 90-degree game was on Sept. 23, 1967 against Colorado on the day Autzen Stadium opened.
NOTABLE: The win was No. 641 for Oregon in its 122-year history. … The Ducks won their season opener for the seventh straight season. The last time Oregon opened 0-1 was in 2011 when it lost 40-27 to LSU in Arlington, Texas, at Cowboys Stadium. … The Ducks also improved to 16-5 in their last 21 nonconference games with their 15th straight win against a team from outside a Power 5 conference.