Attitude trumps altitude for Ducks
LARAMIE, Wyo. — How’s your oxygen?
It’s a question visiting teams must answer while playing at 7,220 feet.
The lungs of Oregon’s players may have burned a little bit early on, but there was enough air left for a boisterous celebration after the Ducks’ 49-13 demolition of Wyoming on Saturday night at War Memorial Stadium.
First-year coach Willie Taggart and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt have breathed life back into the program. The Ducks are 3-0 for the first time since 2014.
“We’ve got a pretty good football team,” Taggart said. “and we’re still not as good as we can be.”
Oregon focused on attitude — brutalizing quarterback Josh Allen with an aggressive pass rush and breaking the Cowboys’ spirit with a balanced offensive game plan — more than altitude.
The Ducks have now won 16 consecutive games against non-Power Five programs and will enter Pac-12 play dripping with confidence.
“The quarterback is certainly one of the better quarterbacks we’ve seen,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said.
He was not referring to Allen, a projected first-round NFL draft pick who completed 9 of 24 passes for 64 yards with an interception and a lost fumble.
Bohl was impressed with Justin Herbert, who set the tone for the evening by converting a third-and-10 and a third-and-11 on Oregon’s first drive with precision passes to Charles Nelson to set up the first of six touchdown runs for the Ducks.
The sophomore signal-caller passed for 251 yards and a touchdown and ran for 30 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Herbert said of his much-hyped counterpart. “But I was more focused on Oregon-Wyoming. I’m just glad we came out with the win and played pretty well.”
The Ducks made the crowd of 29,139 struggle with its oxygen as Wyoming fans gasped and held their collective breath after Allen took vicious hits to his valuable throwing arm and his head.
Oregon only finished with two sacks, but Allen lost his poise in the pocket as his opportunity to impress 21 scouts from 16 NFL teams was lost.
“I just knew we had to rattle him a little bit,” senior safety Tyree Robinson said. “We couldn’t have him comfortable, especially at home. … I told the D-line if you have a chance, take him out. We’re going to do our best to stay in coverage and make a lot of big plays. I think we did a good job with that.”
A year ago, Allen probably would have had time to study for the Wonderlic while shredding Brady Hoke’s defense.
Leavitt’s rejuvenated unit has already made seven interceptions in three games, only two shy of Oregon’s 2016 total in 12 games. Wyoming finished with 183 yards of total offense, was 4-for-15 on third-down conversions and scored all 13 of its points off turnovers.
“Coach Leavitt makes sure we’re always carrying a big stick,” Robinson said. “He preaches that every single day. And if we’re not, he’s definitely going to come to the sideline and let us know we’re not playing like we’re capable of playing.”
The Ducks know that Royce Freeman is capable of dominant performances, a trend that continued as the senior rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns on a career-high 30 carries.
Freeman moved into second place in Pac-12 history with 53 career rushing touchdowns, which also tied LaMichael James for the school record.
“I learned a lot,” Freeman said after the team aced its first road test of the season. “I learned that we can still come out and put points on the board and the defense is doing a great job. I really tip my hat to them the way they have played the past couple weeks.”
Oregon’s offense has scored 42 points in the first half of all three games this season. But after getting shut out in the second half of the 42-35 win over Nebraska, the Ducks only managed seven points after the intermission against Wyoming’s tired defense.
“It’s slow progress,” a smiling Herbert said. “We scored zero in the second half last week.”
Herbert was able to joke about some of the issues the coaches will be nitpicking on Sunday as the film is rewound before moving on to the conference opener at Arizona State.
The Cowboys (1-2) were left to pick up the pieces after their plans for Allen’s big night and a signature win were shattered.
Bohl appeared to be upset with Taggart for letting Taylor Alie throw a pass in the final moments. The terse post-game handshake wasn’t something Oregon’s coach felt like wasting much oxygen on before the long commute back home.
“That’s not my concern,” Taggart said. “I’m concerned about my football team and finishing.”