DUCK NOTES: Not pretty but still effective for Ducks
For most of Saturday afternoon, the Oregon football team had fans reliving nightmares of 2004.
That was the last time the Ducks lost a home opener, a stunning 30-24 loss to unranked Indiana in which Oregon turned the ball over seven times and squandered countless opportunities.
Saturday’s 2021 season opener against Fresno State certainly had a similar feel, with Oregon trailing 24-21 in the fourth quarter while being thoroughly outplayed by the Bulldogs. Even after quarterback Anthony Brown finally put the Ducks on top for good with a 30-yard touchdown run with 2:57 remaining, Oregon fans couldn’t truly breathe a sigh of relief until Fresno State came up short on fourth-and-15 on its final possession.
“You’re never going to apologize for winning, but we know there are some things we can improve,” offensive lineman Alex Forsyth said.
“It wasn’t clean enough. It was obvious,” Brown said of the Ducks’ offensive performance. “We just know we didn’t play clean enough. In order for us to go where we want to go, we need to be firing on all cylinders.”
Head coach Mario Cristobal agreed with that assessment.
“We had moments today on offense that you’d like to have back,” he said. “We know we can be a really good offense. You’ve got to work it into reality, you can’t just will it to happen.”
In the end, No. 11 Oregon won its 17th straight home opener and improved to 14-3 all-time in season openers as a ranked team, and the Ducks got to do it in front of 43,276 cheering fans.
“It was great being back at Autzen with pretty much full capacity,” Forsyth said. “It was great hearing the fans. It really made a difference, kind of rattled the other team a little bit. It was great hearing the roar of a crowd.”
“It was just good to get back out there, especially in front of fans,” Brown said. “That makes a huge difference.”
The Ducks travel to face No. 4 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, next weekend for what is shaping up to be a huge early-season showdown for both teams.
FAST START, SLOW FINISH: The first touchdown of the 2021 season went to running back CJ Verdell, who punched in for a 2-yard score in the first quarter after Kayvon Thibodeaux forced a fumble that the Ducks recovered at the 3-yard line.
That was a trend in the first half, as Oregon’s offense sputtered but benefited from excellent field position due to the defense limiting Fresno State to negative rushing yards and forcing a pair of fumbles. The Ducks’ first two scoring drives covered just 30 yards combined and ended with short touchdown runs by Verdell and Travis Dye.
“The defense came out today and they were playing with their hair on fire,” Forsyth said. “Kudos to them. They did a great job all week. It was great to have those plays that really shifted the game in the beginning.”
Oregon’s offense faltered early, but Brown hit his stride with four straight completions during a 74-yard scoring drive late in the second quarter. After starting the game 3-for-7, the sixth-year senior connected with Micah Pittman for a pair of nice gains before lofting a 32-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Johnson to give the Ducks a 21-6 lead just before halftime.
That momentum faded quickly, however, as Fresno State scored 17 unanswered points to take the lead and put the Ducks on upset alert. Camden Lewis’s 25-yard field goal with 7:41 remaining tied the score and Brown sealed the victory with his touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s hard to put your finger on it,” Cristobal said of the offensive struggles. “The energy was real good, the preparation was real good. There were some big plays to be had. At times we made them happen and other times we didn’t.
“College football is a game of momentum. You’re up 14-0 and you have a chance to create a lot of momentum, (then) all of a sudden the momentum has swung.”
INJURY UPDATE: Duck fans endured some anxious moments in the first quarter when star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux went down with an ankle injury.
The consensus first-round NFL draft pick forced a fumble early in the game with a vicious blindside sack, but he stayed on the turf for an extended period of time after a play later in the quarter and received attention from the medical staff. There was an audible groan inside Autzen Stadium when the PA announcer called Thibodeaux’s name as the injured player on the field.
Thibodeaux was evaluated on the sideline and got a new tape wrap on his left ankle, then was seen stretching and running before eventually re-entering the game. However, he returned to the sideline after halftime in street clothes with a walking boot on his left leg and the Oregon defense struggled in his absence.
“Kayvon’s injury certainly was something you don’t ever want to see. It hurts us considerably,” Cristobal said. “He got rolled up on. I know it’s a sprain. We’re very optimistic it’s not anything too serious.”
“That’s one of the best players in the country right there, probably the best player in the country,” Forsyth said of Thibodeaux. “It’s always a tough blow to see a guy who’s a true leader, such a high-level player, seeing him go down it’s terrible. He’s such a difference maker in the program. It’s always tough to see a guy like that go down.”
In other injury news, starting weak-side linebacker Dru Mathis was helped off the field in the first half and was seen heading to the locker room on crutches. He reappeared in the second half wearing street clothes with a brace on his left knee.
“Dru looks like he may have hurt himself a little more significantly than KT,” Cristobal said. “We’ll wait and see until we talk to the doctors. I don’t think it’s the real, real bad side, but I think he may have hurt it pretty good.”