Defense Needs To Shine: What To Watch For In Oregon Ducks Season-Opener vs. Portland State Vikings

By SPENCER McLAUGHLIN
Contributor, 750 The Game

In what feels vastly different from a year ago, the Oregon Ducks open their new season Saturday at Autzen Stadium taking on the Portland State Vikings of the FCS ranks. 

Not exactly being a 17.5-pt underdog against the reigning and soon-to-be-repeat national champion Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta.

We don’t need to revisit that game.

This is the sixth time the Ducks and Vikings have met all time and the first time since 2018, a 62-14 Oregon victory. Justin Herbert threw four touchdowns and had just six incompletions while the defense yielded just 224 yards of total offense to the Vikings. Similar results should be expected this weekend.

Here’s what I am looking for with Oregon’s defense, offense, and special teams in the season opener, and my official game prediction.

  1. Ducks Defense Must Flex Its Muscle On An FCS Opponent

Week two will be a much tougher test for the Ducks defense when they visit Lubbock, Tex. and take on an up-and-coming Texas Tech team led by former Ducks QB Tyler Shough. Still, against an FCS opponent, Oregon needs to come out of the gates strong. In the undefeated 2010 regular season, the Ducks blanked Portland State 69-0 at Autzen Stadium. A shutout on Saturday would be a welcome sign for a Ducks defense that has certainly improved on paper but needs to prove it on the field. Regardless, Oregon certainly shouldn’t allow more than 10 points. To accomplish that, pressuring PSU quarterback Dante Chachere and getting off the field on third down will be key, both areas Oregon struggled in last year. Look for returning senior Brandon Dorlus and incoming transfer Jordan Burch to make splash plays early.

2. New-Look Offensive Line Has To Protect Its Heisman Candidate QB

Bo Nix is back to lead a Ducks offense that finished top-ten in the country in both points and yards per game. Oregon’s run game returns one of the conference’s better rushing duos in Bucky Irving and Noah Whittington, Troy Franklin headlines a deep receiving core, and Terrance Ferguson is a clear top receiving option at tight end.

But what I will be most closely watching Saturday is Oregon’s offensive line.

The Ducks lost a lot of talent from last year’s unit that allowed the fewest sacks in the country (5). Center Alex Forsyth anchored the group as captain but is off to the NFL along with fellow starters  T.J. Bass, Ryan Walk, and Sala Aumavae-Laulu.

Dan Lanning brought in a plethora of good options to replace those names using the transfer portal, including Ajani Cornelius (Rhode Island), Junior Angilau (Texas), and Nishad Strother (East Carolina) while returning key depth pieces in Steven Jones, Jackson Powers-Johnson and Marcus Harper. Plus, promising sophomore talent and former five-star recruit Josh Conerly could start at left tackle.

But I have questions. Who starts where? How is their chemistry? How close to last year’s high-end unit can they get to? Saturday will be our first look at the group tasked with protecting a Heisman Trophy candidate QB in Bo Nix, whose late-season injury last year derailed Oregon’s playoff hopes.

3. Don’t Sleep On Special Teams

Does the “third side of the ball” matter that much? You bet it does. Oregon was second to last in punting average in the Pac-12 last season. They brought in Luke Dunne from the same Australian pipeline that Tom Snee came from – a player who played a key role in keeping Ohio State under 30 points in Oregon’s upset win in Columbus in 2021. It’s not impossible to have a good defense without good special teams, but it sure does help if the opponent is usually starting closer to their own 20-yard line than their own 35. In the kicking game, Camden Lewis (14-16 FGs with a long of 44 yards in 2022) has earned the trust of Duck fans and should continue to have it until there’s reason to suggest otherwise.

ONE MORE THING

Fans will also get a glimpse of the future of the program on Saturday. The Ducks shouldn’t have a problem getting second- and third-string players extended action as they did against Eastern Washington a year ago. There are young players on both sides who might have a limited role in 2023 but might be stalwarts in the lineup for 2024 and beyond.

Will quarterback Ty Thompson be a better version of himself than what we’ve seen so far? Is Jurrion Dickey worth the five-star hype as a wide receiver? Which of the young, talented defensive backs stand out amongst the rest? What about the 10 true freshmen defensive linemen/EDGE players in the 2023 recruiting class? I know like many of you, I’m ready to have all these questions answered this weekend. 

PREDICTION

This game should be one-sided if matters proceed as Dan Lanning would like them to, and I imagine he also wants to go into week two at Texas Tech as healthy as possible. 

In the end, Oregon’s offense will be too much for the Vikings and the defense will come out of the gates strong as the Ducks start 1-0.

OREGON 63, Portland State 10.

Happy Football Season.

Spencer McLaughlin is an Oregon Ducks football contributor to 750 The Game. He also hosts the “Locked On Oregon Ducks” and “Locked On Pac-12” podcasts and has work featured throughout the season here.

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