By SPENCER McLAUGHLIN
Contributor, 750 The Game
I started writing this piece before Oregon released the news about Noah Whittington. He’s not expected to play again this season. I was planning to talk about Oregon’s running game and how that’s arguably the biggest thing they have to work on with Washington looming next Saturday, October 14th in Seattle.
Well, now that feels like it got even tougher. But it’s not impossible.
Since coming over from Western Kentucky last season with running backs coach Carlos Locklyn, Whittington has been an outstanding number two back to Bucky Irving. There have been times in several games in which Whittington has had the hot hand and been the Ducks’ primary back for stretches of a game. Last year against Washington, Whittington had 20 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown. Bucky Irving also ran the ball well, with 146 yards on 20 carries.
I like watching Noah Whittington run the football. He sifts through the line like a nimble bowling ball. His low center of gravity and underrated agility makes him hard to bring down. I thought he looked even more explosive this year and already had homerun speed to break off big runs.
So what happens now? How big of a loss is this?
It’s a loss, make no mistake about it. But this is why recruiting talented high school classes, even in the portal era, still matters a great deal. Teams that recruit well like Oregon can lose a player of Whittington’s caliber and be able to match (or at least come close to matching) his production. Lots of eyes will be on Jordan James, who is having a breakout sophomore season. That trend is set to continue now that he’s the clear-cut No. 2 running back behind Bucky Irving.
James has averaged 8.7 yards per carry this season, the highest mark of Oregon’s trio of talented ball carriers. He’s already scored 7 touchdowns which also leads the team, and unlike last year they haven’t all been scored inside the 5. He’s shown the explosive, big-play speed that Whittington has brought to the table. He’s clearly demonstrated he’s more than just a short yardage back, and that’s good news for Oregon.
Last year’s Washington game was a disaster. But that’s because Michael Penix Jr. threw for over 400 yards inside Autzen Stadium, not because the offense couldn’t move the ball. Oregon ran for over 300 yards on the ground and barely came up short from finishing off a masterful, ground-based drive to ice the game. That drive took up over 10 minutes of game clock in the 4th quarter and the Ducks threw the ball just twice. They had to settle for a field goal to open the door for the Ducks’ defense to fail to come up with a stop and allow a long touchdown. If the drive would have ended in 7 points and Oregon won the game, it would have been the most “championship-esque” drive since the 2010 Oregon team used the final 9:15 of game clock against Cal.
Oregon’s rushing numbers look really good at this point in the season. But I can’t shake the Texas Tech game, which is easily the best front seven the Ducks have played this season. They ran for just 113 yards on 3.6 yards per carry – their lowest such marks of the season in any game.
Bo Nix is really good. I mean, REALLY good. He’s completing almost 81% of his passes this year. Last year he set the Oregon football single season record at 71.5% completion. But he, along with the Oregon offense, are at their best when a running game is a legitimate feature of the offense.
If the offensive line opens up holes, Bucky Irving and Jordan James have the talent to run through Washington’s defense. But if the offensive line only has as much success as they did against the Red Raiders, I have a hard time seeing the Ducks walking out of Husky Stadium with a win.
Dan Lanning, his OC Will Stein, and OL coach A’lique Terry have plenty to prepare for pertaining to next Saturday. Chiefly among them should be ensuring that they are able to move the ball on the ground against the Huskies (including RPOs).
If that comes to fruition, Oregon will have a chance to give their fans what they’ve waited for since that fateful Saturday in November last year:
A win over Washington.
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.