MISSOULA — Montana will play its lone game against an FBS opponent when it takes on No. 15 Oregon at 8:45 p.m. MT Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.
The Griz (2-0) are coming off a 61-17 home win over North Alabama in which they outscored the Lions 45-0 in the second half. The Ducks (1-1) put a 77-6 whipping on Nevada one week after losing to Auburn at a neutral site.
406mtsports.com caught up with Oregon beat writer Tyson Alger, a Montana alum who covers the Ducks for the The Athletic, to talk about this year’s Oregon team, the Ducks' improving defense, potential NFL No. 1 pick Justin Herbert and the outlook for Saturday's game.
Q: What were the expectations for Oregon coming into the season as a ranked FBS team? How has the tone around the team and fans shifted following the opening loss to Auburn and some injuries to the offense?
A: It’s been an interesting few years for the Ducks who, like Montana, are still trying to get back to the top after long stints atop the conference. After the 2016 4-8 season that got Mark Helfrich fired, the 7-6 season that saw Willie Taggart bolt for Florida State and last year’s 9-4 season in Mario Cristobal’s debut, the Ducks and their fans came into this year expecting to assert themselves back as the class of the Pac-12.
With Justin Herbert back at quarterback and a total of 10 of 11 starters returning on offense and an experienced defense, expectations were to win the Pac-12 this year. Maybe, some fans figured, they could put it all together for the team’s second College Football Playoff appearance.
The Auburn game changed the latter part. On one hand, an Oregon team down three of its top four receivers proved it could compete against a prominent national opponent. On the other, the Ducks essentially threw a win down the drain in the final quarter, all but dashing any playoff hopes. Now that things have settled, and they got the Nevada win under their belt, there are still legit feelings that this is the best team in the Pac-12 Conference.
Q: You recently said Oregon's defense may be more fun to watch than its offense. Why is that? What can Montana expect to see out of Oregon defensively?
A: Oregon’s offense has every reason to be lethal, but the Ducks deal with spurts of inconsistency. This certainly isn’t the hurry-up, score-at-will type of offense that Oregon made famous earlier in this decade. But here under first-year DC Andy Avalos, this defense has been nasty. They fly to the football. They pressure the quarterback and for the first time since their 2014 season, they have the depth in the two-deep to contend at a high level.
Avalos will throw a lot of looks at Montana. They’ll be 3-4, 4-3, 3-3-5 and even showed a look of two down linemen against Nevada, capitalizing on this team’s athleticism on the outside. And while senior Troy Dye is the bedrock of this team up the middle (the ILB has led the team in tackles for three straight years) it’s Oregon’s younger guys that have turned heads early, most notably the play of sophomore safety Jevon Holland, who led the team in interceptions as a freshman and is electric on the punt return.
Q: What's the biggest leap you've seen quarterback Justin Herbert make so far in his senior season? How would you describe his game and what he brings to the offense?
A: That answer, to be honest, is still TBD. Herbert, for all the attention he’s received over the last year or so, is still an unfinished product — which may be scary when you consider he threw for 300-plus and five touchdowns last week against Nevada. He’s got prototypical size for an NFL quarterback, a very strong arm and is mobile enough to get out of the pocket. The Ducks don’t use him as much in the running game as they did earlier in his career, but he’s still capable of moving the sticks with his feet.
The one knock on Herbert during his time at Oregon has just been consistency. You even saw that briefly against Nevada when he opened up 3 of 8 with two overthrows that likely would have led to touchdowns. The biggest thing for him this year, as he prepares to be a first-round pick next spring, is being able to mentally move on to the next rep and flush out some of those mistakes. If you’re going to get to him, it better be early. Once he gets going, few in college football are better.
Q: What does Oregon have to do to beat Montana on Saturday? What areas of the game or matchups will you be watching?
A: I say this was all due respect to my alma mater: If Oregon shows up focused, the Griz don’t stand a chance. There are just too many athletes on this Oregon team for Montana to keep up. And if there’s one thing that Cristobal harps on, it’s focus. If he senses his starters are overlooking the Griz, he’ll put in the twos. And because of the top-level recruiting over the last two seasons, Oregon’s twos are awfully good as well.
I get the sense the Ducks are going to be aggressive on the ground in this one. With one of the better offensive lines in the country and a running game that is still looking for a bit of a rhythm, I could see this game fall out of Montana’s grasp, one 7-yard gain after the next.
Q: What's your score prediction for the game? Why?
A: We all kind of hope for a game in these ones, don’t we? That once-every-few-years game where an FCS team like Appalachian State or NDSU or Eastern Washington shows up to the home of a cocky FBS opponent, takes their game check and then their lunch money on the field. Heck, the Griz nearly did that in 1993 behind Dave Dickenson.
Unfortunately for Montana, this isn’t the 1993 Oregon Ducks. And this isn’t going to be much of a game. I don’t see the Ducks putting a 70-spot up two weeks in a row, so the Griz can take solace there, but I see this game finishing around 55-10.