Fresno State Football: First Look at the Oregon Ducks
Fresno State will once again head to Eugene for one of the Mountain West’s toughest non-conference tests in 2021.
One of the nation’s best teams will be ready.
Fresno State Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
“Anyone, anytime, anywhere” has been the Fresno State Bulldogs’ mantra for well over two decades now and it’s safe to say that attitude is alive and well under head coach Kalen DeBoer.
The Oregon Ducks were no exception to last year’s COVID-19-related strangeness, but two one-score losses were all that stood between them and what could have been one of their best years ever. With one of the nation’s most prominent youth movements at their disposal and a little more discipline overall, Oregon could have Fresno State’s hands full from the opening kickoff.
Location: Eugene, Oregon
Mascot: The Duck
2020 Record: 4-3 (3-2 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Mario Cristobal (fourth year at Oregon; 25-10 with the Ducks, 52-57 overall). Cristobal’s decision to stay in Oregon has paid dividends for the west coast’s most consistently successful program, punctuated by a Rose Bowl appearance in 2019 and a Fiesta Bowl berth last season.
Last year’s New Year’s Six bowl berth wasn’t without a mild bit of COVID-19 strangeness, however. The Ducks actually finished second in the Pac-12 North but reached the conference title game after the Washington Huskies had an insufficient number of players to participate. They made the opportunity count by upending USC before losing to Iowa State in the bowl game.
There’s little doubt, however, that Cristobal has Oregon in a position to contend for a College Football Playoff berth despite some key personnel losses. Offensive tackle Penei Sewell, the first-round selection of the Detroit Lions in the 2021 NFL Draft, was one of five Ducks to graduate to the pro ranks while last year’s starting quarterback, Tyler Shough, transferred to Texas Tech. However, with the benefit of three straight recruiting classes that have ranked in the top 11 nationally according to 247Sports, Cristobal’s Ducks should be ready to reload.
DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
Fresno State’s ability to keep Jake Haener on his feet figure to be tested early and often in this game thanks to elite talents like Thibodeaux. A five-star recruit in Oregon’s 2019 class (not to mention ESPN’s number one overall prospect that year), the sophomore is already receiving an incredible amount of draft hype after following a consensus Freshman All-American campaign with 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in the abbreviated 2020 season.
Long story short, if the Bulldogs lose track of #5, he could derail their upset plans in a hurry.
LB Noah Sewell
Another five-star recruit that made an instant impact for the Ducks defense? It’s a shocker, right? If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because Noah is the younger brother of Penei, Nephi and Gabriel, though he might have the highest ceiling of them all after leading the Pac-12 in total tackles last fall. That made him the only true freshman anywhere in the Power 5 to do so, and he also pitched in with six tackles for loss and two sacks. As much as the ‘Dogs will need to pay attention to Thibodeaux, Sewell is just likely to sweep in on any given play and clean it up with enthusiasm.
CB Mykael Wright
If you’re sensing a theme among this first handful of players to watch, it’s because Cristobal made a point to stock up on defensive blue chips in 2019 and 2020. Wright, surpassed only by Thibodeaux in 247Sports’s 2019 recruiting rankings among the Ducks, is the best of a defensive backfield that could feasibly start five sophomores in 2021. He’s already made a case as one of the country’s best cover corners after breaking up nine passes in 2020, the most in the Pac-12, while allowing a completion rate of just 52.9%.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s likely to continue as the Ducks’ primary kickoff return man after averaging 20.8 yards per return last season. Whoever lines up opposite Wright will have a tough draw on every down.
QB Anthony Brown
In contrast to the bevy of young talent on defense, a sixth-year senior looks likely to lock down the most important position on the field. Brown started 28 games at Boston College before transferring to the Ducks after the 2019 season, though he did see some action late in 2020 by splitting time with the departed Shough down the stretch. The small sample size — 15-of-23 for 164 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions — is a huge improvement over much of his time at BC (though it’s worth noting he improved every year with the Eagles), but he may have to prove that he can stay healthy. After all, he suffered season-ending injuries in both 2017 and 2019.
RBs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead may be content to attack the Bulldogs between the tackles since he has a pair of seasoned veterans at his disposal behind Brown. Verdell missed a big chunk of 2020 thanks to a broken thumb, but he has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons on his resume and Dye racked up nearly seven yards per carry in his stead last fall. And while, you guessed it, there’s plenty of top-shelf behind Verdell and Dye, you can bet the overall plan is for this established duo to tote the rock early and often all season.
When the Ducks were on their game last fall, they could be one of the most lethal offenses in the country. They averaged 6.75 yards per play, the 12th-best figure in the FBS, and finished 12th in offensive SP+, but they often played with one hand tied behind their backs because turnovers plagued them all season long. Oregon was -9 overall with 16 total giveaways in seven games, an issue that Cristobal and Moorhead have almost certainly reminded their players about through the off-season.
If Brown, Verdell and wide receiver Mycah Pittman can stay healthy, however, this experienced unit should be able to get back to averaging roughly 40 points a game, like they did in the first half of 2020. Penei Sewell is the only loss of note on an offensive line that returns every other starter, while Pittman, Jaylon Reed and Johnny Johnson III headline a wide receiver group that has its own young guns — sophomore Devon Williams and freshmen Kris Hutson, Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton — ready to stake a claim in the passing game.
In terms of narrative, what Bulldogs fans are probably most looking forward to in this game is the opportunity to gain a measure of satisfaction against Tim DeRuyter, the Ducks’ new defensive coordinator. After being dismissed as Fresno State’s head coach in 2016, DeRuyter shepherded a defensive revival at Cal before heading to Oregon to replace Andy Avalos, who left to become Boise State’s head coach.
The defense DeRuyter inherits is young, but just because the defense is short on upperclassmen doesn’t mean the Ducks aren’t extremely long on potential. They got better in the second half of 2020, allowing under 4.6 yards per play to Cal, USC and Iowa in their last three games, and project ninth by SP+ for 2021 because Thibodeaux, Sewell and Wright are just the tip of the spear.
Isaac Slade-Matautia, for instance, is a junior and the safest bet to start opposite Sewell at linebacker but he could be pushed by Oregon’s top 2020 recruit, Justin Flowe (provided that Flowe is recovered from a knee injury that cost him nearly all of last season). The Ducks’ third five-star athlete from that class, cornerback Dontae Manning, could start opposite Wright.
All that talent will have work to do, though, to help the Ducks re-establish themselves as one of the nation’s stingiest units. Oregon allowed 5.35 yards per play on the season, good for 35th overall, but they allowed opponents to convert 41.4% of third downs and 20-of-31 red zone chances (64.5%) for a touchdown. If Fresno State can land a couple of haymakers to put the Ducks on their heels, finding the end zone shortly thereafter won’t be an impossible task.
Historically, Fresno State hasn’t been shy about battling some of the nation’s best teams and Oregon has been no exception, but winning at Autzen Stadium has proved elusive. The Ducks have won seven in a row in this series dating back to 1996 and the last two clashes in 2007 and 2012 weren’t close.
Chances are that the Bulldogs will be able to score a few touchdowns, but the challenge lies in preventing too much disruption by the Ducks defense. As potent as Kalen DeBoer’s offense will be in 2021, it’s hard to see how they’ll keep up with all of the Ducks’ talent on both sides of the ball. Oregon 42, Fresno State 24