All the stars were in the game — yet Oregon could not find the end zone. It was like Fresno State had found the off switch on one of the most prolific offenses in college football.
What was supposed to be a blowout, and was in the first half, had suddenly become a two-touchdown game.
And so, the Ducks sputtered to an unimpressive 42-25 victory over Fresno State Saturday at Autzen Stadium, in a game that left a bit of uncertainty about No. 4 Oregon.
One touchdown in the second half with all the starters in? The same Duck team that cruised to a 35-6 halftime lead, racking up 383 yards of offense in the first half, had just 149 yards in the second half and lost three fumbles.
Oregon head coach Chip Kelly preaches “fast, hard, finish." It’s written on the walls of Autzen Stadium. The Duck offense forgot the last third of that motto against Fresno State. Instead of finishing strong they limped to the final whistle. In the end, they ended up winning by 17 points when they were favored by 35.
“We sputtered at times," admitted Kelly, almost begrudgingly. “We’re not going to score on every possession of the entire season. We’ve got to clean up the penalties and stop putting ourselves in adverse situations."
Kenjon Barner, who rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns for the Ducks in the best performance of his career, was forced to answer questions about the lackluster offense instead of soaking up his moment in the sun.
“We came out like we had the game in hand," Barner said of the third quarter. “We didn’t come out with the same intensity we had in the first half, and that’s something we have to learn from. It’s easy to learn when you win—it’s hard to learn when you lose. Good teams make mistakes, but you don’t let those mistakes get you down."
Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota, after an impressive performance against Arkansas State in the opener, looked just as polished in the first half, getting the ball to Barner and De’Anthony Thomas on several big gains. Mariota insisted the Ducks can learn from the adversity they faced in the second half. Were they ever going to reach pay dirt? They finally did on a 16-yard run by Barner with 5:49 remaining in the game.
“We struggled a little bit, but I think it’s good," said Mariota, who was fairly accurate, completing 19 of 27 passes, but threw for just 166 yards. “I think we needed to go through that as an offense to kind of overcome it."
Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said that Fresno State did not do anything different schematically on defense in the second half, it was just a question of execution by the Ducks.
“That’s a time when we have to execute better, we have to communicate better, and we have to secure the ball better," Helfrich said. “There’s a ton of things there that we just didn’t execute well enough. That’s on us as coaches and for our players to learn from the film and move forward."
Besides Barner’s performance, the only bright spot of the second half might have been the play of the defense, which was not helped much by the careless Oregon offense.
After the Ducks lost their second fumble deep in their own territory midway through the third quarter, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr drove the Bulldogs down to the 1-yard line with the Ducks leading 35-13.
A tackle for a loss by Kiko Alonso and a sack of Carr by Taylor Hart helped hold the Bulldogs to a field goal.
It was a key stop of the game, not just because it kept Fresno State from getting within two touchdowns, but also because it showed just what the Duck defense might be capable of when its back is against the wall in Pac-12 play.
And while Mariota, Thomas, Barner and the Ducks can score at will—which they did in the first half Saturday—the question when they get into conference play will be whether the Oregon defense can stop other passing threats in the conference.
Saturday’s performance against Fresno State does not necessarily prove that it can, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. The Ducks gave up just 234 passing yards and one touchdown to Carr. The Bulldogs were just two of 16 on third-down conversions.
The Ducks figured Carr would try to beat them deep, as they have shown a weakness there recently. In their final four games of 2011, including a loss to USC, the Ducks allowed 296 or more passing yards three times. Twice in this season’s opener against Arkansas State the Ducks gave up long receptions, of 72 and 38 yards.
The longest completion they gave up against Fresno State was 22 yards. The Bulldogs made four field goals, but had just two touchdowns.
“I think we did a really good job of handling the short field and bringing out some stops and making them get some field goals," said Oregon safety Brian Jackson. “We always want a challenge, and we really enjoyed playing today. The fact that we held them to some field goals, that’s good defense right there."
Thomas, Barner and Mariota will get their yards and accolades. But the Oregon defense must prove it can handle potentially dangerous passing attacks from Washington State, Washington, Stanford, and, of course, USC.
Against Fresno State, the Oregon defense made a subtle statement.
The offense? Well, it made a huge statement in the first half, followed by a second half that leaves a lot of questions with just one cupcake left — Tennessee Tech this Saturday — in the Ducks’ soft nonconference schedule.