Next five games will make or break UO

Ducks, at 4-1, open tough stretch vs. Washington State

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, Oregon coach Willie Taggart, center, throws the "O" to fans as he celebrates with his team after a 77-21 victory over Southern Utah in an NCAA college football game in Eugene, Ore. The Oregon Ducks have caught on to new coach Willie Taggart's infectious positivity with a new kickoff tradition--Swag Surfin'. (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch, file)

EUGENE, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The key five-game stretch for the Oregon Ducks, the make-or-break time of their season, has arrived.

First up is undefeated Washington State and its “Air Raid” offense led by quarterback Luke Falk and its improved defense, 5 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

The following games will be against Stanford, UCLA, Utah and Washington.

The Ducks are 4-1, but smarting from injuries.

Offense is a major story line, starting with the question of who will play quarterback.

Defense is a subplot, as in how good are the Ducks under first-year coordinator Jim Leavitt?

Through five games, despite some hiccups at Arizona State, the Ducks have been solid, even spectacular on defense — after being one of the worst units in the country the past couple years.

The Ducks are allowing 26.0 points per game, good for eighth in Pac-12, but much better than the 41.4 of last season. They are giving up 332.2 yards per game (fourth in the Pac-12), down from 518.4 last season.

Oregon is second in rush defense (95.0 yards allowed per game), sixth in pass defense (237.2) and tied for fourth in interceptions (seven). And — the most impressive numbers — Oregon has the most sacks in the conference (20) and lowest third-down conversion rate allowed (25.9 percent).

“Our defense is getting better and better,” coach Willie Taggart says.

The Ducks gave up only eight net rushing yards in last week’s 45-24 win against Cal, sacking QB Ross Bowers seven times and limiting Patrick Laird to 28 yards on 11 carries. Bowers hit on some pass plays, but otherwise the Ducks even shut down the Bears’ passing game. Cal went 4 of 18 on third-down conversions.

It was an impressive performance by the UO defense, especially given starting linebacker AJ Hotchkins and starting safety Nick Pickett sat out, starting linebacker Kaulana Apelu was injured and starting safety Tyree Robinson was ejected for an illegal hit.

The defensive line is being more aggressive this season, winning battles and asserting its physicality. Jalen Jelks and Henry Mondeaux have led the way there.

The linebacker corps is versatile and fast, led by Troy Dye and Justin Hollins.

The secondary is deep, thanks to developing freshmen such as Thomas Graham Jr., and experienced players in Robinson, Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi.

A week after playing USC, the Bears walked away impressed, with coach Justin Wilcox saying, “Defensively they were very fast. Maybe the fastest team we’ve played.”

Allegedly, the UO coaches told players that Cal, or people associated with Cal, had been talking about the UO defense being “soft.”

“Yeah, that definitely motivates you,” Hollins says. “We took it upon ourselves to send a message. It definitely fueled me.”

Says Jelks: “Game by game, we’ve got to come with power, and prove a point.”

The defensive line has been of particular emphasis under the guidance of coach Joe Salave’a. True freshmen Austin Faoliu and Jordon Scott have handled themselves well on the inside, and Clemson transfer Scott Pagano has been contributing. Transfer Malik Young suited up for the Cal game, and the Ducks hope to work him into the mix. Elijah George, Drayton Carlberg and Gary Baker also see action.

“They’re all getting comfortable with our defense,” Taggart says.

Leavitt preached to his players early about Oregon becoming known for its defense.

“That was our mind-set coming from spring ball. We want to be known as a defensive team,” Dye says. “We want to show we can play defense at Oregon. We want to be a defensive school.

“Respect is not given, you’ve got to earn it. We try to go out there and dominate every game on the defensive side. I know the offense is going to take up where Justin left off. I know we’ve got a bunch of great quarterbacks who can work this offense. We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing (on defense), keep position, keep fighting, keep chopping wood.”

After Washington State, Oregon’s defensive focus is likely to be on Stanford running back Bryce Love, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Utah receiver Darren Carrington (the former Duck) and Washington QB Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and receiver Dante Pettis.

WSU figures to be a big challenge at the start of the five-week run. The Cougars have beaten the Ducks the past two years. Last season, Falk went 36 of 48 for 371 yards and one score against them. Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks combined for 273 yards and six scores on 35 carries in a 51-33 WSU win.

This season, Falk has completed 74.5 percent of his passes for 343.6 yards per game with 16 TDs and two interceptions. The running backs are back, and the QB has a slew of receivers. The offensive line is good again.

“They throw flat routes, which can be a pain,” Amadi says. “It’s a hard team to play against, they pass all the time. Their coach (Mike Leach) has a playsheet the size of a piece of paper. Same plays over and over. It’s just, can you stop them?”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.