WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer swap with Ryan Thorburn, who covers Oregon football for Eugene Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, about Saturday’s game with the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Thorburn is a UW graduate and author of three books on UW sports which documents some of the most historical and important moments Cowboys football, baseball and basketball. For links to purchase those books, go to ryanthorburn.com.
Follow on Twitter: @rgduckfootball
Look for Q&As with beat writers that cover UW football opponents every week throughout the season.
At No. 2 in the country this week it is obvious that Oregon is among the nation’s elite. But what is it about the Ducks where they can seemingly flip a switch and blow open a game, like last week against No. 13 Michigan State where they scored 28 unanswered points in the second half after falling behind?
Leading up to the game, the Ducks heard about how they can’t get it done against physical teams — the so-called Stanford problem. The old narrative looked to be playing out in the third quarter when they were stuck on 18 points and trailing by nine. Marcus Mariota, who was playing on a partially torn MCL at Stanford last season, was able to make some game-changing plays on the run this time. Oregon’s defense seemed to find another gear as well, which makes this year’s Ducks even more dangerous.
How good is quarterback Marcus Mariota, and despite his obvious outstanding skill set what else makes this guy one of the nation’s best? And, is he the early favorite right now to win the Heisman Trophy in your mind?
Honestly, the kid is too good to be true. In the Register-Guard’s football special section published during fall camp, the theme was: The Mount Rushmore of Oregon quarterbacks — Norm Van Brocklin, Dan Fouts, Bill Musgrave, Joey Harrington, etc. — and what Mariota’s legacy will be. The consensus is that he is already the greatest quarterback in program history, or will be by the end of the season if he stays healthy. Yes, I think he is the favorite to win the Heisman right now because of what he did against Michigan State’s defense.
When you talk Oregon you often hear about the offense, but how good is the Ducks defense and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
I think the defense is good enough for the Ducks to win the Pac-12 and get into the College Football Playoff. First-year coordinator Don Pellum runs a 3-4 with three studs up front — Arik Armstead (6-8, 290), Alex Balducci (6-4, 310) and DeForest Buckner (6-7, 290). The Ducks have solid inside linebackers, some extremely athletic outside linebackers and the best cornerback in the country in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Oregon is still somewhat vulnerable in stopping power run plays (South Dakota moved the ball surprisingly well on the ground), and Connor Cook (343 yards, two touchdowns) picked them apart until the defensive line finally started to get pressure on the Rose Bowl hero during the Ducks’ 28-0 run.
Could Oregon have a bit of a letdown after the win over Michigan State last week, and if so, is that a big concern going into this game?
This game certainly sets up for a letdown considering the early kickoff (11 a.m. Pacific Time), the 44-point spread in Las Vegas and some injuries the Ducks sustained against Michigan State. The Cowboys could hang around in the first quarter, but it’s only a matter of time until Mariota and the offense start lighting up the scoreboard. If sleepwalking through this one is a concern, Mark Helfrich and the staff will make sure it’s addressed all week.
Does Wyoming pose any threat to Oregon Saturday? What do the Cowboys do — if anything — that concerns Oregon and how do you see this game unfolding?
I don’t believe Wyoming poses a threat to win the game, but I do get the sense that the Oregon coaches and players have a lot of respect for what Craig Bohl is trying to get done in Laramie. The Cowboys could be really dangerous on Sept. 16, 2017, when the Ducks are scheduled to visit War Memorial Stadium. The goal for Wyoming should be to give up fewer points than Michigan State did. That won’t be easy. I see Oregon winning this one 49-13.
Thorburn’s questions for Gagliardi
How much confidence do the Cowboys have entering this game after starting the season 2-0 with narrow home wins over Montana and Air Force?
There is definitely confidence, but cautiously optimistic may be a better term. Wyoming is still adapting to a new way of doing things with a new head coach and new staff. The players have bought in, and their early-season mental and physical toughness has been impressive. Wyoming probably does not win those two games last season based on how it handled adversity. But the team is still a long way where coach Craig Bohl wants and expects it to be, but the process in certainly in motion.
Bohl appears to have already “changed the culture,” as most new coaches attempt to do. How has he turned Wyoming’s defense around so dramatically with many of the same players?
By bringing in a group of coaches that have a confidence in the system they are running. I don’t think the players had the confidence or belief in what they ran last season would work, and it showed on the field. The Cowboys are not built to run a 4-3 like they are now, but the staff has coached the players up well and developed a few guys the prior staff did not to make it work. The team is dangerously thin depth-wise in some areas, but so far so good and the players are confident in the scheme.
Marcus Mariota returned to Oregon even though he would have been a first-round draft pick. Why did Brett Smith, a former prep standout in nearby Salem, leave Wyoming early when he had a chance to play for Bohl and prove to NFL scouts he could run a traditional pro-style offense? And how is the transition from a spread offense going without an experience at quarterback?
Smith received some positive feedback from the NFL Scouting Service not long after his junior season, and he and his family felt that it was a good time to give the NFL a shot. Things didn’t work out well from there as he went undrafted, was cut by Tampa Bay a day after its rookie mini-camp and he now is on the practice squad for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. Smith still contends he does not regret his decision. The transition for Wyoming thus far has gone about as well as it could of expected. Redshirt senior quarterback Colby Kirkegaard was No. 4 on the depth chart last season and lost the only game he started in 2012 when Smith was hurt — although that loss to FCS Cal Poly was not all on him, he was still the quarterback and you know who the blame and credit game goes at that position. Kirkegaard showed significant improvement between his first and second games, but he still has a long ways to go. But right now, he is far and away the Cowboys’ best option at quarterback and has shown good poise and leadership since the end of spring.
How does Bohl feel about inheriting a schedule that includes No. 2 Oregon and No. 13 Michigan State on the road? If the Cowboys stay confident and relatively healthy through those two games, can they be a dark horse contender in the Mountain West?
Deep down he’s not real happy about it, but he knew about the schedule before he was hired. After the first two weeks of the season there does not appear to be a hands-down favorite in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West. Wyoming gets the preseason top two teams in the division — Boise State and Utah State — at home in November. If the Cowboys can stay healthy and keep improving they could be a dark horse, but a lot must fall their way for that to happen.
What do you think Wyoming has to do to make this game interesting? How do you see Saturday’s game at Autzen Stadium playing out?
Somehow possess the ball and keep Oregon’s offense off the field. Defensively, the Cowboys must also slow down the run game and make Oregon drive the length of the field. They can’t allow a lot of big plays, and they must tackle well in the secondary — a struggle through the first two games. Even if Wyoming does all those things, it will be hard pressed to be in this game. Oregon can probably name the score, but I will go with Oregon 45, Wyoming 6.
Cowboys game day
Game: Wyoming (2-0 overall, 1-0 Mountain West) at No. 2 Oregon (2-0, 0-0 Pac-12)
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: KFBC (1240 AM) Cheyenne; KOWB (1290 AM) Laramie