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Three Things We Learned: Oregon Part II

Jalen McMillan’s triumphant breakout, the value of being an underdawg, and Bucky Irving’s struggles

2023 Pac-12 Championship - Oregon v Washington Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images

1. Return of the Mac

After Jalen McMillan returned from injury for the 3rd time and only played 6 snaps against Utah I declared that I was officially expecting nothing from him for the rest of the season. I obviously would have preferred that he come back fully healthy and dominate again but I dispensed with any expectations. I still mostly held that belief after he caught 5 balls for 26 yards against Washington State but everything was close to the line of scrimmage.

Well I think it’s safe to say that McMillan made a major leap in his health during the 6 days between the Apple Cup and the Pac-12 Championship Game. McMillan finished with 9 catches for 132 yards including the 3rd down conversion in the final minutes that came close to clinching a victory.

In recent weeks it has been the Rome Odunze show and it turns out that he is good enough to almost single-handedly put up 20+ points and beat Oregon State and Washington State. It was going to take a much more diverse effort in the passing game to take down Oregon again and McMillan made an impact on quick throws, on intermediate throws, and on the deep ball. For an Oregon team that was already a little banged up at the cornerback position, having another elite option at the receiver position made it impossible for the Ducks to cover.

2. Underdawg Mentality

When Washington was the betting underdog a few weeks ago when visiting Oregon State you could tell based on postgame comments that the team took it personally. It seemed logical that the Huskies would be even more rankled by being nearly 10-point underdogs against a team they’d already beaten once this season. Once again, from the postgame comments you can tell that they used that as fuel all night.

Everyone laughed last year when Georgia players said after winning the national championship for a second straight season that no one thought they could do it. That was patently absurd. Everyone thought they could do it. One of the signs of a fantastic coach though is to channel every slight and present it to the team in such a way that they play better because of it. It is pretty evident that Coach DeBoer worked that playbook to perfection.

Only he didn’t need to manufacture disrespect like Smart or Saban do when they have the clear cut best team in the country. There were legitimate reasons for the Ducks to be a substantial favorite. The transitive property doesn’t work in college sports for a single game. But across 6 common opponents, the Ducks outscored them by more than 2 touchdowns more than the Huskies. That was definitely worth something. But it being worth 10 points was debatable and DeBoer harnessed that into the Dawgs coming out with their hair on fire on the way to a 20-3 lead.

That wore off a little bit as Oregon managed to come back and retake the lead but there is no team in the country that has more experience coming through at the end of big games than Washington. Who knows how much that experience came into play in the end but it certainly didn’t hurt. The Dawgs are already a betting underdog against Texas but with this Husky roster, that isn’t a bad thing.

3. He’s Human After All

Washington beat the Ducks in Eugene last year and in Seattle this year. Perhaps the biggest reason they almost didn’t in each game was because of the contributions of Oregon RB Bucky Irving. Last year he had 181 total yards on 25 touches. Earlier this year it was 161 yards on 28 touches. Both games it looked like he’d been dipped in a tub of pig grease before the game. The first guy to Irving almost never brought him down to the ground and he consistently made Husky defenders look ridiculous with his balance and cutting.

It was a complete shock then to see Irving held to 36 yards across 14 touches. And look, I know that Irving got banged up the prior week against Oregon State. He pretty clearly wasn’t 100%. Yet I’ve been scarred by those prior two games. Whenever Irving gets the ball it seems like he’s the football version of Michael Myers. You never want to just assume that he has been well and truly tackled until his entire body is flat on the ground with 7 Husky defenders piled on top to make sure he still can’t escape.

The inability of the Oregon offense to consistently pick up 6 or 7 yards on first down by just handing the ball to Irving was a huge factor in why they got off to such a slow start against Washington’s defense. Backup Jordan James had 35 yards on 5 carries plus a 30 yard reception so it’s tough to give the credit entirely to the Husky defense. It’s still safe to say though that they played much better than the previous two Oregon matchups and that bodes well as they head into the College Football Playoff. Texas will be without stud RB Jonathan Brooks but still have just an abundance of speed in the backfield.