Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 29, 2017
With the Central Oregon cascades as a backdrop to a renewed Autzen Stadium, Saturday was the first glimpse for many fans of what Oregon football will look like in the Willie Taggart era. In a season of change, hope and hashtags, one thing that has not changed about Oregon football? Spring game military salute to active duty members of each branch of the United States armed forces.

A tradition instituted a decade ago, it is a heritage of honor and gratitude. Everything else? Change is the name of the season. From the wrap around the lower bowl of Autzen, now adorned with the Taggart’s catch phrase ‘Do Something’ to a return of more basic uniforms and everything in between, this version of Oregon football was destined to be a high-tempo remix.

A roster full of players who must have asked themselves during and after the tumult of a lost season are we not good enough to become something greater? Are we not strong enough to become something better? Was the 2016 season all just a bad dream? Will that dream end anytime soon, or are we stuck in a feedback loop of indigent misfortune?

In a split squad format such as this day, those questions will loom over the soul of the Oregon program until September. Today was about development, getting better, and becoming a synergistic high-powered engine.

Separated into Team Free and Team Brave, the Ducks began a game type atmosphere in front of 36,821 fans taking in the sunshine and a day of Duck sports.

Justin Herbert led Team Free down the field using a fourth down conversion, plenty of roll-out motion and a strong connection with freshman early enrollee wide receiver Darrian McNeal. A touchdown pass to Carrington put Team Free up 7-0 early. After Team Free forced a punt on Team Brave's first possession, Darren Carrington mistakenly fair caught a nearly flawless ‘coffin-corner’ 46-yard punt from Adam Stack pinning them deep.

From there, both offenses showed flashes of excitement – between the twenty yard lines – but mostly bogged down as Team Free led 7-3 after the first quarter.

The offense and defense were pretty bland at times, even with new head coach Willie Taggart standing behind the offense teaching and directing while calling all the plays. It would be a botched snap midway through the second quarter, however, which would be Team Brave’s big break on the day. The fumble, recovered by Blake Rugraff put Team Brave inside the 25-yard line in a ‘sudden change’ situation, but a low Travis Jonsen throw on fourth down ended the threat.

Following that fourth down failure, Royce Freeman and Herbert took Team Free on a seven play, 84-yard march with Freeman bowling over defenders before Hebert found Darren Carrington wide open on a deep post for a 30-yard touchdown. Carrington’s second touchdown of the game put Team Free up 14-3 with just under 4:30 left in the first half.

The second half – with its rolling clock and shortened quarters – went by swiftly as Team Free pulled ahead 28-3 before Team Brave finally broke into the end zone on a one-yard touchdown run by Tony Brooks-James. The two point conversion cut the lead to 28-11. With less than three minutes left, however, it was mostly too little, too late for Team Brave.
Team Free responded with a deep pass caught by Darren Carrington in a 50/50 ball thrown by Herbert. Following the strangely obligatory dousing of the Team Free coaching staff for their win, Carrington caught his third touchdown pass of the day from Herbert to finish off the day with a 34-11 victory.

In reality, the fans won the day with a perfect day for football, over 60,000 pounds of food donations and that sense of hope which too many had lost following the bleakness of a 4-8 season in 2016. There will still be some things for this team to learn, especially on defense, but there were signs of improvement on both sides of the ball.
It is difficult to project much in a split squad format as the defense will likely show better when the entire first team gets to play together. But on a day dedicated to the military, there really were no losers – as cliché as that may sound – only hope for fans and most importantly honor of America’s veterans.


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