LARAMIE, Wyo. - Oregon coach Willie Taggart concluded an on-field postgame interview moments after his team had easily dispatched of Wyoming, 49-13 at War Memorial Stadium and then began to jog toward the stadium exit to meet his team in its locker room.
Taggart, however, quickly changed direction and instead headed toward the hundreds of thrilled Oregon fans still cheering from the stands near the field exit. He then ran alongside the railing, slapping hands with fans before working his way out of the stadium. His action brought about more cheers from the Oregon faithful that had made the trip to Laramie for the game.
There is no denying that Taggart, with his charisma and engaging personality, has won over the hearts of many Oregon fans who had no idea who he was before UO hired him last December. The Ducks' 3-0 start has justified the hype he generated over the offseason by hiring a strong staff and getting out to a dizzying start as a recruiter.
The question now is: Where is all of this leading to this season?
Could the Ducks indeed be Pac-12 Conference contenders in year-one of the Taggart rebuilding process? Or, is the quick start simply a product of a young and talented team having played a weak schedule to date? It's difficult to tell. The only thing that we can say for sure is that these Ducks have been much stronger on defense than they were last year when the team went 4-8, they remain an offensive powerhouse under Taggart's guidance (at least in the first half of games) and there is enough youth playing key roles to expect continued improvement.
Taggart acknowledges the holes in his team. The offense, for the second week in a row, struggled in the second half scoring only one touchdown after being shutout after halftime by Nebraska last week. The defense dominated, but against a team that entered the game with 30 total point over two games.
“It’s great when you can win and there’s so much more you can improve on,” Taggart said.
Indeed. Improvement is the key. The Ducks as they sit right now are not good enough to contend regardless of their record, shared by six other Pac-12 teams, including three within the North Division. They have not played well enough to expect that they have more than one sure win on their Pac-12 schedule. Oregon State (1-3) is the only team on paper that anyone could clearly say the Ducks should easily defeat. Every other game on UO's schedule should be approached with great trepidation.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Oregon is certainly building toward something. You can sense that the Ducks, under Taggart, and with such a young roster led by a star sophomore quarterback in Justin Herbert, has championship potential. It just probably won’t happen this season. And that's okay.
This is a team that is exciting, fast, fun to watch and loaded with intriguing student-athletes. Plus, they appear to be a tight-knit group, which only makes them more endearing. Taggart, who instituted several team-bonding exercises during the offseason, said that the team's camaraderie is paying off in games.
“Now I think these guys are seeing how it can make a difference with this football team," he said. "The beauty of it, again, is that when things go bad you don’t see anyone pointing fingers or complaining or anything.”
That's good because things are about to start going badly at a much higher rate. Oregon hasn't had much go wrong this season, winning its opener 77-21 over Southern Utah and then jumping out to halftime leads of 42-14 and 42-10 in the past two weeks. The Pac-12 won't be as kind.
Most will score more often and not be as accommodating on defense. We will see numerous games still in doubt well into the second half. Such games will truly test just how far this team has come since last season.
The Ducks next play at Arizona State (2-1), which scores points, but right now could be regarded as the second weakest game on UO's remaining schedule. Then they host California (3-0), which is playing strong defense, and then No. 21 Washington State (3-0), which is led by a future NFL quarterback in Luke Falk who just threw six touchdown passes at OSU.
Then the Ducks play at No. 19 Stanford (1-2 and struggling), at UCLA (2-1), host Utah (3-0 and about to become ranked) and then play at No. 6 Washington (3-0).
That's seven tough games before the Ducks host Arizona (2-1), which has scored 60-plus points twice.
There will be enough wins found in that schedule to expect at least seven for UO. Beyond that, it's a crapshoot. How many victories UO does earn will be determined by how much Oregon's hot start is the result of its play or the soft schedule that includes a 42-35 win over Nebraska, which just lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois.
That all said, Oregon is taking care of business, and doing so with swag and confidence. The Ducks can't help whom they have played to date. All they can do is handle their own business.
Whatever happens the rest of the way, the Ducks are on to something. It just might take another season for it to marinate before Taggart is greeting fans following a championship victory.