Willie Taggart

A healthy Pagano will help UO in Pac-12 play, beginning with ASU

A healthy Pagano will help UO in Pac-12 play, beginning with ASU

Oregon graduate transfer Scott Pagano has returned to action just in time to help the No. 24 Ducks take on the high-scoring teams in the Pac-12 Conference. 

Pagano, who missed the first two games after undergoing foot surgery to repair a broken bone, saw minimal playing time on Saturday during Oregon's 49-13 win at Wisconsin. He did not record a tackle. 

“He did alright the times that I did see him," UO coach Willie Taggart said following the game. "We knew there was going to be some rust to get off. But it’s good to get him to get some game experience before we get into Pac-12 play.”

Oregon's defense is off to a strong start. But the addition of Pagano as a graduate transfer from Clemson, which won last season's national title, was met with glee for a reason. He is the best defensive lineman on the team. Having him healthy for Pac-12 play will be a must if the Ducks' defense is going to stand up to the test of facing strong offenses on a weekly basis. 

A fully healthy Pagano, however, could be weeks away for Oregon (3-0).

“I’m still not where I want to be right now,” Pagano said following Saturday's game.

Pagano estimated that is foot was at about 75 to 80 percent healthy. The plan is for him to play as much as he can without hindering the healing progress. When his foot begins to bother him, Pagano said, he would scale back his reps. 

Senior safety Tyree Robinson said Pagano's mere presence has been a boost to the team given that all of the Ducks players know where he has been and what he can do. Taggart said that Pagano still must get into football shape and that UO hopes to increase his repetitions each week.

For Pagano, transferring from Clemson to Oregon, which played so poorly on defense last season, was helped along by the presence of the new coaching staff under Taggart. He called Joe Salave'a the best defensive line coach in the country and said that he saw signs of things looking up while watching a spring practice. Pagano said he could tell that the team was buying into what new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was selling.

The Duck are allowing just 23 points per game after surrendering 41.7 last year. 

“I knew we were going to have a great defense,” Pagano said. “I knew I wanted to play with a team like this."

Next up for Oregon is Arizona State (1-2). The Sun Devils are off to a slow start but have far more speed and weapons on offense than every opponent Oregon has faced this season. 

"This is going to be the most athletic team we've faced so far, by far," Taggart said. 

Here is a quick look at the matchup:

Oregon at Arizona State

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 14 1/2.

Records: Oregon (3-0), Arizona State (1-2).

Last week: The Sun Devils lost 52-45 at Texas Tech. Oregon won 49-13 at Wyoming. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-45, 3-0 at Oregon); Sun Devils' Todd Graham (89-57, 40-28 at ASU).

Sun Devils' impact players: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is off to a pretty hot start, averaging 308 yards passing with seven touchdown tosses and has yet to throw an interception. He has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. Wilkins, a redshirt junior, was the No. 6-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation when he came out of high school in 2014.

"This will be the first time we've had a good mobile quarterback that we've had to go against," Taggart said. 

Senior running back Kalen Ballage has rushed for 179 yards and four touchdowns but is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. 

Sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry is Wilkins' top target. The 6-foot-4 Harry has caught 24 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. 

ASU's defense is led statistically by two freshmen. Defensive end Jojo Wicker has three sacks on the season and linebacker D.J. Calhoun is averaging 10.3 tackles per game. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5.  It's a road game. It's a conference game. It's against what will be by far the best offense the Ducks have faced this season. There's a lot to be worried about for Oregon. However, ASU is about as bad on defense as the Ducks were last season. If the Ducks take care of the football they would once again surpass 40 points. We will know after this game if UO's defense truly has bite if it can keep the Sun Devils in check. 

Early pick: Oregon, 47-33. Oregon's defense will be challenged but it won't give up enough points to waste what should be a strong showing by the Ducks' offense. 

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Whenever the down marker flips to "3" on opposing offenses, Oregon's punt return team jumps to attention and the offense becomes antsy. It's becoming a pavlovian response.

That's because 79 percent of the time this season, the Ducks' defense has stopped opposing teams from converting on third down, a dramatic shift from last season. And it all starts with attitude and desire. Oregon senior safety Tyree Robinson said he urges the defense on every third down to dig deep for that extra burst of energy that allows them to play harder so they can get off the field. 

“I think guys have really bought into that , which kind of makes us a special defense right now,” Robinson said. 

According to Oregon sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tirelessly preaches the importance of making plays on third down, or, the "money down," as he calls it. 

“We have to go out there and make that money,” Dye said. 

Right now, the No. 24 Ducks (3-0) are filthy rich. Opposing offenses have converted just 21.3 percent of the time on third downs, best in the Pac-12 Conference. Last year Oregon allowed a 48.5 percent conversion rate, 11th in the Pac-12. 

The Ducks' defense has shown dramatic improvement over last season in every category imaginable. A low third down conversion rate for opponents and eight turnovers forced have been two of the most important areas of improvement. They lead directly to the team allowing 23 points per game, down from 41.7 a year go. 

Wyoming (1-2) on Saturday managed to convert just 4 of 15 third down attempts during Oregon's 49-13 victory. Two Saturdays ago, Nebraska converted just 2 of 14 attempts during a 42-35 loss at Autzen Stadium. 

"It's great to see those guys get off the field on third down and get the ball back to our offense,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

He credits the success to the defense doing a great job of studying opponents and having an idea of what they like to do on third down. Also, they have done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. Oregon already has 10 sacks after getting just 25 last season. The Ducks sacked Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen twice on Saturday while pressuring him all evening. A projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Allen managed just 64 yards passing against Oregon. 

“When you can get to the quarterback, and he didn’t have time to pass the ball, that’s what usually happens," Taggart said. "And if you can get to him early, he will start looking at the rush and I thought that’s what he did.”

Dye said the defense entered this season with something to prove and a chip on its collective shoulders following such a poor season in 2016 when the Ducks ranked 128th in total defense. Robinson said the experience gained last year by so many young players forced into action has paid off this season. 

“It’s awesome to have a defense that we have so much confidence in," UO quarterback Justin Herbert said.

But will it last? Oregon hasn't exactly faced quality offenses to date. Wyoming's 14.3 points per game ranks 120th in the nation. Nebraska ranks 63rd at 31.7 points per game. Oregon won 42-35 over Nebraska on Sept. 9. The Cornhuskers (1-2) lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois on Saturday. 

The Ducks begin Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday at Arizona State (1-2). There are 11 teams in the conference averaging better than 31 points per game, including the Sun Devils. Most teams have great passing offenses that will challenge the Ducks' Pac-12 leading 89.7 passing defense efficiency rating. 

ASU junior quarterback Manny Wilkins is averaging 308 passing yards per game with seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions. 

The Pac-12 is going to be a challenge, one the UO defense is looking forward to facing. 

“Oregon is not just an offensive school anymore," Dye said. "We play defense, too.”

Ducks No. 24 in both AP and Coaches polls

Ducks No. 24 in both AP and Coaches polls

The Oregon Ducks entered both the Associated Press Top 25 and the Amway Coaches polls for the first time this season at No. 24 following a 49-13 win at Wyoming on Saturday. 

Oregon (3-0) sat just outside of the top 25 in both polls last week. 

Five Pac-12 teams reside in the AP Poll: No. 5 USC (3-0), No. 7 Washington (3-0), No. 18 Washington State (3-0), No. 23 Utah (3-0) and Oregon. 

Five Pac-12 teams are ranked in the Coaches Poll: No. 5 USC, No. 6 Washington, No. 18 WSU, No. 21 Utah and Oregon. 

Stanford (1-2) fell out of both top 25 polls after losing 20-17 at San Diego Sate. 

 

Oregon winning with swag, but now things get real

Oregon winning with swag, but now things get real

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. 

Thomas Graham Jr.'s success a product of his family's plan

Thomas Graham Jr.'s success a product of his family's plan

EUGENE – Thomas Graham Sr. rose to his feet in a reaction of excitement and surprise so quickly he experienced a head rush that sent him right back down into his seat in Autzen Stadium.

His son, Oregon cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., had seemingly come out of nowhere to intercept a pass in the fourth quarter of the Ducks’ 42-35 win Saturday over Nebraska. 

“I almost passed out,” Graham Sr. said.

While Graham Sr. gathered himself, his wife Tamisha Graham jumped up and down while screaming: “That’s my baby, that’s my baby.”

Her “baby” right now is very much the man on Oregon’s defense, which appears to have greatly improved over last season thanks in part to the play of Graham Jr.  Through two games, the former four-star recruit out of Rancho Cucamonga High School in the California city of the same name already has two interceptions and two pass breakups, one leading directly to an interception.

Graham Jr. is sure to experience his share of lows this season. Too many elite quarterbacks and receivers operate within the offensively-driven Pac-12 Conference for that not to happen. Nevertheless, he appears to have the makings of becoming an elite cornerback. Not simply because of his extreme athleticism. Graham Jr. has embraced the nuances of the sport he loves to become as mentally prepared to perform at a high level as he is physically. And this is all by design. Part of a plan put forth by parents that demanded excellence from their two children and to avoid the mistakes made by a father who admittedly failed to reach his athletic potential due to lack of guidance and a poor attitude. 

The result is a daughter who is an elite hurdler and a son who could become a dominant defensive back for a program desperately in need of difference makers on that side of the ball.

“He’s a big-time player,” UO coach Willie Taggart Taggart said following Saturday’s game. “For him to be as young as he is and know as much football as he does, he’s great to have and it’s great to know he is gong to be here for a while.”

--- Team Graham 

Graham Sr., a graduate of San Diego High School, grew up playing football and participating in track & field. The son of a single mother, his athletic career peaked at San Jose City College because, the former cornerback said, he lacked academic focus and missed not having the guidance of a father to push him.

“I was a guy who never wanted to take responsibility for my actions,” Graham Sr. said.

Tamisha played softball in high school and grew up academically driven, eventually earning her masters degree in counseling. 

The couple has two children, Thomas, 18, and Jasmyne Graham, 20, forming what the family calls “Team Graham.”  Dad took charge of preparing the children for sports.  Mom handled the academic side. Team Graham's goal has been to assure that their children remain focused and driven to succeed.

Oregon does not allow true freshmen to speak to the media. Jasmyne recalls life as a Graham child. 

“Growing up, my dad would always tell us not to disrespect his name,” she said.

Graham Sr. repeatedly asked his children: “What do Grahams do?”

“We give 110 percent,” his children would respond in unison.

At times, they grew tired of the mantra.

“We get it, dad,” they would say.

Later on in life, they truly got it.

“As I got older I realized what he was trying to do,” Jasmyne said. “Everything we do we’re doing it in honor of ourselves.”

Graham Sr. said he demanded that his children live in the moment and strive to excel.

“Not just in athletics," he said. "I want them to compete in life...It doesn’t matter what you do. If you are a fry cook at McDonalds, be the best fry cook you can be.”

His children, as it turned out, were destined for much greater heights.

Dad coached them hard leading up to high school. He often blurred the lines between father and coach. 

“I’d have to say, ‘dad, turn off the coach switch,'” Jasmyne said with a laugh.

Graham Jr. rarely did. He pushed as the bad cop while mom mostly played the good cop.

It all paid off.

Jasmyne became an elite hurdler, earning a scholarship to USC before transferring to UNLV this year. She hopes to qualify for the 2020 Olympic team. 

--- Chasing big sister

Graham Jr.'s road toward becoming a college athlete began with chasing big sis as a small child.

Her success as a youth often made Graham Jr. invisible to outsiders.

“Nobody knew we had a son,” Graham Sr. said. “Everybody thought we just had a daughter because she was so successful.”

Jasmyne showed zero mercy to her little brother. She’d roughed him up a little from time to time if he got out of line. But she did most of her damage in races, repeatedly dominating her little brother in head-to-head races. She’d mock his times at track meets, pointing out that hers were much faster.

“I’d say, ‘you’re slow,’” she recalled. “He was.”

Jasmyne drove her little brother nuts.  But, Graham Jr., who started playing tackle football at age 6 and competed up a level all of his life, wasn’t obsessed with sports as a little boy. Math and animals peaked his interest the most. The National Geographic Channel held his attention more so than televised games and highlights.

“He was always eager to learn,” Graham Sr. said. “I didn’t think he would be sports minded.”

Still, Jasmyne remained Graham Jr.’s white whale. Until he finally caught her, past her and won a race in the eighth grade while she was a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in Corona, Calif.

“He got tired of being her little brother,” Graham Sr. said.

Jasmyne didn’t take the loss well. At first. She blamed gender.

“He’s a boy,” she said with a laugh. “Him winning was an issue for him, not me. He should be faster.”

The dynamic between the two changed. Graham Jr. went from 5-foot-3 (the same height as his sister) to 5-9 in just over a year. Suddenly, Jasmyne was looking up at her little brother.

“Once he got taller and started lifting weights, I knew that if I hit him, he was going to hit him back,” Jasmyne said.

Graham Sr. noticed a change in his son. He became more confident.

“Once he started beating his sister, he thought he was the king of the house,” Graham Sr. said.

He was, at least when it came to speed. Jasmyne didn’t like it but what was done was done. Dad came next on Graham Jr.’s race list.

During a junior high football practice, Graham Jr. was dominating teammates in races. Dad decided to take him on.

Big mistake. It would be the last race they ever had against each other.

--- Student of the game

Once Graham's confidence grew, he went all in on football. He trained harder and studied harder. He dove into watching game video. His games. College games. NFL games. It didn't matter. He studied and learned. 

“He knows the routes from teams he played in 7th and 8th grade,” Graham Sr. said. “ He has a really great memory…I think he’s going to be a coach when he is done playing.”

Graham Jr. played varsity as a freshman at Roosevelt High where his sister graduated from in 2015. He transferred to Rancho Cucamonga before his junior year. There, he blossomed into a superstar and began receiving numerous accolades.

Graham Jr.’s high school coach, Nick Baiz, said his star cornerback/receiver was a little shy early on. By his senior year, however, his personality blossomed. Graham Jr’s positive energy proved infectious to his teammates, as did his study habits.

“He’s always kind of been a student of the game,” Baiz said. “His intellect and maturity allow him to understand what the coaches are telling him on film”

Whenever Baiz would get worried before a game, Graham would be there to pick him up.

“He’d always tell me before a game, ‘coach, we’re about to whoop that (butt). Don’t worry,'" recalled Baiz.

Graham Jr. rarely got beaten during a game. But when he did, his support system would all look at one another and know it was go time.

“Let’s go, baby boy,” they’d scream.

Then, something bad would happen for the other team.

“Any time he’s ever done something bad he comes back and does something better to erase that,” Jasmyne said. “He takes it to another place.”

Recruiters flooded the Graham’s home with letters and calls. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 12 cornerback in the nation. Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska, the entire Pac-12 and a host of other major programs pursued Graham. But most of them were all wasting their time. Graham Jr. committed to USC, his dream school, in July of 2015 before his junior season.

That lasted a year. In the summer of 2016, the USC staff failed to reach out to Graham Jr. for a few weeks. So, he decommitted. USC tried to get him back on board. No dice.

Jasmyne, who had been looking forward to attending college with her little brother, was not happy. But she understood. Graham kept his options open all the way through his senior season.

Graham Sr., always the tough critic, wondered if his son had what it took to play for a team in the Southeastern Conference. He wondered if his son was a ‘UCLA kid,’ which in their household of USC fans, including a Trojan for a daughter, meant “soft.”

Tamisha, however, had greater belief in his son’s abilities.

“I’d said he was a ‘UCLA kid’ and she’d say he could play in the SEC or anywhere he wants to because he’s that guy,” Graham Sr. said. “Thomas and her are like Starsky and Hutch. A Stick and a clutch. They go together.”

Graham Sr. wanted his son to go to Notre Dame. Jasmyne liked Nebraska best for her brother, after USC, of course. Tamisha envisioned her son attending Arizona State.

Graham Jr. remained undecided.

Then, Willie Taggart entered the picture. 

--- Oregon bound

Oregon introduced Taggart as its new head coach on Thursday, Dec. 8.  That weekend he traveled to Rancho Cucamonga to visit the Grahams.

By Dec. 15, Graham had committed. Taggart’s smile, personality and honesty won over Team Graham. 

“Taggart changed everything,” Graham Sr. said. “He sat down and it wasn’t all about football, it was more about life. He said he had a plan to help make Thomas a better man.”

Unlike most recruiters, Taggart didn’ boast about preparing Graham Jr. for the the NFL. He didn't promise him that he would start right away. Taggart simply offered Graham Jr. a chance to compete and to get an education in a disciplined yet nurturing environment.

Graham Jr. had already visited Oregon while being recruited by former Ducks defensive backs coach John Neal. Graham Jr. liked the small-town atmosphere of Eugene and became enamored with the Oregon's scenic outdoors. 

“I could see myself living here,” he told his mom.

Graham Jr. couldn't wait to get started at Oregon so he enrolled during the winter term. Tamisha and her daughter were against that idea. They wanted him to enjoy his senior year. 

"I was also worried because he was only 17 and that's my baby, but I knew he was mature enough to handle it," Tamisha said. "My fear was letting go."

When he returned home for spring break, Jasmyne discovered a different person. 

“He proved me wrong on so many levels,” she said. "He was a totally different person. He had grown up. He was still that goofy, funny, little kid, but he had matured in so many ways.”

The siblings have grown closer as they've gotten older. Jasmyne said despite their childhood spats, she's always viewed him as a very giving and generous person who she now leans on from time to time. 

“There are times when I feel like I can’t do something or I’m down and I know that if I call him he will say, “you need to remember who you are,'” she said. "That always makes me feel better."

Graham Jr. was one of the centerpieces of recruiting class that ranked No. 18 in the country. Immediately during winter drills, Taggart began seeing signs that Graham Jr. could be special. Taggart noticed his maturity and appetite for knowledge. Plus, his energy and determination. He was Taggart's type of player. Someone who wanted to compete at everything, which had been Graham Sr.'s goal for his son all along. 

Graham Jr.'s first roommate, former safety turned receiver Brenden Schooler, said the freshman clearly had natural football ability and instincts and a desire to learn. The two often sat around talking about the strengths and weaknesses of other players.

"He's just a football guru," Schooler said. "He loves it."

Sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell said Graham Jr.'s attention to detail is clear in his play.  

"Thomas has great knowledge of the game plan and that accentuates his athleticism," Mitchell said. 

So much so that he immediately jumped into the mix at cornerback during the spring. That carried over to the fall where he has been competing with senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugochukwu Amadi for playing time. Those two started the first game when Graham had five tackles as a backup. He made his first start Saturday against Nebraska. 

--- The head tilt

Knowing he would field questions about Graham Jr. following his performance against Nebraska, Taggart spoke to his star freshman before entering the post-game press conference. 

"He told me to tell you that he is excited," Taggart said. "That's why he came to Oregon to help this football program and to help turn this program. He said to, 'make sure to tell them, coach, that I appreciate you for coming down to recruit me.'"

Laughter ensued. 

“I’m serious, he did say that," continued Taggart. 

If Graham Jr. could speak to the media, one obvious question would be how he reacted to his day getting off to such and up-and-down start against the Cornhuskers.

On Nebraska's first play from scrimmage, Graham Jr. trailed a receiver who was eyeing a sideline pass over the cornerback's head. At the last second, Graham Jr. threw his hands out and tipped the pass, which was then intercepted by senior safety Tyree Robinson to set up Oregon's first touchdown.

Later that quarter, Nebraska senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El beat Graham Jr. on a jump ball in the right corner of the end zone. He had solid coverage but failed to look back for the football. Had Graham Jr. done so he might have made the interception. He also made contact with the receiver before the ball arrived and still got scored on to make the score 14-7, Oregon.

The play left his parents stunned, looking at each other with faces that read: “Did that just happen?”

But, just like when their son was in high school, they knew such a moment would only fuel their ultra competitive son. They also saw that signature head tilt to the right that Graham Jr. does when he is about to turn up the heat on his opponent. 

"When that happens, game on," Tamisha said. 

“If you beat him at something he is going to die trying to beat you back,” Graham Sr. said. “He’s a poor sport. He’s a poor sport to the fifth power.”

That competitiveness traces back to simple things like board games, video games, dominoes, card games and racing his big sister. 

"When he loses, he won't let you leave until he wins," Graham Sr. said. 

Late in the second quarter Graham Jr. intercepted Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee at the Nebraska 34 to set up a touchdown that gave Oregon a 42-14 lead. In the third quarter he broke up a pass. In the fourth he made the interception that left his father woozy.

Graham read and then jumped the pass intended for Nebraska's tight end over the middle and returned it 28 yards to the Nebraska 31.

“In the last six months he’s proven to me that he’s a high-caliber player,” Graham Sr. said.

After the game, Graham Jr. didn't have much to say about the game. He doesn't brag much. 

“He goes back into lala mode,” Graham Sr. said. “He wanted to go home and play video games. The most you can get out of him is ‘it was solid,” or ‘it was lit.’”

Watching on television from afar with great pride was sister Jasmyne, who will travel to Wyoming to see her brother and the Ducks play the Cowboys on Saturday. She remains Graham Jr.'s first major conquest. Now she looks up to and is inspired by her little brother. 

“I’m a fan of my brother,” Jasmyne said. “I feel like I’m his number one fan and number one supporter…It took so many fights to get here.”

It also took a lot of Team Graham pushing both along to the point where now the Graham children are thriving on their own. 

Oregon's defense improving in time for Wyoming QB Josh Allen

Oregon's defense improving in time for Wyoming QB Josh Allen

EUGENE - The best thing to come out of Oregon's 42-35 win Saturday over Nebraska at Autzen Stadium was that the Ducks' defense demonstrated legitimate signs of being - gasp - decent. 

The Ducks held Nebraska to 361 yards of total offense, and more importantly, 102 yards rushing. The fact that the Cornhuskers converted on just 2 of 14 third down attempts proved even more impressive.  

“It was great to see our defense step up and make plays,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

The defense did so time and time again while the Ducks' offense fell to pieces in the second half after getting the team out to a 42-14 halftime lead. 

Oregon's offense turned over the ball twice in the second half and couldn't muster up much in the way of any offense. That helped put Nebraska in position to score 21 points in the second half. That's still a high number for UO's defense to choke down but the Ducks came up with with numerous stops and key interceptions in the second half (four on the day) to help protect the lead. 

This is a defense that was much maligned the previous two seasons, and deservedly so. One consistent presence on the defense since 2015 has been senior cornerback Arrion Springs, who said Saturday that he hoped the way the defense's performance earned some appreciation from the fans. 

“I guess it was fun that it had to be on the defense’s shoulders this game toward the end,” Springs said. 

The game-clinching play came when senior linebacker Jonah Moi blitzed, ran through a tight end and then forced Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee into a bad pass that lofted into the hands of junior cornerback Ugochukwu Amadi. 

“(Outside linebackers coach Raymond Woodie) always preaches that we have to win one-on-ones with the tight end," Moi said. "I just drove him back and I saw the quarterback’s arm come up and I just hit his arm."

The Ducks weren't making such plays last season when they allowed 41.7 points per game. This, of course, is a more experienced defense in many spots but does have its share of youth, including freshman cornerback Thoma Graham who intercepted two passes on Saturday. 

“I’m more proud of our defense for stepping up when we needed them to,” Taggart said.

Oregon is going to continue to surrender yardage. Anything under 400 in this day and age is pretty darn good, especially considering the pace of the Ducks' offense. If you're going to score, or not score, in possessions that last two minutes, one can't expect the defense to completely shut down teams.

“Nowadays in football people are going to get yardage," Taggart said. "I think what’s important is to take the ball away from them.”

Oregon forced just 12 turnovers last season (nine interceptions and three fumbles). So far this year, the Ducks' have taken the ball away six times (all interceptions). 

Next up is Wyoming  (1-1) and junior quarterback Josh Allen. He is being touted as a potential high first-round NFL Draft pick but so far this season has been unimpressive. 

He did light up Gardner-Webb University (Big South Conference) on Saturday for 328 yards and two touchdown passes during a 27-0 win at home. However, The week before he passed for just 174 yards and had two passes intercepted during a 24-3 loss at Iowa.

Allen might certainly be headed to the NFL but he doesn't have much NFL-level talent around him and could experience another tough day against what appears to be a solid Oregon defense. 

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Oregon at Wyoming

When: 4 p.m., Saturday, War Memorial Stadium, Laramie, Wyo.  

T.V.: CBS Sports Network. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 13.

Records: Oregon (2-0), Wyoming (1-1).

Last week: Wyoming won 27-0 at home over Gardner-Webb. Oregon won 42-35 at home over Nebraska.

Past meeting: Oregon defeated Wyoming 48-14 at home in 2014. Saturday's game will complete the home-and-home contract. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (42-45, 2-0 at Oregon); Cowboys' Craig Bohl (119-57, 15-25 at Wyoming). Bohl is the former coach of North Dakota, where he won three consecutive FCS national titles (2011-2013).

Cowboys' impact players: Allen's top two targets are Austin Conway (186 yards) and C.J. Johnson (152 yards). The running game is iffy, at best. The Cowboys have just 124 rushing yards on the season at 2.1 yards per carry. Wyoming gained just 59 yards on 30 carries against Iowa.

Defensive end Kevin Prosser has seven tackles with four for loss, including two sacks.

Fear factor (five-point scale): 2.5. Other than this being a road game, the Ducks shouldn't encounter many difficult obstacles on Saturday. Wyoming lacks the firepower on offense to hang with Oregon. The Cowboys' defense has played well, but hasn't seen anything like Oregon's offense. 

Final pick: Oregon, 44-24. Allen will make enough plays to keep the game entertaining but the Ducks' overall team speed will overwhelm the Cowboys. 

Oregon still unranked but closing in on top 25

Oregon still unranked but closing in on top 25

The Oregon Ducks failed to crack the top 25 in both the Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls this week but did inch closer toward breaking through.

Maybe had UO not allowed a 42-14 halftime lead over Nebraska turn into a 42-35 nailbiter, the Ducks (2-0) would find themselves ranked today. Chances are that a 30-point win over Nebraska (1-1) might have done the trick. As it stands now, Oregon could possibly creep into the top 25 with a win Saturday at Wyoming. 

In the AP Poll, Oregon moved up to 30th in total points with 61. That's up from 31st last week with 44 points. In the Coaches Poll, Oregon moved up to 28th with 68 points, up from 31st  with 41 points.

The Pac-12 Conference is represented well in both polls.  The AP Poll includes No. 4 USC, No. No. 6 Washington, No. 19 Stanford, No. 21 Washington State and No. 25 UCLA. Utah is 28th with 101 points and Colorado is 30th with 66 points. 

The Coaches Poll includes No. 4 USC, No. 6 Washington, No. 19 Stanford, No. 22 Washington State and No. 24 Utah. Colorado is 27th with 70 points while UCLA is 29th with 57.

Oregon's 42-35 win over Nebraska raised more questions than it answered

Oregon's 42-35 win over Nebraska raised more questions than it answered

EUGENE - If you're confused about what to make of Oregon's 42-35 win over Nebraska Saturday at Autzen Stadium, don't be alarmed. You're not alone.  

The Ducks' Jekyll and Hyde performance included them leading 42-14 at halftime only to find themselves clinging to a 42-35 lead with under three minutes remaining and the Cornhuskers in possession of the ball.   

Of course, Oregon coach Willie Taggart put a bow on this game that the Ducks pulled out with a game-clinching interception by referring to what it was: a win. The reality, however, is that it was a win that raised more questions about this team than it answered. Even Taggart was left stuck in the middle about what to make of his wildly inconsistent Ducks.

“We were good the first half," he said. "Second half, not so good. But it was great that our guys found a way. To me, that’s what’s more important than anything. Not necessarily how we played. Our guys found a way to win a ball game.”

Nevertheless, how the Ducks (2-0) play from here on out will ultimately decide their fate. A team can't survive for long giving away big leads. Yes, Oregon did gut this one out and deserves credit for doing so. Then again, the Ducks put themselves in position to have to worry about the outcome at all. 

Thoughts of Oregon possibly making things interesting this season in the Pac-12 North Division were warranted by halftime when the Ducks made a solid Nebraska (1-1) team appear to be out of its league. 

Maybe, it seemed, that these Ducks were for real, having scored 119 points in six quarters this season, counting the 77-21 win last week over Southern Utah.  Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert looked like a future Heisman Trophy contender. Senior running back Royce Freeman ran as if he should already be in the NFL. UO's defense, although penetrable, displayed enough speed and talent to create turnovers and tackles for losses when needed. 

Then, the second half started. 

Oregon's offense looked awful. Like, Toilet Bowl awful. The defense, which deserves praise for holding on to this win for dear life, still gave up 21 points. Suddenly, flashbacks of Oregon's Alamo Bowl loss two seasons ago when it blew a 31-0 lead in the second half to lose had to be running through the minds of many UO fans.

Taggart himself admitted to thinking about Texas A&M blowing a 34-point lead at UCLA last week to lose 45-44. 

Herbert, who threw for 313 yards in the first half, managed just 52 in the second half. Freeman, who ran well in the second half, fumbled at UO's 22 with 4:56 remaining to set up Nebraska's final score.

It appeared that Oregon became more conservative on offense following an interception in the third quarter on a pass over the middle to receiver Dillon Mitchell that was first tipped. Taggart disagreed that his play-calling lost its pop and instead pointed to the loss of tempo because of a lack of execution on first down and penalties. Oregon earned 12 flags for 103 penalty yards on the day. 

“Second half, we kind of slacked on (tempo) and weren’t going as fast as we should be,” senior receiver Charles Nelson said.

Lack of overall execution, Taggart said, allowed Nebraska to adjust on defense, both in personnel and scheme, and make life tougher on Oregon. 

If so, isn't that an indication that Oregon's offense might not be good enough to produce big numbers without the element of surprise as an advantage? If so, that could be a problem moving forward.

From the coach's standpoint, he could point to how despite all of the issues the defense made a big play to seal the deal with an interception by cornerback Ugochukwu Amadi off of a poor throw from Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee forced by pressure from Jonah Moi. 

“That’s what you call a team,” Taggart said. “And it was great to see.”

However one chooses to shake and twist this game, the bottom line is that we didn't get out of it what should have been expected. A win over Nebraska should have provided clear answers regarding what Oregon is about? Instead, the win left things where they were before kickoff, wondering just who exactly these Taggart-led Ducks will be this season. 

One thing for sure, they won't be boring. 

Ducks tried so hard not to lose that they almost did

Ducks tried so hard not to lose that they almost did

Some thoughts on Oregon's harrowing win over Nebraska Saturday:

  • Why is it that every fan in America can see when his or her team is playing too conservatively while trying to hold onto a lead, but the coach of said team just doesn't seem to get it? Willie Taggart got so worried about losing that game that he almost lost it. Justin Herbert was passing the Cornhuskers silly in the first half but the Ducks pretty much shut down the vertical passing game and tightened their shirt collars. It was a classic example of getting away from what got you a big lead and just trying to run out the clock.
  • The Ducks are an offensive juggernaut and should not idle that machine until very late in a game.
  • I do not blame the second-half Nebraska comeback on the Oregon defense. The offense put too much pressure on the defense.
  • To me, this game reinforced every reason the Ducks' athletic administration had for bringing in a new coaching staff. Coaching matters and coordinators matter. Oregon's defense is much more sound. It tackles much more reliably. Night and day. If nobody else but me says it -- good job, Rob Mullens. You made the right move when you cleaned house.
  • And speaking of that, when people talk about Taggart "rebuilding" the Oregon program, I smile. Folks, this team wasn't down and out. It was just unmotivated last season. I'm not saying they were bad coaches, but I am saying it was time for a change.
  • With a little better quarterbacking, Nebraska would have won that game. There were a lot of open receivers to hit and a lot of the time, they weren't hit.
  • The Ducks won't get shut out in a half the rest of the season. Unless they decide to go into their conservative mode again.

Ducks staring a 3-0 start right in the face

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USA Today

Ducks staring a 3-0 start right in the face

Two weeks from today the Oregon Ducks should be preparing to enter Pac-12 play at Arizona State on Sept. 23 with a 3-0 record. 

Oregon (1-0) hosts Nebraska (1-0) at 1:30 p.m. today before traveling to Wyoming (0-1) next week. Both the Cornhuskers and the Cowboys should have trouble standing up to Oregon's firepower, which will overcome any mysteries that still surround the Ducks' defense. 

Nebraska struggled to handle Arkansas State, 43-36, last week at home, while Wyoming, once thought to have a high-powered offense, got trounced, 24-3 at Iowa.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley will be looking for his first win at Autzen since 2007 and that one only came about because UO quarterback Dennis Dixon was lost for the season with a knee injury. Riley told reporters Thursday that he expects his team to be able to handle the noise generated by fans in Autzen.  

"I really, really hope that we're ready because I've seen teams in that stadium not function for the first quarter," Riley said. "You can see it on film when you're watching the video.  I feel confident in the preparation that we've had."

Riley mostly lost past games at Autzen because he simply had inferior teams. He has a much stronger team now than he had during most of his tenure at Oregon State. But his roster shouldn't be enough to defeat this Ducks' team, which is going to be an offensive force all season long. 

"Defensively we have to stop the run, or control it, as best we can," Riley said.

Good luck with that.

We will all have a much greater idea of what Oregon is all about after today. We saw glimpses of a very good team during last week's 77-21 win over Southern Utah. But such performances against FCS programs can be deceiving.

While a win over Nebraska wouldn't signal that the Ducks are Pac-12 contenders, a victory would at least give reason to beleive that Oregon is capable of an eight-win season. And after UO went 4-8 last year, doubling up the win total would be a huge step in the right direction under new coach Willie Taggart. 

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Oregon vs. Nebraska

When: 1:30 p.m., today, Autzen Stadium.  

T.V.: FOX. 

Betting line: 14.

2016 records: Oregon (1-0, 4-8 last season), Nebraska (1-0, 9-4 last season).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (41-45, 1-0 at Oregon); Cornhuskers' Mike Riley (109-91, 9-8 at Nebraska).

Cornhuskers' impact players: Nebraska junior quarterback Tanner Lee is a far better passer than last year's quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr., but not nearly as good of a runner.  Lee completed 19 of 32 passes against Arkansas State for 238 yards and two touchdowns. 

The Cornhuskers remain mostly about the running game. Nebraska rushed for 225 yards against Arkansas State with sophomore Tre Bryant going for 192 and a touchdown on 31 carries. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5 (downgraded from a 4 earlier this week). There's no reason to believe that Nebraska has any shot at slowing down Oregon's offense. 

Final pick: Oregon, 44-34.