EUGENE, Ore. — The Willie Taggart era at Oregon got off to a fast start with Tony Brooks-James’ 100-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff against Southern Utah.
Fitting for a team that’s (still) known for speed.
Royce Freeman ran for 150 yards and four touchdowns and the Ducks routed the Thunderbirds 77-21 on Saturday for Taggart’s debut as Oregon’s head coach. It was the most points for the Ducks in a single game since 1916.
Afterward, Freeman and the captains gave the game ball to Taggart.
“It was the first steps of just going out there and putting as many points on the board as we can,” Freeman said. “That’s going to be our mentality week in and week out.”
Kani Benoit ran for 107 yards and three additional scores for the Ducks, who had an Autzen Stadium-record nine rushing touchdowns in the game. Justin Herbert completed 17 of 21 passes to finish with 281 yards and a touchdown. It was Oregon’s seventh straight season-opening win.
Thunderbirds quarterback Patrick Tyler threw for 197 yards and a TD, but threw two interceptions.
Taggart was hired to right the Ducks after a disappointing 4-8 finish last season. He came to Eugene after four seasons at South Florida, where he guided the Bulls from a 2-10 record his first year to a 10-2 mark and a spot in the Birmingham Bowl last season.
The Ducks certainly don’t appear to be slowing down under their new coach.
After Brooks-James’ game opening TD, Tyler’s four-yard run evened the score on Southern Utah’s first possession. Herbert found Jacob Breeland with a 20-yard pass on the next drive to put the Ducks back in front 14-7.
Benoit’s 10-yard touchdown run put the Ducks up 21-0 midway through the first quarter. He punctuated the score with a little shimmy in the end zone.
Freeman’s first TD came on a 3-yard dash before Benoit ran 29 yards for his second score that put the Ducks up 35-7. Freeman’s second touchdown was a 16-yard run.
The Thunderbirds came alive late in the half. Tyler found Landen Measom with a 64-yard pass and, after an Oregon fumble on the kickoff, James Felila scored on a 4-yard run that closed the gap to 42-21 at halftime.
Freeman had his third scoring run from 13-yards out in the third quarter. Charles Nelson added a 2-yard scoring run before Freeman’s fourth score gave Oregon a 63-21 lead after three quarters.
Benoit and Taylor Alie added two additional rushing touchdowns in the final quarter and the Ducks racked up 703 yards of total offense.
“It was good. It was a good starting point,” Freeman said. “We can be better on both sides of the ball. We can clean up a lot of areas. That’s just work for next week. We’ll enjoy this win, but we know we are capable of being a lot better.”
The FCS-level Thunderbirds, who play in the Big Sky, were embarking on a second season under coach Demario Warren. They finished 6-5 and 5-3 in the Big Sky in 2016.
“There were a couple momentum shifts. I mean, they started off with a return for a touchdown. But our players didn’t flinch. They kept coming back, back, back and there was just a time when we got overwhelmed in the third quarter and lost contact,” Warren said.
Southern Utah: It was the second straight season that Southern Utah has opened against a Pac-12 foe. The Thunderbirds fell to Utah 24-0 in last season’s opener. … It’s Southern Utah’s sixth season in the Big Sky. … Junior defensive back Elijah Holt had to be carted off the field in the third quarter. The extent of his injury was not immediately available.
Oregon: Freeman’s second TD run was his 46th career rushing score, tying him with Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers for seventh on the Pac-12’s career list. … Oregon’s record for points was set in 1916, a 97-0 victory over Willamette.
DANCE PARTY? There was a marked difference in the mood of the team from last season. Players danced to the music playing over the public address system, they waved their towels to get the crowd going on kickoffs.
“There was a lot of energy. It wasn’t artificial. It was the real juice, it was the real deal,” Taggart said. “We always tell our guys that everybody has a role on this team, and we want everybody to do a great job in their role. Some of those guys that weren’t playing, we want to make sure they lock into the game, have a lot of energy, a lot of emotion. We really feel like enthusiasm is contagious.”
SMOKY SKIES: Eugene was hazy as the result of wildfires burning in the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. Forest Service says there are 25 large wildfires in the region that have consumed 367,320 acres. The Lane Regional Air Protection Agency deemed the air quality “unhealthy” on Saturday. It was also 90 degrees at kickoff, just the fifth game at Autzen to be played in 90-degree heat.
The Ducks host Nebraska at Autzen Stadium, marking Huskers coach Mike Riley’s first game in back in Oregon since he left Oregon State after the 2014 season.