College football fans and pundits can lambaste No. 4 Oregon for its weak nonconference schedule. But overmatched FCS-level Tennessee Tech had to be a welcome sight for the Ducks on Saturday.
Oregon learned in recent days that it had lost its most experienced defender (senior safety John Boyett) and most experienced offensive player (senior lineman Carson York) to season-ending injuries that also likely ended their college careers. So some relatively untested players needed a chance to gain some additional on-field experience against the Golden Eagles, as the Ducks prepare to host Arizona next Saturday in their Pac-12 opener.
Oregon's banged-up offensive line and Boyett-less defensive backfield got some crucial fine tuning in a 63-14 whipping of Tennessee Tech in front of a subdued crowd of 57,091 at Autzen Stadium on a warm Saturday afternoon.
Boyett, who led the Ducks in tackles two of the past three years, had surgery this past week on both knees, ending his season.
York also underwent season-ending surgery during the week to repair a broken kneecap suffered last week against Fresno State.
York had to watch Saturday's game at home in bed with his repaired knee propped up, according to Oregon center Hroniss Grasu.
“It's tough not to have him there with us," Grasu said of York after Saturday's win. “We all look up to him and he's been here a long time. He was there in spirit."
York's injury was just one of many that hampered Oregon's offensive line against Fresno State, as the Ducks scored only one touchdown in the second half and lost three fumbles.
Against Tennessee Tech it was a different story, as the Oregon offensive line dominated the Golden Eagles, opening holes for De'Anthony Thomas (whose 222 all-purpose yards in the first half included 62 rushing yards) and protecting quarterback Marcus Mariota (21-of-28 passing for 308 yards and four touchdowns).
But the signature moment for the Duck offensive line Saturday was one that usually happens only in a lineman's dreams. Midway through the first quarter, sophomore tackle Jake Fisher — hustling downfield to block on a 49-yard pass reception by Thomas — was in the right place at the right time when Thomas fumbled near the goal line. Fisher lumbered after the loose football and pounced on it in the back of the end zone midway through the first quarter.
Fisher was mobbed by his offensive line mates after the score, which gave Oregon a 21-7 lead.
“I think (Thomas) was disappointed I stole one from him," Fisher joked after the game. “It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. (The other offensive linemen) were all jealous. They were all laughing."
“That says a lot about Jake and a lot about the effort we try to coach," Oregon head coach Chip Kelly said.
Fisher — out by halftime against Fresno State with a lower leg problem — was one of four Oregon offensive linemen to suffer various injuries against Fresno State's hard-blitzing Bulldogs. He said the line's performance was “pretty good" against the Golden Eagles.
“We're still young, so we're still learning a lot and coming together as a group," Fisher said. “As time passes, we work hard and every day it's on the line, as coach always says. We're just going to keep on working and things will come together."
Junior Avery Patterson started at free safety in Boyett's place against Fresno State last weekend and recorded five tackles. He had another solid performance against Tennessee Tech, and linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Dior Mathis made key interceptions for Oregon, bolstering the backfield in Boyett's absence.
Sophomore Erick Dargan filled in for Patterson in the second half and was one of three players to lead the Ducks with five tackles.
Dargan said he was “shocked" when he learned Boyett's season was over.
“He was a great player that did a lot for the program," Dargan said of Boyett. “I was losing somebody that I looked up to a lot. I learned a lot from him. He helped me grow as a person.
“Without him, it's a little weird. We're going to miss him."
Patterson and Dargan have some built-in chemistry, having played together at Pittsburg (Calif.) High School.
“Me and Patterson have played together for a long time," Dargan said. “As far as the secondary, we just all learn from each other."
Now, the Ducks know they are ready to move on without York and Boyett as they prepare for Arizona and the conference schedule ahead.
Fisher, for his part, is not worried about the team's focus in practice this week.
“Our preparation is top of the line," Fisher said. “No one competes with us in preparation."