Interceptions a point of pride for No. 3 Oregon Ducks
By ANNE M. PETERSON
Oregon's Bennett Williams said there's nothing better for the Ducks' secondary than a takeaway. In fact, it's something of a competition among the defensive backs.
The No. 3 Ducks have nine interceptions this season, tied with Kent State and Notre Dame for most in FBS.
That total was padded considerably Saturday when the Ducks (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) intercepted Arizona quarterback Jordan McCloud five times, twice in the red zone.
"I mean, as a defense that's the best feeling, you know, getting those takeaways and that's what we pride ourselves on. You know we want three every game. And so five, it feels pretty good," Williams said. "It's so much fun and it fuels the whole team, not just the defense, right? The offense comes out there and they feel good. So it's big and we're gonna try to keep that going."
The winless Wildcats surprisingly got within five points heading into the fourth quarter, but Oregon responded with 17 unanswered points, including Williams' 68-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal a 41-19 victory.
Bennett had a pair of interceptions in the game, as well as eight tackles. His touchdown return was the longest for Oregon since 2017. Additionally, Oregon's five interceptions were the most since the Ducks had six against Cal in 1999.
Teammate Verone McKinley III has four interceptions this season, tying him for most in the nation. Williams has three.
"They understand the game so well, and have such a positive impact on others," coach Mario Cristobal said about the duo. "They are ballhawks. On top of that, too, they are physical and in a hurry. They get guys on the ground and make tackles. They are exactly what you want back there in the secondary of your football team."
McKinley said there's some good-natured jostling for takeaways among the defensive backs.
"It's definitely been huge, because Bennett got his first, he's the first one in Arizona and he was like, `I'm tied with you.' And I was like, 'Oh no, not for long,'" McKinley told reporters this week. "And so, that competition is something you want in the defensive back room. Everybody's pushing to beat each other and that's what makes it fun, to have that competitive spirit in our room makes it even more fun."
Oregon ranks atop the NCAA in turnover margin (plus-12), with nine interceptions and four recovered fumbles through four games.
Oregon was also among the top FBS teams for interceptions in 2019. But the Ducks are on pace to top that team's total of 20. In fact, if they keep it up, they could break the team's record of 26, set in 2012. George Shaw holds Oregon's single-season record of 13 interceptions, set in 1951.
The secondary's success has come despite a lack of consistency overall on defense. The Ducks gave up 233 passing yards to Arizona last week and a season-high 202 rushing yards.
But part of the problem has been injuries. NFL prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux was injured in the opener and returned for limited plays against Arizona. Cristobal said the defensive end will be at full strength Saturday at Stanford.
Outside linebacker Mase Funa is back to 100% after missing Week 3, but edge rusher Bradyn Swinson remains sidelined.
Stanford is known for its tall receivers, so McKinley said Oregon needs to be prepared.
"Identifying who is in the game because they run so many different personnel sets with so many different fullbacks, tight ends, receivers -- some of the receivers are bigger guys that are blockers, some are speed guys that can really take the top off the defense - so just really identifying who is coming in and out of the game, and knowing the situation when we're out in the field, those are probably the biggest keys," McKinley said.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25. Sign up for the AP's college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25
Updated September 29, 2021