EUGENE — This was one of the most anticipated Oregon season openers in recent memory, and when it was all over, it was historic.
Ducks fans were given an early treat at Autzen Stadium on Saturday, with Oregon’s Tony Brooks-James returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
What a way to start the Willie Taggart era.
In their first game since losing last year’s Civil War, the Ducks set Autzen Stadium’s scoring record by beating Southern Utah, 77-21.
The record is impressive, but the win represents a new chapter in Oregon football history, officially putting the Mark Helfrich era in the rearview mirror and ushering in the Taggart era.
All throughout the offseason, Taggart’s biggest contributions had been changing the culture and a revitalized approach to recruiting. But it was important to see how the changes would impact the Ducks’ performance on the field.
As he prepared to take his team onto the field before the game, Taggart said he felt the energy.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of the tunnel. I heard the motorcycle, and then I got goosebumps and I was ready to go then,” Taggart said. “I wanted to put on some pads and go out there.”
While the defense is still a work in progress, the big takeaway from the victory is just how explosive Oregon’s offense is under Taggart, particularly the running game — Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit combined for 257 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
At quarterback, Justin Herbert looked poised in his first opening day start for the Ducks. His numbers weren’t overly impressive — 17 of 21 for 281 yards and a touchdown — but they didn’t have to be with such a dominating running game.
What stood out most about Herbert was his size. He is noticeably bigger and stronger.
“I just had a lot of fun out there today,” Herbert said. “It was a fun time.”
Players talked all offseason about a culture change, and it was apparent during Saturday’s lopsided victory.
Oftentimes, Oregon’s players could be seen jumping, dancing and waving towels on the sidelines.
Certainly on the surface, it looked like the players enjoy playing with each other and for each other, which was a main goal of Taggart’s when he took the job.
“There was a lot of energy, and it wasn’t artificial,” Taggart said. “It was the real juice, it was the real deal.”
However, not every game will be a 77-point output, which was 20 points shy of the Ducks’ all-time record of 97 that they scored in 1916 against Willamette.
There will be tough times, and then we’ll see if the culture truly has changed.
But for now, the Taggart era in Eugene is off to a strong start.