To be clear, any day Colorado comes into Autzen Stadium and defeats Oregon is not a good day. It was, in all senses of the word, an upset.
However, the Buffaloes’ 41-38 win over the Ducks shouldn’t have been that completely shocking when one looks deeper into the Duck program. Expectations in Eugene need to be tempered.
These are not your older brother Ducks. This is not a team that can just stroll into the stadium, not even Autzen, and win just because it has an O on the helmet.
Those days are long gone, and the sooner the Ducks realize that, the better.
Several factors have led to Saturday’s loss and the fall of the Ducks. Oregon is in its first season of new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The defense was so bad last season that Mark Helfrich had to go outside the program and hire Brady Hoke to come in and fix it. It wasn’t going to be an easy or quick fix as the first four games have showed.
Hoke is just four games in. It might take two full seasons to get the personnel he needs to play the type of defense he wants. The good news is that Hoke has true freshman linebacker Troy Dye to build around. The bad news is that Hoke needs around 15 other Troy Dyes that aren’t yet on the roster. On his current trajectory, Dye will definitely be on the All-Freshman Team and might be on the First-Team Defense in the Pac-12.
On offense, there are some bright spots and then some spots where one has to wonder what is going on. Bottom line: Oregon did score 38 points. In most games, that would be more than enough to win, but with the Ducks’ defense, 38 won’t be nearly enough in most games. When one looks deeper, however, the problems of the offense become clearer.
Fortunately for Oregon, the problems do seem fixable.
It’s no coincidence that in the two games the Ducks have lost, tailback Royce Freeman was largely unavailable. He missed the final three quarters of the Nebraska game and although he was named as a starter, Freeman didn’t play a down against Colorado. Even without Freeman, Oregon ran for 215 yards against the Buffs’ defense, but the Ducks still miss Freeman. The 5-foot-10, 225-pound junior tends to pound on a defense over the course of the game, and that’s where Oregon’s three speedsters out of the backfield can take advantage. Without Freeman, the opposing defense doesn’t take the same pounding and is therefore relatively fresh once the fourth quarter rolls around.
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick is in his first season after taking over for Scott Frost. Lubick called the plays in last year’s Alamo Bowl and is four games into this season. So far, he’s proving that he’s no Chip Kelly. That might be unfair, since no one is Chip Kelly where play-calling is concerned, but there have been a few occasions when it doesn’t take a genius to know what to do, or maybe more importantly, what not to do.
There were several times against Colorado when Oregon was faced with a third and seven. The call from the booth was a basic off tackle. When Freeman is in the game, that might be the correct call, but with three young tailbacks running behind a line that consists of four redshirt freshmen, one would think a pass play over seven yards would be the way to go. If you are going to run off tackle for four yards, it would be assumed that it was four-down territory and Lubick had a grand plan to the drive. Apparently not — Oregon punted on each occasion when the third down run was short.
Oregon’s offense — in the Kelly years and into the Helfrich-Marcus Mariota partnership — was not only fast and able to spread out a defense; it was unpredictable, inventive and a defensive coordinator’s nightmare. Right now, it’s not nearly as fast. It’s predictable and not imaginative at all. There are no reverses, options, or halfback passes. It would have been nice to throw in a screen here and there, but that wasn’t coming either.
What else isn’t coming is any quarterback that remotely resembles Mariota. If there is one huge knock on the Helfrich Era is that he hasn’t been able to groom a replacement for the Heisman Trophy winner. Oregon has had to get senior transfers from the FCS to hold the Ducks above water. First it was Vernon Adams and now it’s Dakota Prukop. With Oregon’s facilities and offense, the top prep quarterbacks should be lining up to play for Oregon. Mariota proved you can win the Heisman and be a first-round draft pick in this offense.
For some reason, the heir apparent is nowhere to be found.
Prukop is good, but that’s it. There’s nothing special about him. Colorado shut out Oregon in the fourth quarter when the Ducks needed to score just once. Whether it was a good play call or not, the fade pattern at the end of the game was very poorly thrown. It had to be a touchdown or an incomplete pass. Even a sack would have been preferable to what happened. It was the interception heard all around the Pac-12.
What the other 11 teams heard was Oregon’s long fall from grace.
Mariota or his heir apparent aren’t walking through that locker room door anytime soon. Finding and developing a quarterback to take charge of the offense would be a huge step in the right direction. The Ducks have plenty of time to rise back up to their former glories. That’s why Helfrich gets paid the big bucks.
Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.