It’s amazing what one win can do.
In Oregon’s case, the view of the entire season has been changed, and Mark Helfrich’s seat cooled down… but just a little.
The Ducks came up with key defensive plays that sealed a 54-35 win over Arizona State at Autzen Stadium Saturday. Before the game, it was a wonder where Oregon’s next win was going to come from, and Helfrich was a dead man walking.
Just three weeks ago, Helfrich was being called out for not being able to develop a quarterback within the program. The concern of going to senior transfers was real before the season began, but then the Dakota Prukop experiment ended with so-so results. Helfrich might have gone to the well once too often after Vernon Adams played so well the season before.
Given that the Duck defense couldn’t stop a good high school offense, Helfrich’s job security was very secure anymore. Having Phil Knight visit Chip Kelly in San Francisco two days after an overtime loss didn’t exactly quash any rumors.
Then true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert continued his good play from the previous week at Cal and torched Arizona State for 489 yards and four touchdowns. Suddenly, Oregon’s future at the quarterback position is quite solid and Helfrich seems like he may know what he’s doing after all.
It also helped that the Oregon defense picked this week to play its best game of the season. Arizona State scoring 35 points and gaining 468 total yards doesn’t look good on paper, but considering how bad the Ducks have played this season, it was a vast improvement.
Statistically, Oregon’s defense is the worst in college football. The unit showed on Saturday that progress, however slow, is being made. The Ducks were able to intercept three passes to end potential scoring drives that would have created a one-possession game, one right before the half and then two more in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore linebacker Kaulana Apelu came up with his first career interception late in the second quarter to preserve a 30-14 halftime lead. Safety Tyree Robinson picked off a pass at the goal line and returned it 84 yards to set up a touchdown. Brenden Schooler, another true freshman playing significant snaps, intercepted a pass on Arizona State’s ensuing drive to eliminate all hope of a late rally for the Devils.
Those plays wouldn’t have been made two weeks ago.
“It was real nice to get that (streak) of going 14 quarters with no picks,” Helfrich said of his defense’s effort. “We hit ourselves in the chest twice last week. (They were) plays that could have swing and it happened. That’s a huge deal.”
Just winning one game is a huge deal.
The Ducks having so many freshmen and sophomores play important roles in breaking the five-game losing streak offers hope for the rest of the season. None is more important than the quarterback, particularly in Oregon’s system. Herbert’s 489 yards tied a school record set by Bill Musgrave in 1989. That team, led by Musgrave, was the beginning of Oregon’s rise to prominence; it gave UO a bowl berth for the first time in 36 years.
The 2016 Ducks have resembled those teams that never had a chance to be bowl eligible. They have also resembled a team that could begin the second coming of Oregon football. Herbert is the main reason, but not the only one.
“It’s not a one-man show, but that quarterback position is awfully important,” Helfrich said.
“As you look around at any level of football, that’s the spot. He’s (Herbert) is going in the right direction. We can’t anoint anybody anything at this point, but we like where he’s at. We like his demeanor and how he works.
“Just how he’s handling it in there (points to the locker room). He’s handled it like a vet. When we come back to work, it’ll be a big time challenge as we go on the road against an extremely good defense at USC.”
The good feelings surrounding Oregon football could very well be short-lived if the Ducks go down to Los Angeles and regress against the Trojans. As long as the progress is continued, win or not, Helfrich will get more chances to praise his young team.