When Washington State opened the season with a 24-17 home loss to Portland State, one unnamed WSU staffer said the defeat might have been the worst loss in the program’s history.
Fast forward four weeks later. The Cougars may have returned the favor to the Ducks Saturday night.
Washington State 45, Oregon 38 in double overtime.
It’s ironic that the Ducks would wear uniforms to honor the state’s history because now Oregon doesn’t have anything to hang their collective hats on but the history of the program. The Ducks are seriously on the verge of not being “The Ducks” anymore.
The Cougar official Twitter account may have said it best when it tweeted out a picture of the old Oregon Trail video game from the early 80’s that read, “You have died from dysentery.” Oregon didn’t die of dysentery, but instead they died from a poor defensive scheme and a lack of a quarterback who can throw the ball for more than 10 yards up the field.
What also died is the aura of Autzen Stadium. Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said Autzen was the loudest and most intimidating stadium in the country. But now opponents are actually looking toward to coming to Eugene. The Ducks have given up 107 points in the last two games in Autzen, a number that was completely unthinkable just a couple of years ago.
Head Coach Mark Helfrich has a tremendous job ahead of him to rebuild the Oregon program and it’s not going to happen overnight. First, he needs to find a capable quarterback. The duo of Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie isn’t getting it done because neither one can throw the ball beyond 10 yards with any sense of accuracy.
Lockie was just 13-of-22 for a measly 123 yards and Alie attempted a grand total of two passes in the first half. Despite scoring a rushing touchdown the first time he touched the ball in the first half, Alie didn’t play in the second half or in the overtime.
Without a passing game, Oregon relied on tailback Royce Freeman to shoulder the load and he showed how good he really is. The Cougar defense knew Freeman was Oregon’s lone weapon and he still ran for a career high 246 yards and two touchdowns.
As for the defense, the scheme was questionable at best.
When Oregon rushed the WSU quarterback Luke Falk, the Ducks were able to sack him or at the very least hurry him to make a bad throw. Oregon sacked him five times and forced two fumbles, which they recovered. But when there was a big first down to be made, Falk would find a receiver over the middle wide open.
And it’s not the only time the Oregon defense has been torched by open receivers in the middle of the field. Every team they have played as seen and taken advantage of that certain hole in the Duck defense and for some reason that particular adjustment hasn’t been made yet.
Washington State exploited that hole at the perfect drive, the last drive in regulation. On a fourth-and-three, Falk found River Cracraft wide open over the middle for a 22-yard gain with just 13 second left. Good defense make receiver pay dearly for going over the middle, but Duck opponents are not afraid in the very least. In fact, they look forward to it. It’s a guaranteed first down and a big gain.
After two spikes of the ball, Falk found his tall target, Dom Williams on a fade pattern, another route that rarely works, for a touchdown to tie the game with one second on the clock.
If this was the situation at schools like USC, Texas or Florida, assistant coaches would most likely be handed their walking papers.
But not Oregon.
The Ducks have prided themselves with having assistants in the program that have been there not for years, but decades. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum has been in Eugene for 27 years, four as a player and 23 more as an assistant. Offensive line/running game coordinator Steve Greatwood has been at Oregon as a player and coach for 34 years. Running back coach has been at Oregon for 32 years. Defensive secondary coach John Neal is the baby of the group as he’s been in Eugene for “just” 12 years.
Oregon is huge on loyalty and if those coaches haven’t committed any major violations, they’re not getting fired. That’s just a fact.
But now it’s their job to build Oregon back up and create a new identity. Helfrich has continued Chip Kelly’s way of doing things, but maybe Helfrich needs to do things his way and if that’s different from Kelly’s way, fine. If you’re going down in flames, make sure you go down because your way didn’t work not because you failed to copy someone else’s success.
Nike and Phil Knight has given Helfrich all the amenities to be successful and that starts with bringing in the best players that fit his system, whatever that may be. Right now, the Ducks don’t know who they are and while they suffer from the identity crisis, their Pac-12 brethren are licking their chops while they dance in the end zone time and time again.