Whether on TV or as you walk out of Autzen Stadium, looking at the scoreboard and seeing your team on the losing end of it sucks. High expectations and hopeful preseason predictions make for an even harder pill to swallow when the team, your team, loses a game.
A close loss can make you feel better on one hand, as you comfort yourself that they didn’t let the game get away from them. On the other hand, it makes you angry as you realize that they could have, maybe should have, won that game. Oregon’s loss to Arizona last Thursday is the perfect example of a game that the “better” team should have won if not for certain things that got in their way. What those things are and how to fix them will help the team and the fans move forward.
What was supposed to be one of the team’s biggest strengths has now become its weakness as the Oregon Ducks have had a string of bad luck with injuries to the offensive line. Oregon lost tackle Tyler Johnstone to a season-ending injury while tackle Andre Yruretagoyena is out for an indefinite amount of time. Yruretagoyena and Johnstone were soon joined by tackle Jake Fisher on the injured list, leaving Oregon with zero starters in the tackle position.
As a result of that, true freshman Tyrell Crosby and former walk-on junior Matt Pierson had to step in, and they have been playing and acting exactly as you’d expect them to: overwhelmed. In the last two games, against Washington State and Arizona, quarterback Marcus Mariota has been sacked 13 times and has been rushed or pressured countless times. Every time Mariota feels pressure, you are increasing his chances of getting hurt which is not something the Ducks can afford.
This weekend’s game has been one to look forward to since the start of the season and it’s bigger now in light of the loss to Arizona. The Ducks have to win, and win impressively, to keep even the slightest spark of playoff hopes alive. The best chance of that happening is if the Ducks get back just one of the injured tackles. According to rumors floating around, there is a chance that Fisher might be back for tomorrow’s game. If that happens, the chances of an Oregon win increase immediately.
If none of the injured Duck tackles return, Oregon can still win but will need the other veteran players on the O-line to help Pierson and Crosby. In the last two games, center Hroniss Grasu and guard Hamani Stevens have both made mistakes that have increased the dependence on Pierson and Crosby instead of helping decrease it. In all fairness, the line (and the tackles as a unit) have improved since both Pierson and Crosby were forced into starting positions, as the Ducks only had five sacks against them in last week’s loss to Arizona compared to the seven at Washington State.
There is one team in the Pac-12 who has given up more sacks than Oregon — the UCLA Bruins. The Oregon defensive line has struggled recently in pressuring the quarterback, and this weekend brings a chance for it to show it is made of. In any game, if the offense is struggling, the defense has to step up and take some pressure off of them and vice-versa. That hasn’t been happening for the Ducks as both the offense and defense have struggled in the past two games.
Before the Washington State game, the Oregon offense was healthy enough that they were able to score points quickly enough to overcome any points given up by the defense. Since the spate of injuries, Mariota has been constantly pressured and hasn’t had a chance to kick things into high gear like we are used to seeing him do. The defense needs to start communicating, because when they do all work together, it’s pretty magical to watch.
Pressuring Brett Hundley would be a great place to start this weekend, but the UCLA offense is dangerous in many different ways. The Oregon D-line will need to cover all of Hundley’s favorite targets and force him to throw away the ball or take a loss of yards.
I stated earlier that there is a spark of college football playoffs hope still alive and that remains true, though you wouldn’t know it with the attitude of certain Duck fans. Walking out of Autzen Stadium last Thursday, I was surrounded by literally thousands of people complaining about the Ducks always letting at least one game slip through their fingers, effectively kicking themselves out of championship contention. Charles Fisher wrote an Op-Ed this week calling out fans who bag on the team after a loss and judge the output of the team and coaches. The truth is, we DON’T know what was going on in the locker room before, during or after the game. There are reasons for some events in the game that we aren’t aware of and likely never will be because we aren’t in that locker room.
Going back to the playoff picture, my advice is to not write the Ducks out of the picture so soon. We are heading into week seven of the regular season and there is still a lot of football left to play. Looking at the Top 10 this week, more than half of the teams on it will play each other at some point and start coming down the rankings. Add to that the other teams that they will play who are not ranked and just might come up to shock the top teams, much like Arizona did to Oregon, and the Ducks aren’t out of the picture quite yet.
I think that as fans, we need to take a deep breath, calm down, and just root for the Ducks, no matter who they are playing. That is, in fact, what being a fan is supposed to be about.
Top photo by Kevin Cline