Quarterbacks, Defense and Championship Runs

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

If you had to pick three sore spots from 2015 Oregon football, quarterbacks, defense and the lack of a championship run would have to dominate the list. Those sore spots and what they mean moving ahead are the subjects of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1. Quarterbacks. The Oregon program has been criticized for bringing Vernon Adams in from FCS Eastern Washington and now faces similar complaints for its interest in Montana State QB Dakota Prukop. Some writers and fans are going so far as to question whether the Ducks have the ability to develop quarterbacks, and that’s okay. Short-term memory loss happens, and this might happen a little more frequently in Oregon, along with Washington and Colorado.

Granted, for the second year in a row, Oregon finishes the season without a proven performer at the all-important quarterback position returning next year. While not an indictment of the coaches’ ability to develop quarterbacks, it does show that the Ducks have not recruited, trained and retained a suitable replacement for Marcus Mariota.

Hangover Part I was a huge success.

John Sperry

Hangover Part I was a huge success.

Having Mariota for the Ducks’ quarterback was a helluva party. For those who haven’t experienced it, here’s a fact of life. It’s not just short-term memory loss that happens. Hangovers happen, too. And once the party’s over, it can be a long hard trip down from something that made the world so rosy the night before.

With all the talented young quarterbacks either on campus or committed to become Ducks, this hangover is not going to last forever. But given that there’s not a QB on the roster who has proven himself at this level, we might need to reach for the Alka Seltzer one more season.

After that — somebody is going to come through, and it will probably be in spectacular enough form to result in some transfers out, which — at least partially owing to Mariota’s success — is one of the reasons why the Ducks are in the pickle they are.

One thing that seems to be lost in the criticism is that Adams saw Oregon as a desirable landing spot, and Prukop has similar feelings. Few programs attract that level of proven talent, so the transfer in of FBS stars is more a sign of the program’s strength than a sign of weakness.

2. Defense. To put it nicely, defense was not exactly Oregon’s forte in 2015. Still, the improvement during the year was remarkable, and a testament to the coaching. Even mid-season, nobody would have guessed that the Ducks’ defense would play well enough to beat Stanford and USC.

The improvement of the secondary was particularly striking, as it went from all-too-often not having anybody near a receiver to seemingly always being in position to make a play. By mid-season 2016, this group will be seasoned, talented veterans.

But there was a bigger improvement in the Ducks’ defense that seems to be largely overlooked. That was the development of the ability to line up, slug it out with Stanford’s jumbo package, and come out on top.

The Ducks defense got to Stanford veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan.

John Sperry

The Ducks defense got to — and in the head of — Stanford veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan.

Nobody seems to be mentioning it, but the Ducks just plain intimidated Kevin Hogan into bumbling a couple of snaps – and nobody comments that the fumbles were recovered by the Ducks behind Stanford’s line. When it counted, the Ducks beat the Trees in the trenches, and that was a monumental development for the program.

The linebacker play improved immensely, but it will be surprising if any of the group ends up being an early round NFL draft choice. Things may be looking up. The Ducks have commitments from three linebackers (including JC transfer A.J. Hotchkins) in the current recruiting class and are after more.

Replacing DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci on the D-line will be a challenge, but the Ducks have a strong contingent of youth who made valuable contributions in 2015 and should be ready to step into bigger roles next year.

So – assuming anybody steps up at quarterback next year, the Ducks should be lined up to at least have a shot at making a strong run.

3. Championship Runs. So much has to fall in place for even the most talented of teams and coaches to make a successful championship run. Injuries are a part of the game, and in 2014 the Ducks made it to the championship round despite contending with some key injuries. In 2015, the injuries wasted no time in proving fatal to any championship aspirations.

Another key factor for a run is experience in the right places. As great as Mariota’s career at Oregon was, it was only in his third season that the Ducks made it to the championship game.

There’s no reason the Ducks won’t have a strong program for years to come, but it takes a bit of magic and luck for everything to fall into place. Even with all the talent and experience in the world. Doesn’t it, Urban Meyer.

How many self-inflicted wounds before somebody tells them not to play with knives?

Kaly Harwood

How many self-inflicted wounds will it take before somebody tells them not to play with knives?

In the meantime, it is a little irritating – and a testament to the power of telling lies often enough and loudly enough — to see the likes of USC, UCLA and even Arizona State getting the preseason press as the teams to beat, not to mention getting the streams of 5-star recruits that they routinely land, despite consistent under-achievement.

There are two elite programs in the Pac-12: Oregon and Stanford. Who else has won a Pac-12 championship lately? Nobody, that’s who. And there’s a reason for this. Oregon and Stanford have the best coaches. It’s that simple – and it’s amazing that anybody can even dream anything to the contrary. I mean — anybody who has been around any athletics at any level has to see that Oregon and Stanford have been consistently out-coaching these other teams for years.

The last time anybody but Oregon or Stanford won the Pac-12 (or the predecessor Pac-10) was USC in 2008. That was five coaches ago for USC. I will leave you with this thought: Five coaches ago for Oregon was Don Read in 1976. When you consider how fast Oregon runs its plays, that’s long, long ago in Duck years.

Top photo by John Sperry

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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with FishDuck.com. Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • Jerry

    Well stated, Mike.

    I was proud to see Pellum and Neal make adjustments-one to the upper booth the other to the sidelines-during the course of the year. Our defense improved tremendously and I give a lot of credit to these coaches for this.

    Instead of rambling, I’ll conclude by saying I’m very proud to be a Ducks fan. We had a winning season, have a shot at 10 wins vs TCU and, the program is on a solid foundation. Thanks to everyone associated with the Ducks program–past and present. I appreciate your effort and dedication.


    Well Mike lets hope the Defense that played against MSU, Stanford, USC shows up in the Alamo. Not the one that had OSU completely whipped in the 1st half only to look like they didn’t want to play in the 2nd half. There is no excuse for that kind of letdown especially against a OSU team with very little talent. Thats on DP.

    • Bruce

      The Ducks won – bottom line. Against a good team, the defense would not have lost their intensity. Seems obvious. Stop whining!

  • MarFarSauce

    This is a great article! Thanks Mike. And I think you’re exactly right.
    After facing all kinds of adversity this year it looked as if the sky
    was falling in Eugene. It took an excellent coaching staff to stop the
    bleeding, start the breathing and treat for shock.

    I have more faith in the Oregon coaches than I ever have, after watching them save this season.

  • UOdgs

    Mike, thanks again for putting things in perspective for those fans who don’t seem to understand how good Oregon’s coaching staff truly is. Oregon’s year end rankings over the last decade have been consistently drastically higher than the corresponding recruiting class rankings. In the simplest of views, isn’t this indicative of a coaching staff getting the most out of the talent it is presented with?!?! There are numerous teams that out recruit Oregon year after year that haven’t sniffed a conference championship, yet alone a national championship. That’s clear testament to the quality of the Duck’s coaching staff, on both sides of the ball. Similar to what MarFarSauce noted below, I too have a ton of respect and trust in the current coaching staff, especially after the job they did turning this season around. And people need to get over the second half of OSU game, it happens to the very best of the best. (Not to mention the Ducks took a knee in scoring position up by two scores to end the game…they got stops when it mattered the most.)

  • FishDuck

    Mike…that is an outstanding blend of research and analysis, with a cherry of enthusiasm on top. Of course your humor is a bit more embedded this time with the link/picture captions, as again you got me to laugh.

    Really good observations that help us begin to reflect on this last season.

  • douglas fur

    Yup, you’re right.
    1. There aren’t that many star QB’s out there. Half the NFL teams would like a better QB but the 128CFB teams aren’t putting out 16 stars a year to fill that need. Even if 15 made the draft that would represent 1/4 of the 60ish teams in the “elite 5″ divisions. So the odds are better than 4 to 1 against you developing your star laden HS QB into a championship player.
    2. Bend don’t Break works in that yards allowed don’t beat you until they become points allowed. The Break comes in with ‘smash mouth ” brawn over brain football. Defensive players over 6 ft. and 300# are literally at the breaking point of the human body, as seen in the injuries this year. The question on defense is how can we be smarter? F=MV says lighter faster can equal heavy slower but what is the smarter concept that will enable lighter faster to beat heavy slower? Is it the Jujutsu like manipulation of the opponent to defeat themselves?
    3. Yup, the odds are against you, ask Ohio State. A winning season with a bowl game shouldn’t be seen as a disaster when the odds and vageries of injury and player’s being young and foolish are stacked against you.
    DRB ’74