Has Oregon Football Descended From Elite Status?

Soul Searching

Until Saturday, the idea of Oregon losing to Colorado any time in the foreseeable future was unimaginable. The Buffaloes have been the punching bag of the Pac-12 for years – the automatic win on the schedule for essentially everyone in the conference.

Oregon fell to an improved Colorado team last weekend, and the football team has been doing some soul searching this week to try to figure out how to regain the form it had in the Chip Kelly and Marcus Mariota days.

Colorado players celebrate their game winning interception against Oregon

Rhianna Gelhart

Colorado players celebrate their game-winning interception against Oregon.

Oregon fans are beginning to question the Ducks’ elite status, and some wrote about Oregon’s demise and fall from grace. No Duck fans wanted to believe it; however, after a 2-2 start and back-to back-losses for the first time since 2007, fans are beginning to wonder if the doom-and-gloom pundits were right.

Are the days of Oregon competing for Pac-12 and national titles going to fade into a distant fond memory? Is Oregon following the path Florida took after Urban Meyer’s departure? Or USC after Pete Carroll left? Is Oregon going to fall along with Baylor now that Art Briles is gone?

Will Oregon be like the hated Washington Huskies who were a powerhouse in the early 1990s who beat up on the Ducks before being awful-to-average for the subsequent 20 years? Will fans see Mark Helfrich struggle for a few more years before he is fired and the Ducks search hopelessly for the next Mike Bellotti or Kelly to take Oregon back to the promised land?

I sure hope not, and I think Oregon can rebound in the coming seasons. The Ducks might be on their way back to mediocrity for awhile, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Oregon’s problems appear to be due to a few missteps Helfrich can learn from – he’s still a very young coach.

Defensive Issues Can Be Fixed … But Maybe Not This Year

The biggest reason Oregon has struggled the last season and a half has been due to poor defense. The Ducks have never been confused with defensive powerhouses such as Alabama and Michigan State. Oregon makes its hay on offense. But when the Ducks were winning Pac-12 titles and competing for national titles, they complimented an incredible offense with a strong defense.

The Oregon defense struggled contain a rebuilding Virginia teams rushing attack

John Sperry

The Oregon defense struggled to contain a rebuilding Virginia team’s rushing attack.

By the most important defensive statistic, points allowed per game, Oregon’s defense was a Top-20 defense when they went to the title game in 2010 and a Top-30 defense when they went back to the Natty in 2014. They were near those levels during the years when they consistently finished in the Top 10.

However, last year the Ducks finished the season all the way down at 108th in points allowed per game. At least the Ducks were better than the Beavers‘ defense, who finished 119th. But this year is not looking much better, as the Ducks sit at 86th nationally with the bulk of the best offensive teams still on the schedule. Not good.

In some ways the loss of Nick Aliotti has hurt even more than the loss of Kelly. Don Pellum seems like a great guy and linebacker coach, just not a great defensive coordinator. After that two-year experiment of Pellum leading the defense failed, the Ducks have turned the defense over to first-time defensive coordinator Brady Hoke. He can recruit and had some strong defenses at Michigan when he was a head coach, but obviously he is still figuring out this whole DC thing.

Brady Hoke is under a lot of pressure to turn around the Oregon defense

Gary Breedlove

Brady Hoke is under a lot of pressure to turn around the Oregon defense.

Hoke taking over as defensive coordinator has led to more growing pains as the Ducks are transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. Players need time to pick up a new defensive scheme. Additionally, a 4-3 requires a little bit different type of lineman and linebacker and Oregon obviously has not been able to recruit and develop those type of players yet (it will take a couple of years). Lastly, the defense this year has been hurt by losing all seven starters along that front-seven from last year.

Hoke may end up being a top-tier defensive coordinator or another failure, but the Ducks are likely to take even more lumps before things turn around.

The Offense Will be Great Again

Offensively, the Ducks have shown flashes of being as potent as they have ever been. Unfortunately, continued injuries to the offensive line over the past two years have caused problems. One does not need to play or watch much football to know how critical solid O-line play is to a successful offense.

Oregon’s offensive line has been snake-bitten by injuries again this year with Oregon’s LT – arguably their best lineman and Outland Trophy watch-list candidate Tyrell Crosby - out for the year. Crosby’s injury has forced Oregon to start four freshmen on the offensive line (Brady Aiello, Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton).

Because of the cerebral nature of offensive line positions, that much inexperience will continue to lead to growing pains for the Ducks. The young guys are very talented and have performed well through four games given their lack of experience. When these freshmen are seasoned juniors and seniors in a few years, the Ducks should have the type of premiere offensive line that can help return Oregon to the top of college football world.

The Ducks have high hopes Herbert (10) or Wilson (3) can be the long-term solution at QB

Gary Breedlove

The Ducks have high hopes that Justin Herbert (10) or Terry Wilson Jr. (3) can be the QB to help return Oregon to prominence.

The inability of Oregon to develop any of the top quarterbacks they recruited in years past, however, has also caused some issues. This was abundantly evident in losses to Utah, Washington State and TCU last year as the Ducks were unable to throw the ball when Vernon Adams was hurt.

Adams and Dakota Prukop, the FCS grad transfer stop-gaps, have proved to be solid quarterbacks, but for the offense to propel the Ducks back to national title contention, they will likely need someone they have groomed in the program who knows the offense inside and out.

The QB position is so important from a leadership standpoint. While Adams and Prukop seem like solid leaders, the rapport and camaraderie necessary to be an outstanding leader as a QB generally requires multiple seasons of blood, sweat and tears with your brothers. How can you expect Prukop to fire up and rally the Ducks to complete the comeback against Colorado, or help prevent them from digging a hole in the first place, when he has only played four games with his teammates and has only been around the program a few months?

Despite the pain of watching a proud Oregon team be mediocre (or maybe worse) this season, the pieces are present for Oregon to return to prominence.

If Hoke is given some time to work his magic on the defense, the offensive line is given time to mature and Oregon can continue to develop the young and promising QBs Terry Wilson and Justin Herbert, the Ducks should find themselves winning Pac-12 titles and competing for another college football playoff spot in the next couple of years.

Top Photo by Gary Breedlove

Aaron Lewis
Salt Lake City, Utah

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Aaron Lewis

Aaron Lewis

Aaron Lewis grew up 15 minutes from Autzen Stadium and has been a die-hard Ducks fan his whole life; he painted his chest for an Oregon football game for the first time at age 10. Aaron studied economics at Brigham Young University and after graduation worked as a management consultant for Bain & Co. in Dallas. More recently Aaron joined a mid-cap private equity firm in Salt Lake City. In addition to spending too many hours following the Ducks and college football more broadly, Aaron enjoys spending time with his wife and two girls, cycling, hiking, and following college basketball and the NBA.

  • fanchris

    Aaron, you are more optimistic than I am. Helfrich seems to be struggling, penalties are a result of poor discipline or players not knowing what they are supposed to be doing. Those are both coaching issues. Also I question the constant rotation of players, I understand the Ducks do it to keep players fresh, but it seems like players are rotating on almost every play, is that more so than under Kelly? I don’t know, but it seems like it. How are you supposed to play like a cohesive unit if there is always a different guy next to you? Hockey changes a whole line out, not constant rotation of players in and out.

    I also think the 2 point conversion attempt debacle at Nebraska is a symptom of Helfrich not having his own identity. I agree with pretty much every other armchair coach, get the initial 2 pts then just kick PATs and stay a point ahead. Is Helfrich trying to be bold like Chip? Be smart about it!

    Can Helfrich get a team fired up? Doesn’t seem like he ever gets fired up, so how can he elicit that from players?

    • I think Aaron wrote an excellent article that gives us the components to ponder, but you, Chris, have nothing but hatred in your comments. I don’t think that all of them are accurate or constructive.

      But I welcome other opinions other than my own–including those from the writers.

  • Platypus

    Good write up Aaron, thanks. I’m not giving up on this season (depending on Sat game) yet. If the Ducks can’t beat the ‘Dumpster Fire’ that’s in Pullman I might be ready to support giving all the playing time to the projected starters for next year. The 2017 team looks very promising.

  • Matt B.

    There’s a lot in here I agree with. Switching the base is a big deal and I have grave concerns about the Helfrich-era’s long term impact on recruiting. We could be digging out of this for a long time.

  • Buckeye Steve

    In the Big Ten we belly laugh at the thought of Brady Hoke trying turn around anything….he’s a dult… we know it… and you know it.

    • Steve….you have posted roughly the same thing multiple times; we got it. You don’t think much of our defensive coordinator.

      Brady Hoke is OUR bad coach to talk about, and you can take your Michigan hatred elsewhere. Post another comment like the one above and I will delete it and blacklist your IP address.

      • Buckeye Steve

        Charles, all of guys want to blame/fire a great Coach in Helfrich who’s done nothing but great things for your program who was told by someone to hire Hoke (Knight’s idea?)…who has never even been a DC ever… is a below average HC and by the way was merely a spectator in the 40+ Michigan games he attended (opted not to stay connected with head phones???)… I’m merely telling you what your problem is….I just want to make sure there is some competition on the field 9/12/2020 when 50,000 buckeye fans come to Auzten and take over your stadium and watch the Buckeyes once again beat the Ducks…. BTW Buckeyes consider Hoke a friend of the program….as will the rest of your PAC12 opponents.

      • Buckeye Steve returned, posted some trash talk and I did as promised; deleted and blacklisted.

        • banned buckeye steve

          Chuck anyone under 55 knows a new ip address is quite easy….

  • Kellen Garrett

    I agree completely with your line of thinking. The offensive line is incredibly inexperienced and the defense has had a lot of injuries. I think the Ducks will be in position to play in a Rose Bowl sooner than later.

  • douglas fur

    My oh My, 44-6. This is like one of those cosmic events like the Earth’s magnetic field switching polarity. Except it’s the power dynamics of the PAC12 shifting and the pivot point is between the games being played by the two Washington teams this weekend.

    Before we kick coach H off the team bus (bad precidents there) we should look at other coaching transitions.
    Coach James’ family being honored last night is a good place to start. UW’s last Rose Bowl was 2000, 16 years ago. A coaching transition that started with bringing up a coordinator from within devolved into a series of outside hot shots brought in. Peterson after three years has his system rolling. Idaho State seems to have brought in a program grad who is tranitioning.
    USC is foundering trying to find the right Pete Carrol accolyte. Stanford has had success replacing Harbaugh from within with Shaw. although they don’t seem to have two QB’s to rub together and get a spark this year. The outside hot shot at WSU seems on the edge of something but may have blown managing his players’ after hours.
    The pattern seems to be transition from within is the least disruptive when it works (Stanford) but can leave you wandering in the wilderness for years when it doesn’t (UW USC). Bringing in a new guy takes time to develop (Peterson, Leach) but is not a sure thing (Sarkisian, twice). This seems to be dependent on the AD doing a good search (UW not USC).
    I think Bellotti managed his tranition by brining in Outsider Kelly, acclimating him, and then bringing him up from within (a hybred). I think Kelly may have been more of a transition figure, like Adams or Prukop, brought in for a specific function, and not a long term figure like Snyder at K State.
    That Helfrich is not having success in establishing Oregon as his team as Peterson is at UW is more to do with institutional momentum. Changing course with a super tanker which is heading in mostly the right direction is not the same as starting with a ship that is dead in the water with a crew ready for change.
    We’re more in a cosmic convergance of QB transition similar to Stanford this year. Luckily we are a couple years closer to getting back on track. A couple more years and we should be on an even keel and heading in the right direction.

    DRB ’74

  • Mike Green

    I remember when the ducks switched into the 3-4 and blew out Tennessee along with Cliff Harris’s pick (if I have my duck history right?)

    Didn’t seem to have any issues switching schemes back then

    but then they had some good players on defense, didn’t they?

    time to take a look at Kirby / Ratu at DTs and move Canton to DE