Saturday’s loss to Nebraska has me conflicted. The optimist in me wants to look at this game as a learning experience for a young football team that will propel it forward to a satisfying, if not wholly victorious, end to the season. The pessimist has other ideas.
My optimism wants to tell my pessimism to go jump in a lake. The problem is, even at my most optimistic, I have to acknowledge that the devil on my shoulder has some fairly compelling arguments. The Ducks looked shaky at best in a number of different areas this weekend, and with conference play looming like a weekend alone with the in-laws, it’s hard not to be pessimistic.
Look, while Saturday served as vindication for all the less amiable members of the Ducks’ fan base who have been peddling doomsday theories since the season opener, it doesn’t mean the sky is falling in Eugene – yet, anyway. That’s right, keep your tinfoil hats in the bunker for now, because there are a few ways the Ducks can use the Nebraska loss as a learning experience heading into Pac-12 play.
1. Find Your Fundamentals
This year’s Ducks are not short on talent. Even with the season-ending injuries to wide receiver Devon Allen (ouch) and starting left tackle Tyrell Crosby (double ouch), this team is pretty loaded on offense and has some playmakers on defense, whether you choose to believe me or not. The problem is that too often, the Ducks get caught up in making flashy, game-changing plays to the detriment of the greater goal (winning the f’n game). A perfect example from the Huskers game was a big punt return toward the end of the first half that never should have happened and that I’m obviously still extremely bitter about.
Up 20-7 with 50 seconds left in the half, Ian Wheeler cracked a 40-yard punt that got plenty of hang time so the coverage team could converge on De’Mornay Pierson-El (fantastic name, but I’ll be using DPE from here on for brevity’s sake), whom the announcers insisted is one of the most electric return men in the country. Instead of making the safe play and wrapping the guy up for no gain, Charles Nelson (who has been a near-disaster this year in terms of football IQ) went for the big hit to jar the ball free. He missed the tackle despite getting there early and incurring a kick catch interference penalty, after which DPE broke free for a 45-yard return to set the Huskers up in the Oregon red zone. There is so much wrong with this play it hurts my brain.
First and most forgivable, Wheeler probably should have angled this punt out of bounds so to not allow for any return that might ignite the dormant Husker faithful and the Nebraska offense (which was looking pretty anemic thanks to a superb first-half effort by the oft-maligned Oregon defense).
Second and entirely unforgivable, Nelson did, at the very least, two things wrong on this play – the first of which was hitting the guy before the ball had reached him. Even if this genius plan had worked, he would’ve received a nice 15-yard penalty for his trouble, setting the Huskers up with good field position to end the half.
Somehow what actually happened was more disastrous than that, thanks to Nelson’s lazy and undisciplined tackling. If you’re going to hit the guy before he gets the ball, make sure a) he doesn’t catch it, or b) that he doesn’t break free of your hit. Somehow DPE did both and stole all the momentum from the Ducks in one fell swoop.
I genuinely think this was the turning point of the game. If the Ducks had made the simple, smart play instead of attempting the risky, sexy one they all-too-often do, the Huskers would have had to march down the field against a defense that was playing well, with roughly 45 seconds left in the half and one timeout. The best they could’ve hoped for was probably a field goal, making the score 20-10. Instead, they ended up with a touchdown, a one-score game, and a raucous second-half home-field advantage.
The Ducks simply cannot afford these kinds of mistakes. The defense isn’t good enough and the offense won’t always be able to score its way to a win. I hate to bring him up, but when Chip Kelly was the head coach, he made damn sure the Ducks were disciplined and kept the sloppy and stupid plays to a bare minimum. It falls on the entire coaching staff to sit these players down and get them to understand just how disastrous these types of plays are.
In addition to all the mental lapses, these Ducks seem addicted to yellow flags. Against Nebraska, Oregon gave back more than a quarter of their total offensive yards via penalties.
You can blame the refs if you want, but the other two games tell the same story. Through three weeks of football, the Ducks have committed 33 penalties for 314 yards. This stat alone makes me want to down a Drano® martini. It’s inexplicable and inexcusable.
If the Ducks want to come out of conference play with their heads held high (let alone a bowl berth), they have to stop shooting themselves in the foot with needless penalties and foolish mistakes. I can’t emphasize how important this is. Discipline is a cultural phenomenon with a football team and it’s very difficult to instill on short notice, but it is the single biggest problem with the 2016 iteration of the Oregon Ducks, and it will be the death of them if they don’t show some level of improvement in the coming weeks.
2. Find Easy Completions for Prukop
I’m on the record as saying that if we lose three or more games prior to our bye week, we should move from graduate transfer Dakota Prukop to the freshman Justin Herbert. This has less to do with Prukop’s ability and more to do with getting Herbert reps for the future, especially since we already burned his redshirt with one snap at the end of the UC Davis game (I’m more confused by that move as each game day passes considering we haven’t seen the kid since).
However, I’m also on the record as saying “Duckota” is our best chance to win the most games this season. I still believe that, though less firmly after Saturday’s loss. Prukop looked to run too quickly even with good protection and missed open receivers with regularity thanks to his shoddy footwork, which isn’t exactly a new development. Two particularly egregious examples from this week were his overthrow of Darren Carrington in the first quarter and his heartbreaking underthrow of Nelson in the fourth. Both came with plenty of time to throw, both were to open receivers and both would have been touchdowns. The pass to Nelson likely would have been the game-winner.
Going forward, I feel coaches will have to adjust the game plan to accommodate for Prukop’s shortcomings and maximize his considerable abilities.
It all starts with a quarterback’s best friend: a strong running game. Even without Royce Freeman for most of the game Saturday, Oregon’s rushing attack looked formidable, piling up 336 yards on the ground – many in huge chunks. Prukop was no small part of that rushing attack, as he gained nearly 100 yards on 20 (!) carries. He is a masterful runner who uses his blocks very well in conjunction with a unique combination of elusiveness and power.
The Ducks can also use Prukop’s mobility in the passing game. He has shown to be a pretty solid passer while on the run, and I would love to see the coaching staff design some rollout plays for him to use his skills as a true dual threat. These plays could have the added bonus of providing Prukop with extra time and space to throw by using the offensive line’s athleticism to move the pocket. The QB didn’t look comfortable as a passer from the pocket against Nebraska, and I doubt that will change much with the loss of Crosby and the addition of a fourth freshman to the starting offensive line.
The quarterback position is so predicated on confidence and ability to make the smart throw. If the Ducks can make the reads easier for Prukop, his confidence should rise. Get in a few easy completions to start the game and keep his jersey clean. When he settles in, Prukop can be a real weapon in both the passing and running game.
3. Finish Strong
Second halves have not been kind to the Ducks since the Game-that-shall-remain-nameless Bowl. This season, Oregon has been outscored in the second half 69-47 by Nebraska and national powerhouses UC Davis and Virginia. Yeesh. What happened to the Ducks being a “second half” team? I liked those guys.
It seems like this year’s team either lacks the conditioning or the killer instinct of past versions. Is it possible that the fast-paced offense is wearing down an already average defense to the point where it gets manhandled after halftime? Absolutely. Kelly was fired from his first NFL gig in Philadelphia for similar reasons.
There’s a problem with that line of thinking, though. The past two years, we haven’t even approached the neighborhood of how fast ‘peak-Chip’ or even ‘peak-Marcus’ teams operated, and the defense has been significantly worse, despite top-level NFL recruits on defense.
Guys such as DeForest Buckner (seventh overall 2016 draft), Arik Armstead (17th overall 2015 draft), and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who was widely considered to be a first-round talent before bad knees derailed his career. Even Canton Kaumatule was highly regarded out of high school (BTW – someone needs to put out an APB on Kaumatule; he has barely seen the field for a defense in desperate need of playmakers). So what gives with this defense (besides yards)?
I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but it’s a disturbing trend. If Oregon keeps blowing leads in the second half, Mark Helfrich might find himself on the hot seat (much to the delight of aforementioned doomsday prophets). And I don’t want to see that.
Helfrich is a good coach despite his mystifying commitment to two-point conversion attempts this weekend, and he seems like a great guy. What he needs are some good, tough wins to calm everyone down so he can do his job. Wins are the remedy to all that ails a football team, and conference wins are like chicken soup for the soul.
So get to work, Mark. You’ve got a long, arduous road ahead. And if you’re reading this, tell Charles Nelson to get his head out of his ass.
Top Photo by Gary Breedlove