A Season Salvaged, but Questions on Defense Persist

Mike Merrell Editorials

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

No bones about it, the 2015 football season freaked out its share of Oregon football fans, proving that there’s a difference between living in the present – which calls for focusing on doing your best — and getting caught up in the moment – which calls for abandoning all rational thought.

Despite the sluggish start and mid-season gnashing of teeth, the Oregon Ducks are all alone in second place in the Pacific-12. They went 2-1 against teams playing for the Pac-12 and B1G championships. They are within a bowl game of their eighth straight double-digit win season. If that’s a bad year, I’ll take it.

Some thoughts on the season are the subjects of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1. Second Half Beavers Fiasco. It was disturbing that the Ducks squandered a 24-point halftime lead to let the Beavers back to within three points late in the game. Alarmist fans getting caught up in the moment declared it as proof that defensive coaching changes must be made.

The Ducks spent virtually the entire season with their backs to the wall. They got up 31-7 in the first half – and then they let up. It’s not what you want to see happen, but considering the pressure the team has been under for the entire season, it is understandable.

Defensive coordinator Don Pellum shows frustration with Ducks second half performance against Beavers.

Defensive coordinator Don Pellum shows frustration with Ducks’ second half performance against Beavers.

Coaches’ fault? Maybe, maybe not. On the Beavers’ last touchdown – a 66-yard Ryan Nalls run – I distinctly saw a middle linebacker rush over to help tackle some misdirection, leaving his own gap wide open. Nalls could have driven the Beaver bus through it. This was the same thing that happened in the National Championship Game last season when the Ducks had tOSU backed up against its own end zone (among other times).

It is unbelievable that the Ducks defensive staff hasn’t preached on this subject. The coaches have been open about trying to get the players to take care of their own assignments rather than trying to do others’ jobs. It’s been an issue with this team all along, and it is mystifying why it still is.

Anyone who has ever taught at any level knows that some students just don’t pick things up as fast as others. This is not necessarily the teachers’ fault. It’s just a fact of life.

Last year, despite giving up a lot of yards, the Ducks had the second best scoring defense in the Pac-12. This year the Ducks D improved immensely from game one to halftime of the Oregon State game. But it still has a long ways to go, and it would be refreshing to watch a Ducks team with a nasty defense.

The Ducks’ program, which has one of the longest double-digit win streaks in NCAA history, is built upon offense and coaching stability. To break through and win the big one is going to require more defense than we have seen for some time.

Time for changes? The decision will be made by people who know the game and have vested interests far more than I do.

2. USC. Speaking of stability (NOT), USC is looking for its sixth head coach in five years, counting interim/acting heads. It is probably a bit much to expect solid-ground action from a program that lives just a few miles from the San Andreas Fault. Where the campus is tucked in neatly between Hollywood and Disneyland, it’s also understandable that the program is a little challenged in dealing with reality.

Royce Freeman and the Ducks flattened the Trojans, who nonetheless will play for the Pac-12 title.

Royce Freeman and the Ducks flattened the Trojans, who nonetheless will play for the Pac-12 title.

The rumor mill has it that the Trojans are going after a high-profile hire, and there are those Oregon fans who fear that Chip Kelly is the target. It’s probably not happening, but it probably wouldn’t be that bad for the rest of the conference if it did. Kelly’s style is not necessarily a good match, and based upon this season, you have to wonder if Mark Helfrich wasn’t a good part of the brains behind the operation during Kelly’s head coaching tenure at Oregon.

What the Trojans need most – whether they know it or not – is stability. Interim head coach Clay Helton has been with the program for six seasons now. The players love him. Watch Pat Hayden hire some drama queen instead. For being a Rhodes Scholar …

3. The Playoffs Selection Process. For professing to follow a system that rewards strength of schedule, the playoff selection process is about as hypocritical as is humanly possible. The Pac-12 faces highest probability to be left out of this year’s championship rounds because: (1) Member teams schedule tough out-of-conference games; and (2) Top to bottom, the conference is too good. Yes, those are stupid reasons, but it’s what we have.

With two fewer members and one extra conference game, the Pac-12 has as many bowl-eligible teams (ten) as the SEC, which does its best to give all its teams a four-win head start with their nonconference scheduling. Yet it was one-loss Alabama that got all but inked in to the top four from the get-go while one-loss Pac-12 teams struggled to even make the top ten.

Stanford couldn't quite hurdle the Ducks, but will still play for a conference title.

Stanford couldn’t quite hurdle the Ducks, but will still play for a conference title.

The committee still regards a second loss as a kiss of death, no matter how tough the schedule. To ever consider that Baylor was a possible candidate when it scheduled Lamar, Rice and SMU for nonconference games, and then played a round robin that includes four non-bowl eligible teams (twice as many as exist in the Pac-12, even with two more teams) is simply a travesty.

Not far behind in the travesty department is Oklahoma, which appears to be a shoo-in at this point. Oklahoma played exactly three games against possibly formidable opponents – Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU. The Sooners beat all of them, but managed to lose to 4-7 Texas. Yet with wins over the rest of the bottom feeders of the Big 12 (which has only six bowl eligible teams) and ho-hum Tennessee, Akron and Tulsa, the Sooners appear securely in the final four.

Stanford dared to pick up a second loss, and is on the outside looking in, despite – or, more realistically, because of — playing with the big boys all but three games (Oregon State, Colorado, Central Florida) and facing a championship game rematch against the highly-talented USC Trojans.

So, Oklahoma lost to 4-7 Texas. Does anyone really believe that the Sooners would have made it through Northwestern, Notre Dame, Oregon, Washington, Washington State, UCLA, USC (twice), California and Arizona without picking up a second loss? Yes, California and Arizona have the look of pushovers for the Sooners, but California did beat Texas, something Oklahoma couldn’t quite pull off.

Ten bowl games is a record for the Pac-12 and a chance to show the rest of the country the Power of the Pac. The most-likely scenario of being left out of the national championship rounds will drop each team down one bowl game, improving the odds of winning. It is inevitable that out of ten teams, a few won’t show up ready to play. And it’s hard to cheer for the likes of Washington, UCLA, USC, Stanford …

But there’s never been a better time – or a higher need — for the Pac-12 to make a statement.

Top photo by John Sperry

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