Has Oregon Football Descended From Elite Status?

Aaron Lewis Editorials

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

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

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

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

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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