Oregon’s Civil War Loss Means the End of the Mark Helfrich Era

Jay Garnett Editorials

Seven days ago, I, like many of the Oregon faithful, was excited at the prospect of a team on the rise after an emotionally taxing 2016 season. On the road against Utah, the 12th-ranked team in the country, Oregon played like a team with pride and something to lose.

The defense played hard and actually made more plays than they have all season. Justin Herbert and the offense were simply magnificent on that final drive, culminating in a gorgeous pass from the freshman and a terrific game-winning catch by Darren Carrington with two seconds to play. Watching that play, I felt as if the entire 2016 season, all the losses and the despair, was vindicated.

Jake Pisarcik looks as sad as I feel.

Craig Strobeck

Jake Pisarcik looks as sad as I feel.

One week later, it’s back to the all-too-familiar feeling of agony. One step forward, two steps back. All the advances that the Ducks made in Salt Lake evaporated before our eyes against the Beavers. For me, this was easily the most frustrating game to watch this season.

The Civil War should be one game that requires no extra motivation for the Ducks, but Oregon came out and played completely uninspired football, particularly in the second half. Some of this is surely due to the dramatic shift in weather, sheets of rain and swirling winds, that completely sidelined the Ducks’ passing attack.

The same excuse, however, cannot be made for the defense, which got bullied in the trenches by a team that really has no business bullying anyone.

In what has to be the most embarrassing stat of this game (if not any game ever), the Beavers didn’t even attempt a pass after 7:44 in the third quarter. The Beavers were actually losing the game 24-14 at that point and managed to rattle off 20 unanswered points on 21 straight run plays.

I wish I could tell you that the home team ran several exotic run plays out of packages that kept the defense confused and off-balance. However, the reality is that Oregon State gained the most yardage thanks to different variations of the same zone run play to Ryan Nall, who ended up being the third running back this season to score more than three rushing touchdowns against the Ducks (Nall had four).

At this point, I’d like to remind the reader that we’re not talking about Herschel Walker’s Georgia Bulldogs, we’re talking about Nall and the Oregon State Beavers. Nall is a fine player, but there is absolutely no reason he should be scoring four touchdowns in a rivalry game. Oregon’s performance on defense this weekend was downright shameful.

Mark Helfrich will probably be fired this week. I wish him well wherever he goes next.

Craig Strobeck

Mark Helfrich will probably be fired this week. I wish him well.

This game effectively ended the Mark Helfrich era at Oregon. After the Utah win, it could’ve been tricky to fire Helfrich if his team had come out on Saturday with the same intensity and thoroughly beat our rivals from 50 miles up I-5.

Instead, the Ducks will, in all likelihood, be looking for a new coach following a season which featured losses in both rivalry games and a record for most points allowed in a single game at Autzen Stadium. On Sunday, Helfrich noted that he feels the current staff is best suited to fix the current problems with the Ducks, but I would be shocked if a change wasn’t made this week.

The biggest problem with cleaning house this season is that the number of good, available coaches is dwindling. Texas swiftly fired Charlie Strong and hired Houston’s Tom Herman, who was considered to be the hottest ticket on the coaching market all season.

Some have offered that Chip Kelly could return to college if the money is right (I assume Phil Knight’s offer of $10M+ falls into this category), but I feel like the chances of that are somewhere between highly unlikely and impossible. Kelly has openly stated his extreme disdain for recruiting, which pretty much rules out the entire college game.

One interesting name being floated around the blogosphere is Western Michigan’s PJ Fleck, who has lead the Broncos to a 12-0 record out of the MAC in just his fourth season. While his candidacy for the Oregon job may just be a fan-made pipedream, I strongly believe that he would be the perfect fit in Eugene, and I hope that athletic director Rob Mullens gives him a long look.

Meet PJ Fleck. I’m not sure what he’s doing here, but it’s awesome and he’s awesome.

After a 1-11 record in his first season, Fleck has improved the Broncos dramatically in almost every single way. In just his second season, the Broncos won 7 more games than in his first year, finishing 8-5. He has had the top-rated recruiting class in the MAC in each of the last three seasons. And while many Ducks fans are clamoring for a defensive-minded head coach, Fleck has made huge strides with Western Michigan’s offense, taking them from a bottom-tier group in his first year to one of the most potent units in the FBS this season, scoring 44.8 points per game (tied-3rd in the FBS).

Coach PJ Fleck of Western Michigan University


Coach PJ Fleck of Western Michigan University

Furthermore, Fleck operates a run-first spread-option offense at WMU, something the Ducks are extremely familiar with. Oregon has recruited dozens of extremely talented offensive players that fit the current system and bringing in a coach that utilizes a lot of the same concepts makes sense. Keeping things familiar for players, at least on offense, should keep the Ducks somewhat relevant during the cultural overhaul that Oregon desperately needs and Fleck would surely bring.

The biggest knocks on Helfrich, at least in my eyes, are his shortcomings as a leader and a motivator. Fleck has no such issues. He is a master motivator and would bring a fresh attitude to a program that has stagnated culturally since Kelly’s “Win the Day” era. If you don’t believe me, watch this video with Fleck explaining the Western Michigan mantra: “Row the Boat.”

I can’t think of a better mantra for rebuilding a formerly-elite program than “row the boat.” These are trying times for the Ducks. What Oregon needs to do is push forward and through.

Before they can do that, Helfrich has to go. He is a great guy and a hell of an offensive coordinator, but he isn’t the coach Oregon needs to get back to the elite level. I believe PJ Fleck is. I hope the Oregon administration sees it the same way.

Jay Garnett
Portland, Maine

Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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