We can point to just a few plays this last season that would have resulted in a winning record, a bowl game and likely the extension of the Mark Helfrich era (for better or worse). Let’s look at the season and our five stages of fan grief: sadness, depression, denial, disbelief, and finally, blame.
To say this last season was emotionally draining for Oregon Ducks football fans does not begin to describe the pit of despair we find ourselves in looking back. The season began well enough, with a 53-28 win over UC Davis and a 44-26 win over Virginia. Sure, the Ducks gave up some points, but look at the how the offense played — they were having success running the ball. There was hope then among the fans, but also anxiety.
We knew how poor the defense had been in 2015 and the Ducks were headed to play a Nebraska team on the rise (the Cornhuskers won three of their last four games of 2015, including a bowl win against UCLA), and the game would be on the road, in front of a large hostile crowd.
For most of the first half they were looking like the Ducks of old. With just over two minutes to play in the first half, the Ducks took a 20-7 lead on three rushing touchdowns. The defense had several great stops, including a fourth-down stuff, and even recovered a fumbled backwards pass which Arrion Springs returned to mid field. However, Oregon allowed Nebraska to score right before the first half, along with another to open the second (something that would become a troublesome pattern over the course of the season).
There was also at least one long throw during the game where Dakota Prukop missed a wide open receiver running free, not the first time we’d seen that in the young season. Timing or touch, I’m not sure, but the Ducks missed out on several guaranteed touchdowns early in the season due to this. This was a very winnable game that was lost not on a single play but several.
The difference in unsuccessful two-point conversions and extra points would have resulted in a tie game (35-35) after Nebraska’s last touchdown, so coaching played a significant role. Clock management was lacking in a couple of places. Although the Ducks weren’t expected to win, all of these various factors left Oregon fans, well … sad. Little did they know that they were just in stage one of the grieving process.
The following weeks the Ducks played another team on the rise, the Colorado Buffaloes, but with a freshman quarterback Steven Montez. Since Colorado joined the Pac-12, they had lost to the Ducks 45-2, 70-14, 57-16, 44-10 and 41-24. Oregon played horribly most of the day, down 23-7 in the first half and down 33-17 in the second, but mounted a comeback and took a 38-33 lead in the fourth quarter. Classic Oregon Ducks football had returned again!
At the end of the game — Oregon embarked on another trademark drive (trademark for this season that is). With 48 seconds left, Oregon lined up at the 7-yard line, it was first down. A touchdown all but ensures the win; a field goal all but ensures overtime. Instead, the coaches called a “safe play,” a fade route. On first down. From the 7-yard line. I’ve heard this argued every which way but you cannot convince me that throwing on first down from the 7 with plenty of time is anything but insanity.
I don’t care if you hit that 1,000 out of 1,000 in practice. You run the zone read, you run to the boundary, then you try a pass, then if all of that fails you kick the field goal. The video below is a great example of how not to execute the fade which, if anything, is supposed to be overthrown so that the only player with a chance at it is the one on offense.
Anytime you run a play there is risk, but stepping back here for a second there is more risk throwing than there is handing off to Royce Freeman. Remember, it’s first down. So you can hand the ball off three times and then still have time to kick a field goal! This was heartbreaking to everyone in the stadium and watching around the world. The pass was terrible. Not a little under-thrown to Colorado’s tallest corner, a lot under-thrown, on first down, from the 7-yard line. Did I say that already? Our second loss of the season, our first loss at home, our first loss to Colorado since 1991, all adding up to a lot of collective depression.
The following week the Ducks got destroyed by the Washington State Cougars in Pullman. The last time the Ducks had back-to-back losses to WSU was 2002-2003. Those years were also the last years the Ducks lost to both teams from the State of Washington. What’s depressing about this loss was that they did it by running for six touchdowns, in addition to only 371 passing yards. This was humiliating, which isn’t even one of the five stages of grief but led right to number three: denial.
You know that you looked around to the closest Duck fan and thought could the Ducks really be this bad? Perhaps a look of disbelief on your face. When the Ducks nearly beat both Nebraska and Colorado were they actually overachieving? Were those teams perhaps, playing down to our level? The Ducks couldn’t be this bad, not after nearly beating Nebraska and Colorado, not with a new defense, a five year veteran quarterback and the Win The Day Chip Kelly system handed down successfully. Right? Right?
Wrong, it was denial. The Ducks were that bad, worse maybe than that bad. And it was only going to go downhill from there.
Having not lost to the Washington Huskies for 12 years was quite an accomplishment, the longest such streak in the Pac-12 at the time. It was a good run, but we knew it was all going to end. They were looking like the best team in the conference and probably one of the top 10 or 5 in the entire country. The coaching staff decided to sacrifice the rest of the season (theoretically at that point) and go with true freshman 18-year-old quarterback Justin Herbert.
I wrote much earlier in the season about the potential to forfeit a season to groom the next quarterback. I said that with Herbert the Ducks might go 7-6 and that turned out to be very optimistic indeed. Still, maybe had he been playing from the start, he would have been a little more experienced and it would have resulted in more wins later in the season; we’ll never know.
Needless to say, it did not go well. The Huskies dominated us like Utah dominated the year before. They took 12 years of demons and exorcised them all in a single game, winning 70-21, and it was worse than the score showed. Denial turned to disbelief as the Ducks stared at a 2-4 record and the end of our proudest streak.
This feeling prevailed throughout most of the rest of the season. Disbelief when the Ducks lost to California 52-49 on an interception at the end of the game. Disbelief even when the Ducks beat Arizona State relatively easily, or when the Ducks beat Utah on a last-second touchdown. Yes, with a fade, no they’re not remotely comparable — and yes, the fade against Colorado was still a terrible call. Disbelief when the Ducks lost to Oregon State for the first time in nine years, a game I could spend an entire article on but it’s just too painful. (Charles Fischer called for the firing of Coach Mark Helfrich after that)
It was less a matter of disbelief turning into blame, and more like it blended with it somewhere along the way. We blamed the coaching staff, nearly all of it, for different reasons. The two-point conversion attempts against Nebraska; the fade call against Colorado; the defense that seems out of position more oft than not and forgot how to tackle at times. For issues with recruiting, developing talent and game management; for not being able to stop anyone in anyway on any field.
Blame won’t change anything, but it’s one of the stages we needed to go through and some of us are still going through (though after writing everything proceeding this I might still be in denial). Now, as the Ducks turn to new coaching blood, our grief turns to hope. It’s the first stage in Oregon fans recovery: hope that the injury bug won’t strike again in 2017 and that the new coaches will make better in-game decisions.
Hope that with 12 games of experience, those remaining will be better, much better, and build from the 4-8 rubble the Ducks find themselves buried under. Hope that they’ll develop talent consistently; hope that they’ll coach better techniques. There’s a lot to be hopeful for after this season.
If you’re still grieving, then ruminate on the following. With just one more stop or one more score, Oregon would have beaten Nebraska (9-3 regular season record) and been 3-0. If Prukop had put a little more on the throw, the Ducks would have beaten Colorado (10-3 regular season) and been 4-0. If a Cal defender hadn’t made a great reach-back-tip-pass to himself, the Ducks likely would have beaten Cal and been 5-3. If it’s any consolation, seven of our losses came to bowl eligible teams with a combined record of 63-21.
The play above is emblematic of our entire season. A mad scramble, a player open and nothing but head-in-hands to show for it. With the wins against Arizona State and Utah, the Ducks would have ended the season 7-5 and gone to a bowl game, another month of practice for players to get healthy, and get better. That, and perhaps even a bowl win, would have made for a much better ending than losing our first Civil War in nine years, but it was not to be.
We can ruminate on what could have been, and this in and of itself can lead to hope, but that’s not all we have. We have a completely new coaching staff breathing new life into this program, and currently new life into recruiting.
After watching our defense degrade over the past several years under Don Pellum, and then Brady Hoke; my earnest hope was that our coaching hires would be defensively minded, and I was thrilled that Willie Taggart hired Jim Leavitt. It has been no coincidence that the top 2 defenses in the Pac-12 this year met in the Pac-12 Championship game, with Leavitt leading one of them.
As I wrote at the beginning of the 2016 season, my hope was not in the offense but in the defense, “for bringing the Oregon way to the defense each and every game.” If Charles will let me I might suggest we just re-run that this coming summer, for it will ring true once again. Hope rising with a defense reborn.
Top Photo from Video