Oregon Ducks Football: The Cougar Conundrum

Oregon’s lost to Washington State has brought Oregon Duck fans clarity on exactly where the program stands:

Improving, but not there yet.

The loss to the Cougars exposed, among other things, the Ducks lack of depth at receiver and lack of defensive play-makers. Most importantly, it showed the lack of experience Oregon has at bouncing back after an emotional victory and still playing their best. The Ducks of 2010-2014 had that. But, a veteran team these Ducks are not.

It didn’t feel as though the Cougars were a better team per se. With all the GameDay hoopla circling around Pullman, it felt as though it was their day in the sun, their time to shine, and that destiny was not on the side of the Ducks.

Some After-Thoughts

The Cougs Did Not “Coug-it”

It was the perfect storm for Washington State: ESPN GameDay, a bye-week, and the Ducks coming off an emotional win. An easy first half of the season schedule had the Cougars sitting at 5-1, which served to give them more confidence than they probably should have.  So, it seemed that WSU was primed to “Coug-it.”

As the Ducks rallied in the third-quarter, it seemed as if one of the greatest “Coug-its” was unfolding before our very eyes. But alas, it didn’t happen. This Cougar team seems to be for real.

Tom Corno

Dillon Mitchell breaks free.

The First Half Disaster

After the Ducks first series of three penalties, two fumbles, negative yardage, and complete futility beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, it sure felt like Oregon was in for a long night. Defensive Coordinator Jim Leavitt deserves the benefit of the doubt on how he was defending the Cougar Air Raid offense. But, without a doubt, there was a lack of pressure on Cougar QB Gardner Minshew and the WSU receivers were afforded a large cushion, for which Minshew made the Ducks pay.

A perfectly executed offense beats a good defense, even one that is executing well. And the Ducks were not. Now, throw in penalties, poor tackling, and an overall lack of focus, and the 27-0 score at half-time wasn’t all that surprising.

Playing Armchair Quarterback

I found myself grumbling about the Ducks continued attempts the throw the ball deep when it simply wasn’t there and the Ducks’ running game continually being stuffed at the line of scrimmage. The Cougars played inspired and well-executed defense for sure, but I question Oregon’s offensive play calling.

Cougar Quarterback

The Cougar’s Gardner Minshew is a top-notch college quarterback. Having watched a couple WSU games earlier this season I found myself thinking, “this guy’s pretty good, better than Falk” (WSU’s 2018, 6th round draft pick Luke Falk). And, against the Ducks, my worst fears came true. He’s cool in the pocket, calmly works through his progressions, and is deadly accurate. On Saturday he was on his game going 39 of 51 for 323 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Piracy

Quirkiness and all, like him or not, there’s no doubt that Mike Leach is one of the better coaches in college football. He continually loses assistants to better gigs (like Oregon), but keeps the Cougars competitive and winning. The question is whether he’ll get a higher-profile job offer. As Duck fans, after four straight losses (granted the Ducks lacked starting QB’s in two of those), we hope he does. The last time

Tom Corno

It wasn’t easy for Justin Herbert to connect down field with his receivers.

Washington State beat the Ducks four consecutive times was from 1981-84.

Herbert’s Hasn’t Shown “It”

I’m all for Justin Herbert taking off to the NFL if he’s gonna be a top-5 pick, and he could go No. 1 overall if a quarterback-needy team picks first. But, for Herbert to be the “perfect” top pick (think Peyton Manning in ’98 or Andrew Luck in ’12), he needs another year of seasoning. He has all the physical tools and intelligence but doesn’t quite seem to have “it” yet. Or, at least, if he has it he hasn’t truly shown it yet.

There’s still no signature win over a quality opponent where he’s had to put the Ducks on his back and carry them to victory. This is what No. 1 picks do.  If he does enter the 2019 draft, he’d be best served — ala Patrick Mahomes — to hold a clipboard for a season and learn to play the position behind a guy like Eli Manning in New York.

Stats and Tidbits

A) It was a tale of two halves, as the Ducks gained just 39 yards in their scoreless first half, then gained 289 yards in their 20-point second half.

B) On third-down conversions, after the Ducks went 5 of 16, their first five attempts were all from six-plus yards and failed.

C) The WSU defense held Oregon to 58 yards rushing.

D) The Ducks went from second in the Pac-12 and 31st nationally in rushing (209.5 yards per game) to fourth and 51st (187.9), respectively. Down 20 spots.

E) It was Oregon’s lowest rushing total in a conference game since gaining just 43 rushing yards in a 16-0 loss to UCLA on Nov. 24, 2007 and just the fourth time the Ducks ran for less than 100 yards in their last 95 conference games.

F) A look at how Oregon compares this year versus the past five seasons rushing the football.

Tom Corno

Oregon receivers had a hard time getting open.

Rushing Offense
2013: 273.5 (1st, 9th)
2014
: 234.5 (1st, 20th)
2015: 279.9 (1st, 5th)
2016: 226.4 (2nd, 27th)
2017: 251.0 (2nd, 12th)
2018 Last week after Huskies: 209.5 (2nd, 31st)
TODAY: 187.9 (4th, 51st)

Perspective

As nine wins seemed to be the most common prediction for this season amongst Oregon prognosticators, the Ducks are right on schedule, as games like this one were to be expected.  The Ducks have already played their top 3 opponents from the Pac-12 North, with their stiffest test left a trip to Salt Lake City to play Utah.

As things sit right now, the Ducks would be favored to go 4-1 in their final five games to achieve that nine win mark. 5-0 would be the preferred, 3-2 a disappointment, and anything worse than that a collapse.

Beginning in 2017, the Ducks have been on a steady upward trajectory following that disastrous 2016 season. The coaching is better, the players are better, and the overall product is better. And, looking at the most recent recruiting rankings, things are definitely on the up and up.

On December 15th, Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 1 overall high-school prospect in the entire country is scheduled to make his announcement. After his visit last week for the Husky game, he announced he was moving up his decision date. Though no guarantee, it’s a good sign for the Ducks.

And if on that day, the Ducks land their highest rated prospect of all-time, then that trajectory just shot up a little bit higher.

Darren Perkins
Spokane, WA

Top Photo Credit: Tom Corno

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