The 2018 Oregon Ducks have been like a box of chocolates: when they take the field, you never know what you’re going to get. One week, it looks like they could go toe to toe with the best teams in the country. Another, it looks like they’d get smoked by conference bottom-dweller Oregon State.
Fans are growing restless with the team’s hot and cold performances. It’s time for the Ducks to quit their Jekyll and Hyde act and string together a few complete performances.
Sometimes, the Ducks Look Like a Title Contender
At their best, the Ducks have been excellent. For the first three quarters of their matchup against Stanford, they looked like national championship contenders.
The offense was brilliant, spearheaded by an impeccable performance from star quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert was a magician, rifling timely strikes and lobbing perfectly placed passes all game long. The ball hardly hit the ground as he threw for 346 yards against a Stanford defense that has historically given Oregon’s offense trouble.
Additionally, the running game was a perfect complement to Herbert’s aerial attack. It was efficient and explosive; the Ducks’ offensive line overpowered the Cardinal front seven for most of the game.
Defensively, the Ducks played admirably, as they held Bryce Love to under 100 yards, just a year removed from his 147-yard, two-touchdown performance against them. A late collapse on both sides of the ball put a damper on what had been one of the best team performances by the Ducks in recent memory. Still, the game showed that the Ducks had the potential to play at an elite level, if only they could learn to finish.
That’s exactly what the Ducks did a few weeks later when they upset then seventh-ranked Washington.
In the game, the Ducks put up more points on the Huskies than any other opponent this season. Their downhill, physical rushing attack worked to a tee, rushing for 177 yards and continually moving the sticks against a Washington defense that was one of the stingiest in the country. The offense saved its best effort for the biggest play of the game, when Mario Cristobal made a gutsy call on third down in overtime to run the ball against a light box. The move paid off, as CJ Verdell sprinted past an unsuspecting defense for the game-winning score.
The Ducks’ defense also put together a solid performance. They confused Washington quarterback Jake Browning throughout the game, leading to a handful of busted plays and an opening-drive interception. Most importantly, they held serve to make a critical stop on the Huskies’ only overtime possession.
It was a signature win for Cristobal, and it sure looked to be a sign that the Ducks were once again the team to beat in the Pac-12.
However, the Ducks’ seat atop the leaderboard would be short lived.
Sometimes, the Ducks Look Inept
The same team that manhandled Stanford for three quarters and bulldozed preseason Pac-12 favorite Washington fell 34-20 to Washington State, in a game where the Ducks looked like they weren’t even in the same league as the Cougars.
It was a drastically worse showing than any of their performances in the first half of the season. The Cougars obliterated an Oregon secondary that seemed to have no answer for an air-raid attack that they have had plenty of experience defending over the years. Perhaps more alarming was that the Ducks’ defenders looked like they were allergic to the Cougar ball carriers, missing tackles with regularity.
The Ducks’ passing offense, which had seen so much success through the first half of the season, was sloppy and discombobulated against the Cougars. Herbert looked off, and the long bombs to Dillon Mitchell that had been clockwork before were replaced with inaccurate throws and quick, fruitless possessions.
Furthermore, the same rushing attack that had controlled the clock against the Huskies and gassed the Cardinal was nonexistent. The Cougars’ aggressive defenders shot through the so-called elite Oregon offensive line and blew up plays before the Ducks’ runners even had a chance.
It was the same story the following week, as the Ducks got waxed by Arizona in a blowout loss that few saw coming.
The offense was dreadful. Herbert stared down the often-blanketed Mitchell and looked even more uncomfortable than he did against Washington State. The struggles in the passing game were compounded by an offensive line that was bullied by a mediocre defensive front. As a result, the Ducks couldn’t muster any semblance of a running game, and with a quarterback whose play significantly regressed, the offense was stuck in quicksand.
The defense wasn’t much better, surrendering nearly 300 rushing yards and giving up 44 points to an offense that couldn’t even score 20 against Houston earlier in the season. The Wildcats’ running backs squirted through cracks in the Ducks’ defense and exploded for back-breaking gains time after time. When the Wildcats went to the air, Khalil Tate found wide open receivers running free against a secondary that once again wasn’t up to the task.
Just as quickly as the Ducks looked to be back to their old, dominant ways, these back-to-back losses recalled memories of some of the putrid performances from their 4-8 season in 2016.
Which Version of the Ducks Can We Expect Moving Forward?
So who are the 2018 Oregon Ducks? Are they the team that looked to be the Pac-12’s best playoff hope or the team that got smacked by an average Arizona team?
The answer is probably somewhere in between. But if the Ducks want to satisfy a disgruntled fan base, they need to prove they can consistently play closer to the way they started the season.
It’s not as though they don’t have what it takes to be among the country’s best. Many forget that the same team that has looked lackluster as of late also played well enough at the beginning of the season to gain national attention for the first time since Mark Helfrich roamed the sidelines. To be an elite team for more than just half a season, the Ducks must be disciplined and play at their best week in and week out.
If they are able to do so, much of the criticism that has been given them and the coaching staff will quickly fade away.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Kevin Cline
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