If you’ve watched the Star Wars films (and who hasn’t?), then you pretty much have an idea of how Oregon football has fared over the last couple of seasons.
The Ducks don’t seem to share many similarities to the intergalactic saga on the surface, but a closer look (and a little bit of imagination) shows that the two are more alike than you think. Let’s rewind to 2016, a season in which the Ducks were in desperate need of “A New Hope,” and follow the journey of our web-footed heroes.
The Fall of the Republic
The Ducks’ regression didn’t happen immediately. In fact, it seemed like they weren’t even going to miss a beat after Jedi Master Chip Kelly faded into the sunset (by going to the NFL). Mark Helfrich went 11-2 and then 13-2 in his first two seasons. He made the first-ever College Football Playoff and beat the Seminoles, who were on a two-year undefeated streak, to play for the National Championship.
Then, what we all knew had to happen did: The Chosen One, Marcus Mariota, declared for the NFL draft. That’s college football, though. Teams only get players of that talent for three years. That Mariota stayed past his redshirt sophomore season was surprising enough. But the Ducks had suffered plenty of key losses before. Darren Thomas won a Rose Bowl, left, and the Ducks didn’t skip a beat. The difference then, though, was that Oregon had a replacement.
Helfrich failed to recruit a successor and instead relied on transfer QBs. And it’s not like he went after top-tier transfer QBs like Jacob Eason or Jalen Hurts nowadays. He targeted ones that had never played Division 1 football (no disrespect to Eastern Washington and Montana State).
Because of this (and the fact that the Ducks’ defense couldn’t hold a practice squad full of walk-ons to under 50 points), the glorious Oregon Republic came crashing down. This wasn’t a snowball slowly rolling down a mountain gaining momentum; this was early 80s Mike Tyson knocking guys out in the first round. It hit Oregon hard.
The Dark Days and the Revenge of the Alamo
After Mariota’s departure, the Ducks acquired Vernon Adams from Eastern Washington in a move that was supposed to keep the Ducks atop the Pac-12. He had a good skill set; many compared him to Russell Wilson. His experience and accuracy were good fits for Helfrich’s adaptation of Kelly’s system. And though things looked good when Adams was healthy, his backups clearly weren’t up to the task. Backup QBs are sort of like backing up your hard drive. You don’t know how valuable they are until you need them. Carrie Bradshaw knows what I’m talking about.
Oregon suffered four loses that 2015 season: Michigan State (fifth), Utah (18th) and Washington State (NR) — that last one hurt. The fourth is one that shall not soon be forgotten. Adams returned from injury, which had played a role in all three of the Ducks’ regular season losses. With their captain back and at peak performance levels, Oregon won six games in a row.
The crowning victory was an upset against the evil empire of then playoff-contending Stanford and its Heisman candidate Christian McCaffery. After their dominating finish to the season, the Ducks made the Alamo Bowl, slated to face TCU, who was playing without many of their top offensive playmakers. What should have been, and what initially looked to be, a cakewalk for the Ducks turned south when Captain Adams went down yet again. What followed was one of the worst collapses in college football history. TCU scored on every possession in the second half and won a stunner in triple OT.
Bamboozled, embarrassed and perplexed, Lord Helfrich responded by hiring Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator and landing another transfer QB, Dakota Prukop. Prukop was a fine player, though not as much of a talent as Adams. Still, he put up good numbers … against teams in the Big Sky Conference. To say the 2016 season was bad was to say the least. Just four wins later, it was clear that the once-powerful Republic had all but dissolved. Losing to Washington for the first time since ’03, and to Oregon State the first since ’07, a decade of dominance ended. So did Lord Helfrich as head coach of the Oregon Ducks.
Taggart: A New (False) Hope
For the first time in 40 years, Oregon fired its head coach. It was something many fans had never seen. Those who had hardly recall it. Willie Taggart, a great hire according to many, was brought in to expand the Duck Republic to galaxies it had never dreamed of reaching. His list of accolades was intriguing: he had transformed two bottom-dwellers and turned them into serviceable programs, and he was a student of Jim Harbaugh, a wise Jedi Master with a great reputation among the Jedi council.
But in hindsight, signs of things going bad should have been a lot more obvious. Just like Harbaugh, Taggart a hard time staying in one place for a while. Furthermore, shortly after he was hired, three players were hospitalized after a team workout. But Taggart convinced fans and faculty to “believe in the force.” And that they did.
Oregon went on to another underwhelming season in 2017. This one was understandable, though. The Ducks had just completely overhauled their coaching staff, and budding star Justin Herbert suffered a devastating injury halfway through the season. Ultimately, they limped to a 7-6 record, ending the season with loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Here’s the catch: Taggart, the supposed savior for the Republic in shambles, didn’t coach in that bowl game. Instead, he turned to the dark side in a twist of fate fit for the cinema. Florida State, his “dream job,” surprisingly had an opening at head coach, and Taggart bailed faster than a jump to hyperspace.
For Taggart, leaving wasn’t the problem. The problem was the way he did it. According to Oregon Live, star linebacker Troy Dye tweeted the following:
“(Taggart) lied straight to my dads face in my living room Thursday night. He didn’t keep his word to me Monday. Lost all my respect.”
He wasn’t the only one. Plenty of others echoed these sentiments in what became an ugly falling out between the Sith Lord and the University. Taggart, like Darth Vader, had altered the deal.
Mario Cristobal: Return of the Jedi
Just like that, all the progress that the Ducks had made was gone. The Death Star (that team up north) was fully rebuilt, and Oregon was left flying in the middle of nowhere tying to figure out what to do.
But just as Vader’s offspring gave the good guys a chance to win in the end, the Ducks salvaged a potential saving grace from Taggart’s staff. An up-and-coming recruiter and assistant coach, Mario Cristobal, was given the task of cleaning up Taggart’s mess and righting the ship for our beloved Ducks. Cristobal is a guy the players respected, and he had been showing signs of stardom during his time at Alabama before Taggart hired him.
Mullens chose him to be the head coach during the prep for the Las Vegas Bowl, largely because the players wanted it. After the terrible month that they went through, they deserved to play for the man they wanted to play for.
And now, a year later, things are looking up. Yes, the presence of the dark side (the Mutts, Trees and others) still looms, but Cristobal has given a once-downtrodden Republic reason to believe again. Will it be enough to overthrow Emperor Nick Saban, or King of the Hutts, Dabo Swinney, in the end? Well, I guess you’ll just have to keep watching.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.
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