Oregon football is back.
There is no debating it. The last time Oregon won eight straight games, the Ducks were playing in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. That team sported a nine-game winning streak headed in to the Ohio State match-up. Since then, the longest Duck winning streak is six games.
Until now. Oregon had Auburn on the ropes in Arlington, but couldn’t finish. Since then they’ve had no issue finishing at all. The last three wins have been particularly impressive, featuring a late defensive stand in their own territory, a walk-off field goal, and one of their largest-ever wins against USC.
Those accomplishments belong to the entire team, of course. To the Ducks’ senior class, however, the success must feel especially sweet.
The End of Mark Helfrich
Mark Helfrich took over one of the most talented Duck rosters in history. With names including Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas headlining his inaugural season, Helfrich felt like a shoe-in to win a lot of games in a weak Pac-12. In his second year he took arguably the best Duck football team to ever see the field to the aforementioned CFP National Championship.
The year after the National Championship run was the beginning of the end for Helfrich’s Oregon. Helfrich failed to replace the talent-laden defense from 2014, and could only find stop-gaps at quarterback for two seasons. The result was two of the worst defenses to ever take play for Oregon, and offenses that failed to move the ball consistently.
Part way through the disaster that was the 2016 season, Helfrich benched senior transfer QB Dakota Prukop in favor of true freshman Justin Herbert. Perhaps the lone bright spot on the 126th-ranked Duck defense was Troy Dye. The struggling offensive line had four true freshmen starting.
The young talent on the team was not enough to sell the administration on Helfrich bringing the team back; they fired him after the loss to Oregon State to close the season.
The man pegged to bring Oregon football back from the brink was Willie Taggart. Taggart brought in an entirely new staff and mentality. Gone were all ties to Chip Kelley, and in was Taggart talking about accountability and telling the players to “Do Something.”
Though his reign was short, Taggart did just what the school tasked him — save the program. Though the team went 7-5 under Taggart, his only recruiting class was talented enough to right the ship defensively, and his coaching staff was immediately among the best in the country.
After Taggart departed for Florida State, the now junior class that had come in on the heels of a team that was contending for National Championships was now on their way to welcoming their third head coach in as many years.
Luckily for them, the school went with Mario Cristobal as their next head coach, thanks to a player movement in support of the then offensive coordinator. Cristobal’s first year saw only minor improvements over Taggart’s team, as the offense underwent yet another major stylistic change.
Long gone was the emphasis on speed from their freshman year. Gone was the constant use of trick plays their sophomore season. Cristobal brought power to Oregon. The sort of smack-you-in-the-face-and-step-on-your-neck power that had been the bane of Oregon football’s existence in the 2010s.
Now the seniors in the class are reaping their rewards, enjoying the longest winning streak of their careers.
They were the bedrock that weathered the most tumultuous period since Rich Brooks took over the program in 1977 and now they might just scrap their way in to the CFP for the first time since Mariota did it in ’14.
This isn’t a small, low-impact class, either. The Ducks’ senior class sees major contributions not just from potential No. 1 draft pick Herbert, and potential Oregon football all-time leader in tackles Dye. Three starters on perhaps the best offensive line were in that freshman class. La’Mar Winston Jr. has been a consistent pass rusher for three years at outside linebacker.
Two key members of the senior class have been ruled out for the season, Jacob Breeland and Gus Cumberlander. Both players were on track for career seasons early in the year, but should be recognized for their contributions. Graduate transfer Dallas Warmack has also been a key player for the past two seasons along the Ducks’ offensive line.
With so many key players and so little stability over their respective careers, the Oregon seniors deserve their 8-1 record. And they deserve our respect.
Yuma, ArizonaTop Photo by Eugene Johnson
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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