Oregon football had a phenomenal season in 2019. The Ducks won a conference championship and Rose Bowl for the first time since the 2014-2015 season, they beat all of their rivals and even managed to get the Washington State monkey of their back.
Despite their 12 wins and one of the greatest defenses in school history, many fans felt they under-performed on the season. An inconsistent offense led to the two losses that kept the Ducks out of the College Football Playoff, and the Ducks struggled to score down the stretch in almost every big game of the season. With several key additions and departures, it is fair to ask: will the Ducks be better in 2020?
The main point of turnover for the season was the offense. In 2019 Oregon returned almost every major contributor from the previous season, along with almost every member of the coaching staff.
The Ducks had a presumptive Top-10 pick from the previous draft return to school in Justin Herbert, a strong stable of running backs and what was supposed to be the best offensive line in the country to take pressure off an inexperienced and drop-prone receiving corps. The addition of Juwan Johnson to a middling group of receivers was viewed as a move to push for contention in 2019, along with a strong freshman class featuring several highly-touted pass catchers.
The issues started in the first game of the season against Auburn when the Ducks couldn’t seem to muster any consistent offense in the second half, allowing for a Tiger comeback victory. The offense had a legitimate shot to win on the last play of the game, but Herbert shrank from the challenge and threw a pass into the stands to seal the defeat.
Easy mistakes by a veteran offense, such as a fumble on the Auburn goal line and a dropped touchdown reception, ultimately doomed the Ducks in Week 1. Head coach Mario Cristobal reinvigorated the team, helped by a gradually healing receiving corps that saw three of the top four players on the depth chart miss the opener, and the Ducks reeled off nine straight wins.
Then the Ducks failed to show up for the third time on the season against Arizona State. Oregon was clearly the better team, as the Ducks nearly won the game after playing only seven minutes or so of good football. On several other occasions throughout the season the offense struggled to move the ball with any regularity and would have lost games if not for a tremendous defense and inept teams on the opposite sideline.
Overall, the Duck offense was inconsistent at its best in 2019. Look no further than the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, when the scripted first drive went for a touchdown and the Ducks failed to get a first down on their following five drives.
The offensive coaching staff will be better in 2020. Marcus Arroyo was in over his head in Eugene after being asked to help run a gulf coast offense in his first year, and Cristobal’s ball control offense in his other two years. Without appearing to have much say in the game plan, and with one of the worst receiving corps in the country, it is easy to see the challenges before Arroyo.
Joe Moorhead is coming from a mildly successful head coaching stint at Mississippi State after revolutionizing the Penn State offense as their offensive coordinator. He is expected to be a massive upgrade over Arroyo, and if Cristobal allows him to run the offense the scheme will be vastly improved in 2020.
With a new QB, four new starters on the offensive line, a new starting tight end and several young receivers primed for breakout years alongside star wide-out Johnny Johnson III, it is safe to say that Moorhead will have a mostly clean slate on offense. Talent-wise, it is hard to say the Ducks will be worse in 2020; the question will be if the players will be polished enough to make the plays necessary to win.
With shortened spring football and a likely shortened fall camp, new players may struggle to fulfill the normal levels of development expected of them. The 2020 season will favor teams with returning coordinators as well as large numbers of returning players. Since the Ducks will have neither, fans should prepare for an offense that could be a little worse than last year.
Whenever a team loses a four-year starter on defense and that player was the unquestioned leader of the unit and arguably the entire team, it is hard to see the unit improving the next season. So with Troy Dye leaving for the NFL, the Ducks should be worse moving forward… right?
It is tough to say what Oregon will see at middle linebacker. Many fans want true freshman Justin Flowe to start, but with a shortened off-season and less time to learn the scheme, it is fair to ask if he will have spent enough time in the defense to know the scheme when the season starts. Several players who are already on the roster are prime candidates for the vacated spot in the middle of the defense.
But the Duck defense will be better than in 2019. Dye was a big loss from the historically good 2019 defense. He led the team in tackles for the fourth straight season and was one of the all-time leading tacklers in school history, but the talent waiting to fill in for him is generational.
The rest of the defense will be essentially unchanged heading in to 2020. With only room to improve, it seems unlikely that the unit will take a step back, or even remain stagnant as Andy Avalos continues to implement his scheme on the defense.
With an offense that should be almost as good as last year’s, and what should be the best defense in school history to date, the Ducks should be better in 2020 than they were in 2019. Hopefully the record will reflect that.
Top Photo Credit: 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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