“We’re not going to just go out and win games because there’s an “O” our helmet.” – Tyler Johnstone, Oregon offensive lineman
At least Ducks fans have “Husky Hate Week” to enjoy right now. Without it, Oregon and its fan base may have fallen asleep entirely.
Not to be a Debbie Downer but let’s face it, the post-Mariota drought has begun and it’s a doozy. A narrow loss to highly ranked Michigan State was one thing but an embarrassing beat down by Utah at home sent things spiraling. Despite a tiny boost in pride after a victory at Colorado, Oregon again found itself leaving Autzen last weekend in a puddle of Duck tears after losing to Washington State in double overtime- a Washington State team that lost earlier in the season to Portland State. . .at home.
Here’s the deal though, it’s not just the losses that are concerning. Most rational fans anticipated some growing pains-emphasis on the word some– but there seems to be a bigger problem. Not only has Oregon lost its cool, flashy vibe (at least temporarily), the team’s sense of “brotherhood” also seems to be missing. The Ducks had some very tough losses during Mariota’s tenure, but it also seemed to have a different spirit. Again, a sense of brotherhood that could ban the guys together, allowing them to rebound almost immediately. I can remember walking off with the team after several of those losses, most notably, the devastating 2013 loss in Tucson. The guys were face planted in a pile of defeat but all spoke of picking up the pieces and being there for one another. The rest of the world didn’t matter. There was a sense that they would somehow rally in that locker room, get to work on the practice field and rebound, together, the following Saturday.
And they did.
This season has felt much different. Sure, the team still hasn’t had two consecutive losses but the “rallying” passion doesn’t seem to be there. It’s hard to see from the stands but up close, it’s obvious. The emotion is there, but much less unified. It’s like players are processing individually, rather than collectively. Of course, I don’t sit in the locker room, but phrases like “my teammates,” “us,” “we,” and “together,” are used much less, if at all, present in post-game interviews. A little, but very telling, detail.
So what happened?
Sure, losing Mariota and several other key players probably didn’t help this year but the team wasn’t all lost. There are plenty of leaders and a consistent coaching staff that claims to be holding true to the same Oregon culture mantra. So, why does the program’s performance and morale seem to be rolling this fast down hill? And perhaps more importantly, is it too late to turn it around?
Questions like these are hard to answer, especially within a program that closes practice and says very little to the world outside. Sometimes though, a little heart to heart provides some good insight. This week I turned to Senior offensive lineman, Tyler Johnstone, for a glimpse into what might be missing in that locker room. To my surprise, his candid responses shed at least a dim light on the current state of Oregon Football. I asked Johnstone about what seems to be a lack of brotherhood and how the team might find it again.
“We’re a really young team right now and I think it’s just kind of one of those things. You have a big gap of guys that have been here forever and then guys who this is their first year on the field,” Johnstone said.
” I think it’s just that big gap and getting everybody on that same page and buying into the same culture and sometimes it takes a couple of
years. . .it’s almost like a learning curve.”
Johnstone went on to explain the need to train the younger guys on the little things that really matter at crucial times and getting them “bought in on that whole mentality.”
“We’re not going to just go out and win games because there’s an “O” our helmet,” Johnstone said.
Leadership will obviously be a key factor in getting those young players to buy into the culture and both Johnstone and the message those leaders are sending is simple.
“Let’s get going. Take responsibility for your own actions,” Johnstone said. “Don’t let anyone make excuses for you. The coaches are always saying things are their fault but it’s your fault. If you mess up the coverage but the coach told you what to do and you didn’t study enough. It’s your fault and you gotta get on it.”
At this point in the season, several leaders have emerged, including Johnstone as well as, DeForest Buckner, Joe Walker, Matt Hagerty and several others. But what about the quarterbacks?
“I think the quarterbacks are a little hesitant to jump out just because they don’t know if they are going to start or whatever,” Johnstone stated.
Could that be a big missing piece of the puzzle? Would having a set quarterback impact things for the better? Johnstone isn’t so sure.
“It’s hard to say if it’s is having an impact (not having a set quarterback). We’re just doing our job up front as far as the offensive line goes and everyone’s just rallying around whoever is in there at the time,” Johnstone said. “We don’t blame that on our success or our failures.”
Players should probably have that mentality, but the rest of us can be a little more honest. The impact is clear. Oregon’s system relies heavily on a solid, consistent quarterback- one that can lead. It’s evident that at least for now, that is missing- something that became clear to me following the Utah loss a couple of weeks ago. Immediately following the game, I asked both Vernon Adams Jr. and Jeff Lockie questions about their leadership roles. Neither could really answer. Neither seemed to feel like “the guy”. The sooner that is fixed, one way or another, the better.
With 3 losses already this season, the Oregon fan base seems to have accepted this will likely be a “growing year” for the Ducks. What is harder to accept however, is the team’s culture falling apart. After all, isn’t that what most fans are holding on to at this point? A hope that better days will return sooner rather than later? If what we all know as the Win The Day culture starts slipping, what will it mean and how long will it then take to pick up the plucked feathers?
Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.
As the team looks ahead to tomorrow’s game against the Washington Huskies, it will have to dig deep. As much as the coaches have tried not to highlight the always hostile rivalry, the team will have to be prepared for a battle and the veteran players know that. Oregon is coming off of a tough loss at home while Washington is flying high after its big win over USC last week. And more so than any year in recent history, those pesky Huskies know this could very well be the year they end their very long losing streak against the Ducks.
To keep the streak going, Oregon will need a dose of brotherhood.
So what do you think? Will the Ducks be able to turn this season around? Send us your comments and make sure to follow Nichole Brown on Twitter @UOgridirongirl.