If the Oregon Football program was a ship, a distress call may be in order.
Let’s face it, the Ducks have hit some rough waters after losing three consecutive games for the first time in nearly a decade and now many fans are calling for rescue boats. . . and a new captain.
The first loss, against Nebraska, was a tough one, especially because it came against former Oregon State Head Coach, Mike Riley. At the end of the day though, Oregon only lost by 3 points, on the road, to a decent Big 10 team. The world didn’t end.
The loss did however raised a lot of questions about play calling, especially after Oregon went for 2-point conversions after every single touchdown, only succeeding 1 out of its 5 attempts.
The second loss, another 3 point defeat, this time at home against Colorado, was a bit tougher of a pill to swallow. Although Colorado is much improved from years past, Oregon hadn’t lost to the Buffs since before they joined the Pac 12 in 2011. The loss also exposed the many problems on both sides of the ball. The defense was porous and made the Buffs’ second string quarterback look like a Heisman Trophy contender while the offense struggled to keep drives alive. Quarterback, Dakota Prukop, though steady much of the time, struggled to make big plays and ultimately cost the Ducks the win after throwing an interception in the final moments of the game.
With two consecutive losses, the distress calls were getting louder but could be muffled with a little optimism. After all, there was still a Pac 12 Title and Rose Bowl to be played for, even if it would require stars to align.
Then Saturday happened.
Oregon entered The Palouse after a tough week of practice starting with a “player’s only” meeting to help steer the ship back on course. Team leaders stepped up and tried to instill a bit of Oregon culture into the young guys. The message was essentially, “You have to want it. Wearing the Oregon uniform doesn’t mean instant success.”
Fans were eager to see if the team had suddenly unified and ironed out the wrinkles that had plagued them.
No such luck.
In fact, the wrinkles seemed to multiply as Oregon fell . . .hard. Every phase of the game was disastrous, minus Royce Freeman and a solid scoring drive by back-up quarterback, Justin Herbert, at the end of the game. The many problems facing this year’s team were again exposed and it was U-G-L-Y.
Excessive penalties showed signs of an undisciplined team and a lack of fire on both sides of the ball suggested a possible lack of leadership. As was the case during fall camp, coaches hinted that “mentality” was also a continuing problem (as evidenced by that “Players Only” meeting).
And then there was the ever struggling defense.
Near the end of fall camp, Defensive Coordinator, Brady Hoke, said “We have a long ways to go if we’re going to have a defense that’s going to be effective in this league.” Many hoped he was just being an overly critical coach but clearly, he wasn’t lying.
Sure, Oregon hasn’t been known for its defense in a very long time but it seems to have hit an all-time low, currently ranking at the bottom of the FBS. Fundamentals appear foreign and it is clear the young group is struggling to adjust to Hoke’s implementation of the 4-3 scheme.
So what’s the solution?
If social media was in charge, Oregon would take an 11 million dollar gofundme.com crowd-funding gift, buy Helfrich out of his contract and then hope Uncle Phil lured football super-god, Chip Kelly, back to Autzen. Thankfully, social media doesn’t call the shots, especially because the account has less than $300.
Perhaps a little perspective is in order.
Without a doubt, Chip Kelly did an amazing job leading Oregon to the top of College Football. He was innovative and helped make Oregon Football a nationally recognized brand. But he didn’t do it alone and quite frankly, one could argue that ride to the top ended up costing Oregon in the long run.
Kelly was always going to be a temporary fix for Oregon. He had higher aspirations and that’s OK. But while the Ducks were under his watch, Kelly’s decisions, in particular with recruiting, ended up leaving his successor, Helfrich, with a bit of a mess, a la sanctions (Oh, how quickly we forget). Were those sanctions earth shattering? Not necessarily, but surely they’ve had an impact.
Since Helfrich took over the keys, he’s had to navigate through Oregon’s three years of probation (which ended on June 25, 2016), a loss of two partial scholarships and three full scholarships, a loss in paid recruiting visits, limited recruiting evaluation days and a ban on subscription to recruiting services during the probation period.
Not only has Helfrich had to contend with the sanctions’ impact on recruiting, he’s had to make sure Oregon followed rules to a “T”, as to not jeopardize the program any further. Consider that job well-done.
Helfrich has handled discipline fairly while maintaining a pretty clean program. The guys he’s recruited have, overall, been solid and represented Oregon well. Oh! And by the way, to those who like to say Helfrich has been riding Kelly and Marcus Mariota’s coattails, let us not forget that Helfrich was Kelly’s offensive coordinator and was the one who actually recruited Mariota. None of that is to take credit away from Kelly or Mariota (my personal favorite player ever to put on a Oregon uniform) but my point is, it took more than Kelly to get to the top and as good as Mariota was, he wasn’t the whole team. He didn’t magically play his way to the National Championship and Helfrich played a big part in that ride- during Mariota’s time and yes, before.
Now, before you all petition to have me committed to the psychiatric ward, let me be clear:
I am very much aware that the current team does not look good. There are a lot of questions to be answered and much of that falls on Helfrich. He is the one making the millions and on the surface, it appears the ship could be sinking.
But, I would ask this: Is it sinking fast enough to fire the captain? Or, has the ship simply hit a perfect storm that only a devoted captain can get it through?
Trust me, the fan in me has wrestled with this for several days now. At the end of the day though, a new captain would certainly mean a whole bunch of new co-captains and a brand new navigation system. Is Oregon really ready for that?
Oregon’s run has been solid for the past several years and it’s important to note that Helfrich has been a big reason for that. Sure, people will argue he has simply been working with “Kelly’s recruits” but is that entirely fair? In reality, Helfrich, and several other current Oregon coaches, played a solid recruiting role under Kelly and keeping Oregon’s “Win The Day” culture alive. Yes, that culture seems to be experiencing some setbacks but is that entirely on Helfrich?
Or, could it actually be that we are seeing a culmination of those pesky recruiting sanctions along with a new defensive coordinator, a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback’s coach, a new-to-the program quarterback, a team full of young players with limited returning starters and multiple injuries to key players?
If that isn’t a perfect storm, I don’t know what is.
Much of Oregon’s successful culture thrives on player buy-in. “Winning The Day” is more than a motto, it’s a mindset. “A Fast, Hard, Finish” takes work and a hungry mentality and high speed-tempo requires preparation. All of these things take maturity and experience to implement-something much of this team lacks right now. That won’t always be the case.
Looking ahead. . .
Yes, Oregon has looked to graduate transfers the past two years (that’s a whole other article) but that trend looks to be ending, with Herbert expected to start this weekend. The new coordinators and coaches are proven elsewhere and with a little more time, they will likely be proven here. And, this year’s team full of young players will be another year older and another year experienced heading into next season. As much as we all hate to face it, this truly may be a growing year and the program may be better off for it.
Only time will tell but perhaps waiting out the storm out (Yes, with its current captain) is the best thing to do right now. After all, a knee-jerk reaction and one false move at the wheel may just take the team into the eye of a much stronger storm.
What do you think?
Follow Nichole Brown on Twitter @UOgridirongirl