Saying it’s been a long few weeks in the world of Oregon football may be an understatement.
After a fun ride in what has now been referred to as “The Glory Years” (even by Head Coach, Mark Helfrich), the Ducks (2-4), entered a much needed bye week, following a devastating 70-21 loss to conference foe, Washington. That break from live-game action ends tonight as the Ducks fly south to face the Cal Golden Bears tomorrow night (7:30pm) in Berkeley, CA.
As Oregon looks ahead to the match up, fans will certainly be anxious to see what, if any, improvements have been made and if there is any glimmer of hope the team can finish the season strong. 4 out of 6 wins would make them bowl eligible and given the current state of things, that would be remarkable.
Clearly (and sadly), the bar has been lowered.
From locker room discord, embarrassing losses and bandwagon fans jumping ship, the 2016 Oregon football season has been frustrating and well. . .nerve wracking. There have been so many questions. How would the Prukop gamble pay off? Could new Defensive Coordinator, Brady Hoke, start turning the struggling defense around? Could the team overcome the multiple injuries to veteran players? Could players, despite their youth, dig deep and rally together? Were there enough leaders? And perhaps the most controversial question, would Mark Helfrich be able to right the ship and prove he was still the right guy for the job?
Unfortunately, most questions were answered (for the first half of the season anyway). Unfortunately fans didn’t get the answers they had hoped for and now, for the first time in a long time, Oregon finds itself in a must-win situation. Not to reach the play-offs or even to crack the top 25. No, this is a must win for far different reasons.
With so much uncertainty about what lies ahead for the program, a win would show the team had not only unified, but been unified. It would show that Helfrich could bring a team that looked to be in shambles two weeks ago, back to life. It would show that the team had the grit to storm ahead and that maybe those “Glory Days” didn’t have to be gone for long. It would show that players could tune out the outside noise and look to each other rather than themselves. It would show that character had been developed in the face of adversity.
It would show Oregon and its fans there is reason to hope.
Looking ahead to tomorrow night, it looks as though Oregon will certainly have an opportunity to get the much-needed win. Though the Ducks are 3 point underdogs, this is one game on their remaining schedule that looks “winnable”. Cal does boast a high scoring offense with one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac 12, but their defense is also struggling nearly as bad as Oregon’s. Notice I said, “Nearly.”
Despite the many negatives that have plagued Oregon’s season, there are several good things happening that could make the difference tomorrow night.
First of all, Royce Freeman is said to be back full speed and Cal has struggled to stop the run this season. Translation: Royce will probably have a big game tomorrow. If that happens, Oregon’s passing game could easily open up, tempo could rev up and good things could happen.
Second of all, true freshman quarterback, Justin Herbert is now at the helm and showing exciting promise. He’s had nearly two weeks to learn from his first start against a very tough Washington team and work through some of those initial jitters. Tomorrow could easily be a break out game for him, giving Oregon a much-needed spark moving into the final stretch of the season.
Unfortunately, I am terrible with score predictions but I will close with this. . .
Personally, I continue to feel Mark Helfrich is the right guy for the job (admittedly, my corner of the room is getting lonely). This week, I was looking for some indication that he had rallied the team with some profound message. I had hoped he had taken charge of what appeared to be total chaos. When asked if there had been a message however, veteran wide receiver, Charles Nelson simply replied, “Not really.”
Anticipating that Nelson may have just been understandably tight-lipped, I followed up and directly asked Coach Helfrich what his personal message to the team had been this week.
“We had a million meetings,” Helfrich said. “Guys are on the same page. . .they are getting individually with a couple of guys where those messages are individualized.”
Helfrich went on to explain that messages were different depending on experience levels, etc.
Initially, I was a bit taken aback but after thinking about his response, it actually made a lot of sense. Should there be a collective team-rallying message? Perhaps. Has their been? Maybe.
At the end of the day though, what Helfrich’s response tells me is that he cares. He understands that these guys are not made from one mold. They are unique and need to be dealt with in unique ways, especially because they are young.
It all goes back to something Helfrich said after the devastating loss to Washington. When asked about how he intended to help the team move forward, Helfrich said, among many other things, “We keep loving them.”
Call me a Sap, but win or lose tomorrow, that’s a coach that deserves some time to get things turned around.
Hopefully that turnaround starts tomorrow in Berkeley.