Call me crazy but several times this weekend, I caught myself forgetting the Ducks lost on Friday night. So much of the night actually felt like a victory.
Not only were the past few weeks’ losses tough to watch, the apparent locker room turmoil was even more concerning. Between players calling other teammates out, an apparently lack of effort and many “streaks” being ended, it was hard not to think the team was completely imploding.
Although a bye week came at a much-needed time, giving the team time to heal up and regroup, it also gave the internet a whole lot of time to play virtual Quarterback, Head Coach and Athletic Director, calling for big changes, starting with Coach Mark Helfrich. While we are here, let me be clear in saying I’m fully in the “Keep Coach Helfrich” corner. Admittedly however, that corner was getting very, very lonely and I was starting to second guess myself.
Then, Friday night happened.
Despite a double overtime loss, Oregon finally showed some life. After an ugly first half, both sides of the ball rallied and showed the grit Ducks fans have been waiting to see this season. Sure, there were some negatives- namely a million penalties and lots of missed tackles- but there were so many positive takeaways.
First of all, freshman quarterback, Justin Herbert, threw six touchdown passes in his first career start on the road. In doing so, he tied the record and joined the ranks of Danny O’Neil, Joey Harrington, Darron Thomas, Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr. Not only that, but he showed tremendous poise, made decent reads, had a solid arm and improvised when needed. He is in many ways, dare I say it, much like a young Marcus Mariota and has clearly brought a spark to the team and Oregon fan base.
Second of all, sophomore running back, Tony Brooks James dominated the run game, again showing why Oregon running back Legend, LaMichael James has been singing his praises. Taking over the workload after star running back, Royce Freeman (likely still injured), struggled against Cal’s rush defense, Brooks-James ended the night with 148 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.
Lastly, the defense amped up after a slow start, making several stops and allowing Oregon’s offense to catch up and even take the lead in the fourth quarter. True freshman Troy Dye and Brenden Schooler were defensive standouts, racking up a combined 25 tackles, giving fans a whole lot of hope looking ahead.
Despite the game’s bright spots, the game would ultimately end in devastating fashion as Herbert threw a game-ending interception in the second overtime. To make things even more heartbreaking for those watching, Herbert became visibly distraught and had to be consoled by a flock of Ducks who immediately rushed over to him as Cal celebrated on their home field. It wasn’t the ending the Eugene native hoped for but for fans, the developing brotherhood was a relief to see.
And here we are; five straight losses for the first time since 1996. Yet, there’s reason to hope.
Ducks fans finally saw a team playing with heart, fighting, and almost, “Winning The Day.” Most importantly though, they saw a team not only rallied but that had clearly been rallied.
Yesterday, reports surfaced that Oregon booster and Nike Founder, Phil Knight, was San Francisco 49er’s Coach, Chip Kelly’s side line guest. Those dreaming of an Oregon/Chip Kelly reunion couldn’t help but speculate.
Who knows what the future holds but if you’re looking for me, I’ll still be in the “Keep Coach Helfrich” corner. Yeah, I think I’ll go ahead and support the coach who in the 3rd quarter was down 34-17 in a game that could very likely have sealed his coaching fate, yet went out to check on an injured Charles Nelson, carried his helmet back to the sideline and then rallied his team.
If you ask me, Helfrich showed he deserves more time. Perhaps this season, at least at this point, it’s not about winning. It’s about growing and making sure Helfrich is pruning in the right ways. After what we all saw on Friday night, he seems to be doing just that.
It was a loss.
But to a battered fan base, the night in Berkeley felt very much like a victory.