Besides being thrashed by a very good Washington State team in Pullman, Wash., on Saturday, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, his staff and especially his players have the opportunity of learning valuable lessons about building a program that is going to be competitive in the Pac-12.
If the Ducks are going to be a dangerous team for any team they play, they are going to need to change or evolve with a number of obvious deficiencies. Here’s a list of some of them:
• If you can’t cover a team’s passing game, you can’t count on running a power offensive game plan to win. You’re going to have to score points, which transcends time of possession and yards. In the case of the WSU game, “physical” was not going to overcome talented and skilled — the Ducks needed to open it up with the passing game sooner than the third quarter.
• You can excuse some of the issues about noise and spectator distractions because Cristobal had never been in Pullman against the Cougars before. Several players said they were not prepared for the noise, the same thing they said after the Alamo Bowl four years ago. If the coaches can’t figure this out, the Ducks will never be a successful road team.
If Cristobal had asked me of my experience playing and coaching in Pullman, I could tell him that I’ve been to many big-time arenas, such as Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee, Seattle, Eugene, the LA Coliseum, and none could match the intensity of a Dad’s Day crowd of 25,000 at WSU as a player for the Ducks.
I can remember our offensive line coach on the sidelines, on his knees, hands folded, imploring the Lord to stop the Cougs on their two-point try for the win. As it happened, the defense dug in its webbed feet and kept them out of the end zone. I think it was more the defense than the Lord on that one.
The Cougars have the most unique home-field advantage in the conference and it emerges when they have an outstanding team, which they do this year. After this year’s game, Brady Breeze, one of the most competitive players on Oregon's squad, turned and watched the students and WSU players celebrating deliriously.
“I’m going to remember that,” he said. That's an excellent beginning to a new focus and commitment that the team needs to dial in as a matter of preparation for the next one. Sometimes, it takes losing to a team to really understand what that particular game is all about.
• The Ducks’ wide receivers have to get more dependable. When your “go-to” receiver drops a ball delivered to his belly in the Cougar end zone, it’s an emotional disaster, especially when it’s at the end of the first half and your team is getting its tail feathers kicked.
Second on the receiver’s to-do list (and the play caller, too), is to run third-down pass routes deep enough so that when you catch it, you have a first down. Against the Cougars, there were four instances of routes completed from two to four yards short of a precious first down. This is a lack of sophistication with your pass offense and a lack of football sense by the wide receivers.
• Poor tackling reared its ugly head in Pullman. Duck defenders continually ignored the tradition of “breaking down,” which all good tacklers do when they are preparing to make a tackle. Too many defensive backs are just hitting the ball carrier with a shoulder thrust that is not followed up with wrapping their arms around their target.
In too many cases, Duck defenders, from all positions, have their feet shuffling forward, with their feet too close together, totally out of balance. The poor tacklers are the ones you see leaving their feet and reaching, ineffectively as the ball carrier marches by. “Breaking down” is achieved by getting your balance with your feet apart, your head up and amazingly, your eyes open.
• Coaches need to look at their play calls. In the red zone, Herbert is especially dangerous when he makes a play fake going one way and rolls out the other way. He is a threat to run as when he scored against WSU. If a defender has to come out of coverage to corral Herbert, it is one less player to defend the pass, as the touchdown he threw in the third quarter in Pullman showed.
• Oregon’s big uglies were no match for the smaller, faster and more athletic defensive front WSU threw out on the field. Somehow, an adjustment needs to be made; maybe making yards becomes more important than “grinding it out.” Not being prepared to handle the stemming of the Cougar defense or the noise at a lively venue is totally unacceptable. It will take some hard work, focus and creativity to prepare the players to be successful when it comes down to game time, but that is the essential job of the coach.
• Finally, Oregon fans need to quit worrying about national ranking (means nothing, only a warm feeling for those with self-esteem issues), what the season record is going to be, and what the record means for the program. The reality is that there is a lot of learning that needs to go on before the Ducks are ready to be a week-to-week contender in the Pac-12 and on the national stage. Everything mentioned above is an opportunity for getting better and becoming the football team Cristobal and Duck fans are striving to be.
The Ducks have five wins and opportunity waits in Tucson to get six. The rest of the league is not stagnant, either. Every program has what it takes to beat Oregon if the Ducks don’t show up with their very best. When people remind us of the total dominance Chip Kelly enjoyed during his time at Oregon, they need to be aware of the fact that Chip had it easy.
Washington and WSU were down programs and so were Cal, ASU, Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Utah and Oregon State. The only teams who could seriously challenge Kelly and the Ducks were USC and Stanford. There is much more parity now and the levels of coaching expertise has increased, also.
Look to see if Cristobal gets his players to recognize the opportunities to improve in these major areas against Arizona this week. Right now, I would count on Cristobal and his staff to make progress in these areas. Failure to do so, however, may be an indicator of things to come.
• No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) – Washington State 5.3, Oregon 4.8 (WSU: Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
• No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversion) – Oregon 8-of-21 for 38 percent, Washington State 10-of-15 for 67 percent (WSU: Leader wins 83 percent of the time);
• No. 3 (drive finishing, points per trip inside 40) – Oregon 4-of-5 for 80 percent, Washington State 5-of-6 for 83 percent (WSU: Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
• No. 4 (average field position) – Oregon 25-yard line, Washington State 32-yard line (WSU: Leader wins 72 percent of the time);
• No. 5 (turnover margin) – Oregon 1, Washington State 2 (Oregon: Leader wins 73 percent of the time).
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.