Oregon’s football game with Arizona ended in fitting fashion — the Ducks and quarterback Justin Herbert stranded on the 1-yard line, trying to make the final score look a little better than it was, 44-15 for the Wildcats. Unfortunately, the effort, like most of the team’s efforts this night, was denied. Smashed into the dirt.
Coach Mario Cristobal has to be wondering where his football team has disappeared to; it was as if with Halloween coming on, the ghost of Willie Taggart was on the field directing an offense that could go nowhere, punting nine times, seven times after going three-and-out.
The offensive line could not pick up the simplest stunts and provided Herbert with minimal protection. Cristobal is lucky Herbert was still standing at the end of the game. Check the injury report to see if he will still be with us next week against UCLA. As the pressure mounted on Herbert, he began to take chances and by the end of the game he was a shadow of his former self, forcing the ball into coverage and missing deep routes that he normally pinpoints.
Oregon is trying to run a power running offense without power running backs. By the way, whatever happened to Tony Brooks-James? The wide receivers are squeezed by man coverage because they can’t run fast enough, or good enough routes, to get open.
As unbelievable as it sounds, the Ducks looked worse in the first half than in their first-half performance last week against Washington State in Pullman, Wash. Oregon receivers ran short of first-down yardage on a third-down pass completions; the right corner blitzed, which might have been OK if the safety on that side didn’t blitz also, leaving Arizona’s receiver wide open for a touchdown. How could the beginning of the game be worse?
The next play, on the extra-point attempt, the Ducks were penalized for having 12 men on the field which was followed by their kickoff return man fumbling, although it was recovered by Oregon. On their second punt, three cover men ran right by the returner who rambled through Ducks who were getting wiped out by blind-side blocks down the sideline. Surely, Oregon would calm down and get their feet under them.
Then a cornerback was beaten deep, as has become customary lately, and it wasn’t until there was 4:37 left in the first quarter that Herbert was able to get Oregon’s first first down. The Ducks’ first three drives of the game were three-and-out.
Arizona’s defensive backs were sitting all over Duck receivers, who could not drive them deep or gain separation. For Herbert, every pass seemed to be like trying to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube.
Oregon’s defense stopped the Wildcats three times in the red zone, forcing field goals when it seemed like they would score touchdowns and put the game away by halftime. The Duck offense could not run the ball, averaging 2.5 yards per attempt, a tragic fall from the once-powerful rushing team that was Oregon. The big question at halftime was whether the defense had the stamina to play the whole game by themselves.
For the game, Oregon eked out only 84 yards rushing, the second straight game they were held under 100 yards; a truly shocking reality for Duck fans.
Traditionally, when the Ducks can’t rush successfully, they can’t pass either and this was the case in the first half. Herbert ended up 11-of-23 in the first half for only 87 yards, but he did have a touchdown pass to go along with his first interception in more than 200 passes on the road. As the half wore on, Herbert tried to do too much and began forcing the ball into covered receivers; he did not look like the same quarterback who started the season back in September.
Herbert’s final stats were 24-of-48 for 270 yards and two touchdowns, with the one interception. The pressure of the rush and the lack of protection has eroded Herbert’s excellence as a quarterback. Somehow, the coaches are going to need to concoct formations and a game plan that give him a better chance to succeed.
The defense, which was on the field way too long in the first quarter, finally gave up a touchdown toward the end of the second quarter, which was set up by a phantom Pac-12 referee pass interference call. Ugo Amadi was called for interference on a clean play that the plaintiff’s referee was not in a position to see. It was though the referee could not believe the good coverage by Oregon pass defenders on several balls thrown by Kahlil Tate, who is in the midst of a mid-season comeback from injury.
As a group, with the exception of the first pass allowed for a score, Oregon’s defensive backs played their best game of the season coverage-wise, making several breakups. Other than the tendency to play the safety too deep in pass coverage, giving up easy completions and getting beat inside despite having an inside alignment on the receiver, there was some progress and the players appeared to be playing more aggressively than in past games.
The Ducks are banged up physically, but if you watched the faces of the players, you could see they were also struggling with the team’s morale; you could see it on the sidelines. Next week’s game will be a monumental challenge to the team to continue to compete and not check out emotionally.
Next week’s opponent, UCLA, has improved lately by running the ball. It will be coach Chip Kelly’s homecoming and he would like nothing more than to remind Oregon fans they should still miss him. Cristobal and his staff have a daunting job ahead of them: prepare the Ducks with a solid game plan and also attend to the heart and soul of the team. Right now it’s in bad shape and that is a very difficult proposition.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.