When you thought it couldn’t get any worse than the whupping Oregon took at the hands of a mediocre Arizona football team, it got worse on Monday when coach Mario Cristobal announced that quarterback Justin Herbert and wide receiver Dillon Mitchell were in concussion protocol, which means the only two players who can move the ball for the Ducks are questionable for the UCLA game this Saturday.
Cristobal, who gets an A for honesty, admitted that the punishing hits at the end of the game may have been the cause for Herbert’s dilemma, and for all the concern of the Duck Nation. Cristobal gets an F for his reasoning as to why Herbert was in the game at that stage, down 44-15 and with his quarterback skills sinking like the Titanic. He said he wanted to end the game on a positive note, to provide a spark for the upcoming UCLA game.
This kind of thinking is not of the quality you need to save a season, and maybe, a program, from an astonishing collapse from three weeks ago when the Ducks were basking in the warmth of victory over the Washington Huskies. Since, the offense has fallen apart, as has Herbert’s fundamentals and leadership, and the defense is in disarray, making high school mistakes after establishing a disciplined, hard-nosed approach in the first six games.
The offense, as young people might observe, sucks. There is no imagination, no energy and the play calling would be better putting people to sleep in hospitals rather than exciting the offense, which needs some jazz since it is only good for two touchdowns a game right now.
A look at the Beavers up the valley shows a team that fought back from a 31-3 deficit to win in overtime against Colorado in Boulder. Though the Beavs have struggled mightily this season, they have some players who show they have the will to win; you can see it by how they play and how seriously they take disappointments that have been many.
You can tell when players are angry with what’s not going on with their offense, their will to win shows in their body language and how they interact with each other and the coaches. You can’t see any will with the play of the Ducks right now. There is plenty of disappointment, frustration and players sulking or feeling sorry for themselves. It shows, it is palpable, nearly everyone just seems to take it and not fight back.
Under first-year coach Jonathon Smith, the Beavers do reverses, counters, double-reverse passes and a host of other creative plays to try to ignite a spark in their offense and create momentum where there is none, just like the situation Ducks are facing right now.
Staid conservatism is nothing new for Oregon. Under Willie Taggart last season the Ducks had more than 800 snaps and ran only two trick plays, neither one called by Taggart but both by receiver Charles Nelson who suggested the plays to the coach on the sidelines. One of Nelson’s calls went for a touchdown, while the other set up a touchdown. Perhaps Nelson could do some informal consulting for Cristobal and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo right now.
Offensively, when you are boring and predictable, you are also setting the stage for a “trick play.” What better time to run one than when you have lulled your opponent into sleepy predictability, especially with a quarterback once mentioned as a Heisman candidate? Trick plays aside, there needs to be some energy and creativity infused into the Duck offense. Some coach is getting an obscene amount of money to run a college offense in the Pac-12 that is now a pathetic laughing stock to opponents who no longer fear Oregon.
Cristobal was dead wrong for having Herbert in the game at the end. There was not going to be a rally and any score would have come against Wildcat reserves that might not get back on the field for the rest of the season. A “lift” or “spark” would not come from a score. It might have happened if it came under the leadership of one of the backup quarterbacks Braxton Burmeister or Tyler Shough, one of which may be the starter for the next game.
Cristobal and the offensive coaches have brought a semi-talented offensive football team with what was originally a gifted quarterback to a total standstill. Often Herbert and the offense must wait 20 seconds for signals from the sidelines; there is no chance for tempo or momentum. In fact, the opposite happens.
Some would like to see Herbert call his own plays. With his intellect, he may be more qualified than those who are picking the plays now. What Cristobal would have found if Herbert had made it to the end zone as the game ended was an adjective in front of “touchdown” in the newspaper.
It would have been “meaningless touchdown” — the only person who would have found meaning from the accomplishment and gotten a lift is the coach, who seems more intent on pounding a square “physical offense” into the round hole called “attacking, relenting Pac-12 offense.” As in battle, there are now fewer players left available to struggle and achieve a goal that needs to be redefined so that it puts pressure on the defense and gives the Ducks a chance to win.
Until something changes in the coaches’ heads, and what they are getting on the practice field, that’s what Duck fans can expect the rest of the season: two touchdowns per game, and more concussions for any survivors.
The crucial stats for the Arizona game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Arizona 5.5, Oregon 3.8 (Arizona: Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, 3rd-4th down conversion) — Oregon 4-of-19 for 21 percent, Arizona 9-of-20 for 45 percent (Arizona: Leader wins 83 percent of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 2-of-2 for 100 percent; Arizona 7-of-8 for 88 percent (Oregon: Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 26-yard line, Washington State 36-yard line (Arizona: Leader wins 72 percent of the time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 6, Arizona 2 (Arizona: 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.