One can imagine the tension in the Oregon football coaches’ meetings as they list on a chalkboard the number of injured players at key positions on both offense and defense.
On another chalkboard, the offensive statistics are listed, and it’s not a pretty picture. The next chalkboard, listing the defensive statistics is an ugly sight also. One might wonder just how depressed coaches and players could become under circumstances that went from rosy to rotten in a four-game stretch after the glorious win over Washington.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The offense, behind a Heisman-caliber quarterback, is predictable. Not in its rushing or passing yardage, or points per game, but in sputtered three-and-out drives, penalties, dropped passes and short-yardage failures.
The defense gave up scores on 8-of-12 drives in the Utah game, including a big one (5 plays, 60 yards, 1 minute and 27 seconds) after the Ducks, behind all game, scratched and clawed into the lead in the fourth quarter. The defense could not make a big stop or force a turnover and Utah’s backups at quarterback and running back had career days filling in for the injured starters.
The week before, UCLA’s running back also had a career day and the Ducks were lucky to get big plays from their special teams that moved the scales Oregon’s way. One might surmise that the only team in the Pac-12 that Jim Leavitt’s defense could stop would be its own.
Oregon fans had stars in their eyes going into this season. The Ducks had a favorable schedule (read, “soft”) and their two biggest Northern Division rivals, Stanford and Washington, at home. Jordon Scott was an all-star at nose guard, and soon faced double teams that should have set up some defender with a path to the ball carrier, but undersized and injured linebackers could not get the job done.
Depth was going to be an issue over the season, but none of the five- and four-star recruits have arrived yet to save the fort.
Troy Dye makes tackles from sideline to sideline, but he soon starts to miss some as exhaustion sets in. Justin Hollins and Jalen Jelks, two exceptional athletes on the edge of the defense are also successfully double-teamed at times because the rest of the supporting cast are average guys who can’t get off blocks and avoid being steamrolled. There are not enough exceptional athletes, with speed, who could play the entire season for the defense.
The secondary is another matter. Two players stand out. Ugo Amadi, a senior, has made himself a good safety and is one of the few players you can pick out who looks like he’s angry and plays harder because of it. Safety Jevon Holland looks like he has the talent to play in the Pac-12, but tends to make mistakes in coverage, as you might expect from a freshman. He has a nose for the ball and has made some big plays as other defenders have disappeared behind the curtains of the big arena as the season has progressed.
The defense is as stubborn as the offense is (like, say, running short-yardage plays into holes without enough blockers). The secondary is primarily a man-to-man system, but with corners who can’t play man-to-man very well, starting with the alignment the coaches choose for them to start in.
The offensive coaches have themselves to blame for most of the ineffectiveness of the offense, once reliable for scoring 28 to 35 points every game, and now a lumbering concoction of stone-age offensive plays built around a dream that never had a chance.
Averaging 2.3 yards per first-down rush DOES NOT SET UP A SUCCESSFUL PASS OFFENSE unless you are Washington State.
Having quarterback Justin Herbert throw 40 to 50 percent of the time on first down would allow the offense to get pace, focus and best of all, momentum. To think that you were going to have a SEC running attack with the lack of proven, physical running backs reeks of something out of a Grateful Dead concert. To tell the running backs they were expected to run over larger unblocked defenders in the hole they were headed to, was pure folly. Perhaps in part, a reason for the high casualty rate at the point of attack.
In case you didn’t notice, the Ducks are unraveling That might be understandable given the injuries and disappointment from losses when wins were expected. We heard much about the strength and conditioning program that was coming out of Alabama. Based on the number of injuries and nonphysical play, and players’ weakness at offensive and defensive positions, you would think perhaps the SEC program is not applicable to the Pac-12.
For many years, commentators would complain about the lack of physicality in Oregon’s program, especially when it came to take on a top-10 team, like Auburn, LSU, Ohio State, etc. But if you look closely, the offense still had some success, enough to compete, but it was the defense that was not up to the strength of their heavyweight opponents. It was the linebackers, defensive backs and defensive linemen who were over-matched physically.
Based on what we’ve witnessed so far, it would be safe to say that the conditioning program needs more time and refinement, or needs to get a hard look, forgetting about the SEC for a minute and look what’s happening or not happening on the field. There’s been enough evidence so far to determine the program has not been an asset in setting up success this season.
Watching many SEC games this fall, it might be a good idea to look closely at the fit of a “SEC program” in the Pac-12 Conference. Mike Bellotti talked about the importance of having a strong defense, but said in the Pac-12 you were going to find yourself in games where you need 40 points to win; you had to outscore your opponent and were probably not going to dominate the league with defense. It’s difficult to see Oregon successfully running Alabama’s offense without Alabama’s big running backs and dominating athletes up front.
There have been some great offensive linemen at Oregon, centers like Max Unger or Hroniss Grasu, and tackles like Jake Fisher and guards like Kyle Long. If you watched those players you could see that they were tough and physical, perfect allies if you happened to get into a bar room brawl. Those players stood out without having to run the film back and forth. There are no offensive linemen of that caliber in Oregon’s program right now, no matter how big they are or what they can bench press.
An offensive coach, extolling the virtue of gaining two yards on a rush as a “body blow” to the opponent and by later in the game, a big gain could result from a bruised defender. There’s at least two things wrong about that picture. Putting two-yard body blows on the opponent is likely to lead to three-and-outs so the defenders get off the field and can rest and, in the meantime, a sieve-like defense could be giving up big yards and points while the Duck offense is waiting and praying for a stop so they can get back on the field.
You can’t run an SEC offense without an SEC defense that will hold its opponents in check until the offense scores enough body blows to open up the floodgates. Too often the Oregon offense would be in lifeboats by the time that happens with the personnel that has been brought in so far. Conservative play calling also does not do well in the Pac-12, particularly with limited athletes.
Oregon needs some tough guys, in the trenches and right behind them. Big and tough would be ideal, but right now, tough guys, the kind of players who don’t get injured and take pride in being tougher than their opponents. They don’t appear in number at the present time and there’s way too many players who were photographed sitting on a throne on their recruiting trip wearing a cool Oregon jersey and gloves who haven’t figured out what football is all about.
The crucial stats for the Utah game:
• No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Utah 6.3, Oregon 6.1 (Utah. Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
• No. 2 (efficiency, third- fourth-down conversion) — Oregon 6-of-16 for 38 percent, Utah 4-of-16 for 25 percent (Oregon. Leader wins 83 percent of the time, but not this time);
• No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 4-of-5 for 80 percent, Utah 8-of-8 for 100 percent (Utah. Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
• No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 24.2-yard line, Utah 28.2-yard line (Utah. Leader wins 72 percent of the time);
• No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 2, Utah 0 (Utah. 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.