Halfway through season, the Ducks are still a work in progress
Oregon’s 2017 season can easily be broken up into two very different parts: the first three games and the last three games.
If you looked at Oregon (4-2, 1-2) as a whole after its 49-13 thrashing of Wyoming back on Sept. 23, you’d probably be one of the many to claim that the Ducks were back.
Oregon had just embarrassed one of the top NFL prospects in Josh Allen a week after defeating what appeared to be a talented Nebraska team. And, of course, who could forget the historic 77-21 demolition of Southern Utah to open the Willie Taggart era?
Things looked great for the then-No. 24 Ducks as they jumped out to a 3-0 start, wielding one of the most potent offenses in the country, as well as a much-improved defense. By all accounts, the Ducks looked like they were back: back to the flashy and fun style of play that led Oregon to two national championship games over a five-year span. Oregon possessed a new swagger with Taggart at the helm, and it didn’t hurt that sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and senior running back Royce Freeman were generating Heisman buzz.
Fast forward to three weeks later, and the Ducks are in a much different place.
The electric offense isn’t what it was even weeks ago, as multiple key players, including Herbert, have befallen costly injuries. Oregon’s defense remains staunch, but conference competition far exceeds that of the Ducks’ nonconference foes — Oregon has dropped two of three Pac-12 games so far with little reprieve in sight.
Overall, Oregon’s six-game-old season has been a mixed bag. We’ve seen a lot of good and plenty of bad, but with six regular season games remaining and bowl eligibility still on the line, Oregon appears determined to push through the injuries and setbacks.
“I thought we’ve made some improvements. We’ve played hard. We’ve done some good things. We’ve done some bad things,” Taggart said. “I think a lot of that comes with a new system, offensively and defensively. A lot of that comes with new personnel and a lot of young guys playing.
“But considering all that, I think our guys have done a good job for the most part with just trying to build the culture and trying to build a winning football team.”
As we hit the halfway point of the season, we look back on what this Oregon team has showed us thus far.
Even with a talented coach like Jim Leavitt, no one could have predicted a turnaround like this.
A fusion of experienced returners, talented freshmen, Leavitt’s schemes and energy made Oregon’s defense into a respectable group. At its best, Oregon is one of the better teams in the country at stopping the run, allowing fewer than 94 yards per game. The Ducks have also racked up a Football Bowl Subdivision leading 24 sacks in their six games, including a 7-sack performance against Cal. The Ducks force more turnovers than they did a year ago and have already intercepted seven passes through six games. Oregon had nine interceptions all last year.
But again, conference play has been a different beast, and Oregon’s defensive stats dipped significantly over the past three weeks. Oregon allowed 2,030 yards in its first six games — 1,121 in its last three — which ranks 61st in the nation. Its passing defense has also suffered after beating up on quarterbacks Tanner Lee and Josh Allen in its nonconference schedule. Oregon surrendered 884 of its 1,468 passing yards (tied for 105th in the country) in its last three contests, an average of 294 per game.
While the Ducks’ defense has lapsed some in conference play, it’s a far cry from the porous unit that Oregon trotted out last year.
“Well, we weren’t very good. We were really awful [last year], so any kind of improvement would be better than last year or the last two years,” senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. “I’m impressed but I’m not like, ‘I didn’t know we could play this good.’ But I feel that it was all there and we were hungry for it and we wanted to prove that we are really good players.”
Springs is among those Duck players who are having a resurgent season under Leavitt. He’s one of the more heavily targeted corners in the nation, but he has risen to the challenge. His 10 pass breakups this year rank first on the team and in the conference.
Another major part of Oregon’s success on defense stems from the play of its defensive line and linebackers. Senior defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux and junior defensive lineman Jalen Jelks are in the midst of breakout seasons and the play of senior linebackers Justin Hollins and Jonah Moi have kept opponents wary of the Oregon pass-rush. The presence of freshmen defensive linemen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu has also given Oregon’s front seven much needed depth and talent.
Scott and Faoliu are not the only newcomers impacting Oregon’s on-field product. Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. burst onto the collegiate scene with a two-interception game against Nebraska. His four pass breakups are tied for third on the team.
Oregon’s defense is much-improved this year — that’s no secret. But with Herbert out for an undisclosed period of time, and Oregon’s offense struggling to find an identity without him, the Ducks’ defense will need to play even better if they want a chance at making a bowl game.
The key, coaches and players say, is to not be satisfied with the status quo.
“If our ‘good’ is attainable, then our ‘good’ isn’t good enough,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said.
When asked about what grade Springs would give the defense, he responded with “F.”
“Coach Leavitt would like for us to say ‘F’ so we just keep going,” Springs said. “Don’t be satisfied with nothing. So yeah, F. I want to pat myself on the back, but we still got six more games — we still gotta do better.”
Oregon entered conference play looking like world-beaters on offense.
The Ducks ranked at or near the top in almost every offensive category. Herbert looked like he had taken the next step as he passed for over 250 yards in each of Oregon’s first three games, racking up five touchdowns in the process. Suddenly his name began to pop up on Heisman watch lists. The same went for Freeman. He rushed for 460 yards with nine touchdowns in Oregon’s first three games and appeared to be back to his former, All-American self.
Freeman spearheaded Oregon’s rushing attack, which the offense revolves around. The Ducks rushed for 18 touchdowns in their nonconference schedule alone. That was also thanks in part to Oregon’s deep and experienced offensive line that returned four starters.
Granted, not everything was ideal; question marks swirled at other positions.
The tight end, wide receiver and quarterback groups were strong at the top, but they lacked depth and experience behind the starters. Those skill positions are tough to fill if starters go down with injuries, which became an issue in Oregon’s matchups against Arizona State and Cal.
Oregon lost wide receiver Charles Nelson to an ankle sprain against the Sun Devils. Neither he nor starting tight end Jacob Breeland suited up in the following week’s game against Cal, a game that saw even more Ducks succumb to injuries. Herbert, Freeman, wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, linebacker Kaulana Apelu and offensive lineman Jake Pisarcik all exited Oregon’s 45-24 victory over the Bears with injuries. The win didn’t feel like something to celebrate.
The effect of those injuries showed in the following week’s game against No. 11 Washington State. With Herbert sidelined, freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister took the reins of Oregon’s offense against one of the better defensive teams in the conference. The Wildcats pounced all over the freshman and held Oregon to its lowest point total since 2009.
Injuries are simply a part of the physical nature of football, and Oregon treated its situation no differently.
“We’re not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves because guys are hurt. Guys are banged up; it is what it is,” offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said. “We gotta press forward and get better, develop and find different ways to continue that type of offensive production we’ve had so far.”
When healthy, the Ducks can run up the score as well as any team in the country. Their much-improved defense is easily the most impressive part of this year’s team. So far, the Taggart era is off to a good start. But with six games left on their schedule and a plethora of question marks surrounding the roster, the Ducks may be fighting for their postseason life.
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris