The same year Nintendo released the N64 and Mark Helfrich earned his bachelor’s degree, the Ducks had their worst-ever defensive season under head coach Mike Bellotti. They allowed an average of 32.4 points per game, which ranked 89th out of 111 teams.
That was the last year the Ducks lost five-straight games — until now.
Oregon’s current season is on a similar trajectory as that of the 1996 Ducks, who won their first three games then lost their next five. They won their final three games to finish 6-5, providing some hope that the 2016 Ducks can turn their season around after a current five-game losing streak.
But that’s wishful thinking. None of Oregon’s remaining five games — at home against Arizona State and Stanford and on the road at USC, Utah and Oregon State — feel as winnable as they once did. The only two teams Oregon has managed to beat this year, UC Davis and Virginia, it paid a combined $900,000 to play; in college football, those paid victories are known as “guarantees.”
Even 20 years ago in Bellotti’s worst defensive season, the Ducks didn’t struggle defensively as much as they do now. As of Friday’s 52-49 double-overtime loss to Cal, Oregon (2-5, 0-4) now owns the worst defense in college football. The Bears racked up 636 yards of offense, which means the Ducks now yield an average of 538.6 yards per game to opponents; that’s dead last out of 128 FBS Division I teams. Only three teams since 2003 have fared worse.
“We’ve got to keep working on the simple things,” defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said after the Cal loss. “Technique, tackling — all those things.”
Hoke was one of several Ducks who took positives away from the second half of Friday’s game, in which Oregon held Cal to 11 points to force overtime. But freshman linebacker Troy Dye was less optimistic.
“Any loss sucks; it doesn’t matter. Five straight is horrible. We need to come out better as a defense and play four straight quarters instead of two,” Dye said. “I love the way we finished, but at the end of the day, we can’t expect to win when we gave up 52 points. It’s just that simple.”
The Ducks are as close to rock bottom as they’ve been in decades. What’s more is that fans have been saying that for a month since Oregon fell to Colorado at home, and things have only gotten worse.
That loss on Sept. 24 also marked the last game Oregon forced a turnover other than on downs. A defense that led the FBS in turnover margin (+1.5) just two seasons ago now has gone 196 minutes and 15 seconds since without forcing a fumble or interception, not including overtime. The Ducks have gained only six turnovers all season; only six other teams have gained fewer.
Defensive backs coach John Neal pointed to a lack of playmakers on the defense to explain the turnover drought, which has perplexed him as much as anyone else.
“I have thought about it, and if I have an answer, it’s that playmakers make plays,” Neal said. “Playmakers on defense are guys who strip balls, who see things. You know, why does Jairus Byrd get 17 interceptions here in his career and becomes an all-pro in the NFL? Because he’s an all-pro-type guy.”
“Don’t think that we haven’t been thinking about it. We try to work on it all the time. We spent two weeks doing strip drills and things like that, and we’re still going to keep doing it.”
Neal has coached defensive secondaries for 34 years, including the last 13 seasons at Oregon. He’s developed seven draft picks over the past eight seasons, including Byrd, who led the NFL with nine interceptions as a rookie in 2009. He knows playmakers, and right now Oregon doesn’t have them.
Head coach Mark Helfrich said applying more pressure on the quarterback will help induce turnovers. Oregon has forced just 10 quarterback hurries on the season, and no single player has accounted for more than two. It could also help explain why opposing quarterbacks have a 142.48 passing efficiency against the Ducks.
Hoke said after the Cal loss that he wanted to get more pressure on quarterback Davis Webb. His goal was to take the inside lanes away and force Webb to bounce to the outside but on several plays Webb eluded the pressure.
“We had a couple opportunities that we let him out of the pocket,” Hoke said. “We can’t do that when we’ve got him lined up.”
The Ducks have surrendered the most touchdowns of any team in the country (41) and the third-most points per game (43.3), largely because opposing offenses have had nearly no trouble scoring against them from inside the red zone. Opponents have come away with points on 37 of 41 trips inside the Ducks’ 20-yard line; Cal scored touchdowns all seven times it got to the red zone on Friday.
Coaches and players generally felt after the Cal loss that the team’s second-half effort was a step in the right direction, but it’s difficult to evaluate the progress of the defense when it has failed in so many areas.
Oregon this season has allowed opposing teams to convert on 48 percent of third-down and 53.8 percent of fourth-down opportunities. The Ducks have also conceded 212 first downs, the most in the country.
Given the huge number of snaps his defensive players were on the field, Neal said it was “remarkable” they improved as the game went on. They defended more than 60 plays in the first half alone, not counting special teams. Cornerback Tyree Robinson was on the field for 115 snaps over the course of the game.
“I knew it was over 100, but I didn’t know it was 115,” Robinson said, laughing. “We know it’s always going to be over 100 because we play the most; we’re going to be on the field the longest. Like I said, we’re doing the most.”
Neal felt encouraged by several of his players “because they don’t quit and they play at a high level,” citing Robinson and fellow defensive backs Brenden Schooler, Khalil Oliver and Ugo Amadi as the four standouts against Cal. Each of them wore GPS systems during the game, and Neal said those players’ readings were “off the charts.”
In all team sports, however, players’ individual efforts are only as good as the team’s results, and the Ducks have not gotten the results they desired.
Bellotti’s Ducks missed a bowl game in 1996, but went on to improve their record by one game in each of the next five seasons, leading up to an 11-1 season in 2001, capped by a Fiesta Bowl victory. The Ducks likely won’t make a bowl game this season, but when you’re at the bottom, the only direction you can go is up.
Follow Kenny Jacoby on Twitter @KennyJacoby