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Oregon Ducks vs. Colorado Buffaloes Preview: Is This the Season?

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Oregon heads to Colorado for a game that will define a program, not just a season. How ill they respond?

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Yikes.

At this point, when reaching back into our minds, that’s about the only thought that should arise when digesting happened last Saturday night in Autzen.

It was, for all intents-and-purposes, a beat down. Momentum made the score a touch worse than it should have been, but make no mistake: what happened was no joke. Utah is really good. And, for one night at least, Oregon was really bad.

Now, as Oregon prepares to face a Colorado team that can absolutely smell blood in the water, Mark Helfrich and staff face mounting questions, criticisms, and pressure. A game that, for the better part of nine months, was viewed as a sure-win, bye-type week, takes on an added element.

It is, without a doubt, the most important game in Mark Helfrich’s history.

There was no pressure in last year’s playoffs. Anything won was gravy. Perhaps the bounce back win at UCLA, a week after the loss to Arizona, can be in the same stratosphere. But nothing comes close to what he’s facing this week.

If Oregon is sharp and focused, we can begin to move on from Utah, resigned to the fact that sometimes games like that happen. Year one, post-Heisman, post-experienced secondary. It can be viewed for what it was: a horrendous night.

If they come out flat, and uninspired, and drop a game they could very realistically lose? A season that began with playoff aspirations quickly turns to one of survival; for a coach, so recently on top of the mountain, suddenly sitting square on the hottest seat west of Austin.

Buckle up -- there’s a HUGE game taking place tomorrow. Here’s three things to watch for.

1. Attitude. It’s not about personnel. It’s not scheme, or abilities. If Oregon wants to climb out of this, they have to want it more than anyone else. One of the most disheartening aspects of watching them this year has been an utter lack of passion. There seems to be a laisse-faire mindset, especially on defense. The secondary, most of the time wildly out of position, seems more concerned with where they’re supposed to be, instead of just getting there. Want to overcome a seemingly sub-par scheme? Be a player. Make plays. Get there before the other guy. Oregon’s secondary is dripping with talent; most are young, and, clearly, over-thinking the game. Don Pellum has come out and said they will simplify the game plan even more, in hopes of letting guys revert more to their instinctual ways of playing. That’s great – and mistakes will be ok, and less obvious – if there’s a fire in the bellies of his players.

2. Royce Freeman and Taj Griffin – get them the ball, please. They won’t be as effective as they could be, strapped with an under-performing offensive line, and a quarterback situation that is clearly in need of stability, but Oregon’s best chance to win still starts and stops with Royce Freeman. The sophomore has been solid, averaging 112.5 yards per game, but has been more of an afterthought than a focal point. For much pf Oregon’s heyday, they were a running team, with snippets of passing threats thrown in for honesty. So, in order to give the quarterbacks even a hint of more room, it will be up to Royce – and Taj, for change-of-pace – to force the defense’s hand. The offensive line has not been great, but adequate enough in the run game. Get back to basics, run the ball, and watch the whole game become much more simple.

3. Helfrich. Not to beat an already-wounded horse, but this is an absolutely fascinating game for the head coach, in so many ways. No realistic person could have forecasted a perfectly smooth transition from Mariota, sans any bumps, but the aura around the program – one that has thrived on confidence and attitude – is, if not gone, in serious danger of being so. Helfrich is a good coach; he's rallied the troops before, and we all saw the magical run that happened when he did. It’s not fair to expect the same with a team that is much younger across the board, but this game will tell us more about who Helfrich is than any loss he’s had. Games like Utah, as he mentioned, happen; it’s about how you bounce back. Even the most loyal Helfrich-backers had to wince this week. How will he, and, subsequently, the program, respond?

Prediction

Predicting this one is almost impossible, so no scores will be given. And, no, that’s not a cop-out after my prediction last week ended up being about 60 points off. It’s because we literally do not know what to expect from this Oregon team.

I’m more interested in the response than the score. The playoffs are gone; and while a conference title can still be obtained, that’s not what this is about. It’s about identity. Branding. Who does Oregon want to be: a flash-in-the-pan blurb? Or a sustained program, here for the long haul?

I want to see inside the facemasks. I want emotion. Fire. An attitude that we won’t lose. A mindset that no one – not Michigan State, not Utah, not Colorado, or anyone who will cross our paths – will stop us.

For the first time since the opening game of 2009, Oregon has been knocked flat on the canvas.

They got up then. Will they get up now?