Heading into week 2 against Georgia State, a contest featuring irreverent fans and media, there’s an underlying importance to this game for the Oregon Ducks, fresh off their first loss of the season.
With no room for error going forward, Mark Helfrich and his staff are faced with an perplexing dilemma: their starting QB, Vernon Adams, is still baby-faced in the program, and in extreme need of live reps; but he’s nursing a broken index finger, and with the Utah Utes lurking just a week away, he needs to be healthy for Oregon to compete.
There’s a no-win situations bubbling below the surface. Play Adams, hope he doesn’t get hit, and get him out as soon as possible? Or, start Jeff Lockie, and ensure that your going-forward backup is game ready, but robbing Adams of the one thing he truly needs?
For all the talk about Adams’ lack on experience with his receivers, due to only being on campus for a short time, Lockie, despite being in the program for four years, has never taken a meaningful snap in a game either. Oregon is headed into Pac-12 play with two quarterbacks who have played a combined zero conference snaps that matter. And there’s a big difference between meaningful snaps, and the ones Lockie has been taking the past two years as Mariota’s backup.
The reason this topic is getting so much attention is that after Oregon’s performance in the Michigan State game – an immense improvement defensively from Week 1, despite the loss – the issue at quarterback is the lingering conundrum around the team.
No one can deny Adams’ talent, after he nearly willed the team to an improbably win. However, it became clear that, despite the coaches claims otherwise, Oregon is not real comfortable with Lockie in the game. A hobbled Adams, broken finger and all, was still viewed, seemingly, as the better option.
Far too many questions linger as we head into what should be a blowout of historical proportions. Oregon, after just the 5th loss in the Helfrich era, seems to be frothing at the mouth to get back into their winning ways. The worst case scenario occurred last Saturday if you’re a Georgia State fan – you now get a motivated, pissed-off Ducks squad, with potentially two quarterbacks eager to prove they are ready.
Good luck, fellas. Here’s three things to watch for, outside of the whole Adams-Lockie debate.
1. Oregon’s secondary concerns. The secondary, along with the rest of the defense, looked much better last week than they did in the opener. Michigan State was a whole different beast than Eastern Washington, and the Ducks seemed to be much more in command of their respective roles. Part of that could be the fact the Eastern is a hard team to defend, with receivers running all over the field (much like Oregon, themselves). But coaches have always said the biggest improvement for a team comes between Week 1 and Week 2, and that appears to be the case.
With that being said, the secondary still looked lost when it came to the ability to tackle. It won’t cost them against Georgia State, but this is a great opportunity to work on the fundamentals in real, live game action – as well as introduce a couple youngsters (Ty Griffin and Paris Bostick) who could be hidden gems in the rotation.
2. Running Game. There was some frustration amongst the Oregon faithful that Tony Brooks-James, solid in the opener and a spark plug in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, didn’t get more carries, especially when Royce Freeman went down with an injury. For as much as the coaches have praised Kani Benoit’s improvement, it’s Brooks-James who appears to have the perfect combination of shift-and-speed as a compliment to the bruising Freeman. Heading into Pac-12 play, having a clear 1-2 tandem will help with symmetry for all, especially the quarterbacks. If Oregon is going to win a conference title, and push others for a playoff spot, it’s going to be the running game, ala the 2009 season, that takes them there.
3. Defensive Line’s second shift. The first four on the line – DeForest Buckner, Alex Balducci, Christian French and, thankfully, Torrodney Prevot, have established themselves a solid, if not spectacular front line. For the most part, Oregon was able to keep Michigan State’s offense in check, especially the running game (a couple long ruins aside). The concern lies in those four leaving the field, and the production of the second shift. Rex Manu, the massive true freshman who saw important game action last week, and Austin Maloata, another hulking tackle, could be linchpins for the line for the next few years, and their development will go a long way towards Oregon’s success. The Ducks have been the most successful defensively when they go 7-8 deep on the line, and this type of game is the perfect opportunity for these guys to grow.
This game is all about personnel. Oregon, without breaking a sweat, should win by 40. Getting healthy at quarterback (keeping Adams upright, getting Lockie meaningful snaps); implementing Devon Allen, who has declared himself 100%; establishing a clear number-2 running back; and, potentially, shaking up the secondary with the first meaningful snaps of Ty Griffin and Paris Bostick are the scenarios that need to be played out.
Despite the loss, there’s a sense that Oregon is in better shape heading into Week 3 that they were against Michigan State. The performance in Week 1 was shaky at best; last week, they went toe-to-toe with a legitimate top-5 team, on the road, and were mere feet from pulling it out. There’s a lot to be gained from certain losses, and this is the perfect example.
Oregon plays their starters for one, maybe two quarters at most, and heads into Pac-12 play next week against Utah with more questions answered.
Oregon 69 Georgia State 21