There's enough to read about last Saturday's game, and I'm assuming you read it all, so I'm skipping ahead.
For the first time since 2009, Oregon finds itself out of the AP Top 25 poll.
For the first time since 2004, Oregon enters the month of October with multiple losses.
At the season's earliest point since Mark Helfrich took over as head coach, Oregon has basically no shot at a national title.
Oregon enters next week's game at Colorado as a 12-point favorite. Twelve points, against a team that lost to Hawaii, and has a grand total of four Pac-12 wins in its history, including zero last season. The thing is, are you willing to bet on Oregon beating anybody by two touchdowns right now? It feels unreasonable to talk about a sub-.500 season, but do we really have any idea what bowl game Oregon is capable of making right now? Not really. Weird, right? It feels so...ten years ago. I'm half expecting Kellen Clemens to run out of the tunnel next week in Boulder. And considering how Vernon Adams and Jeff Lockie looked against Utah, I'd be pretty okay if the QB from Burns led the Ducks offense on the field.
No getting around it, Oregon looked bad in every facet of the game against Utah. The offense had no rhythm, the defense literally looked like it had its head up its own ass, and special teams just straight-up checked out, first giving up a fake punt first down in the moment that basically summed up the whole night (punt hits the wire holding up the field cam, Utah runs a fake on the re-kick where the snap is so bad the punter has to make a one-handed leaping catch, and the Utes pick up the first down anyway), and then getting deked out by Utah's punt return team and giving up its first special teams touchdown since 2006. Perhaps most significantly, Kyle Whittingham and his staff coached circles around Mark Helfrich. It reminded me of the way Chip Kelly used to be three or four steps ahead of the likes of Rick Neuheisel, Jeff Tedford, Jim Harbaugh, and Lane Kiffin (except for that one time Lane Kiffin outcoached Chip Kelly in 2011, but that doesn't fit the narrative so we won't be discussing it).
So the Ducks looked like crap for sixty forgettable minutes. But are they really that bad? If they are, how did it happen so rapidly to a team nine months removed from the national championship game?
Oregon football since Chip Kelly put his hands on it has been driven by two things: innovation, and execution. From 2007-2009, Oregon had unparalleled innovation, and inconsistent execution. From 2010-2012, Oregon was still innovating, and had the execution to match, leading to a 36-4 record, two BCS bowl wins, and a national championship game appearance. In the 2010-2012 seasons, Oregon went 36-4.
Thirty-six wins, four losses. Literally, 90% wins.
When Chip Kelly left for Philly and Mark Helfrich took the reins, the innovation slowed down. Why? Because we had Marcus Mariota, who could out-execute anyone in the country. And when you have one of the best college quarterbacks of all time running the show, you don't have to get fancy with strange formations and misdirections. Now that Mariota is gone, Oregon has found out that the rest of the country has caught up to its innovation, and the execution isn't there to keep the Ducks ahead of the pack.
In all honesty, many of the things we saw on the field against Utah have been there for a while. The offensive line looked real bad in pass protection, but it really has never looked good in pass protection early in the season. Keep in mind, Oregon lost to Arizona, and almost lost to Washington State, in the early going last year. In both games, the offensive line was dominated in the same way that Utah's front seven destroyed Oregon's line last week. Only this time, Marcus Mariota wasn't there to bail Oregon out. And the defense has really never been innovative, because it's never had to be the breadwinner of the team. It's never really needed to be good, just good enough. This year, the Oregon defense happens to be inexperienced, undermanned, and lacking the support of a consistent offense. So what last Saturday night was was a confluence of suck; offense without an identity, exposed defense, coaches with no new ideas, facing its exact opposite in Utah, a well-coached team with a veteran quarterback and defense that was hungry for its first signature win in the Pac-12. The confluence of suck was hard to watch, but necessary to inform us of the truth: that Oregon will have to work for all its wins from here on out.
So what does this mean for this season? Well, it means Oregon needs to get its house in order. Fortunately, they have a few weeks to do that, with Colorado, Washington State, Washington, and an unexpectedly-bad Arizona State coming up on the schedule. The first two can be won ugly, but by the Washington game, Oregon needs to have done the following things:
- Pick a quarterback, and ride or die with that quarterback - I say this with 2016 in mind as much as anything. If Jeff Lockie's gonna be the guy next season, then give him the keys now and let him take lumps if needed. Vernon Adams was the high-ceiling stopgap that was supposed to help us get back to the final four, and that's out. If we know that Lockie isn't the long-term answer, then let's have some fun with Adams, give Lockie a list of graduate-transfer options for next season, and await with bated breath the Morgan Mahalak - Taylor Alie - Travis Jonsen - Seth Green - Terry Wilson battle royale. But waffling around with two quarterbacks isn't going to help Oregon in either the short-term or the long-term. Both Lockie and Adams are flawed; just pick one and go.
- Go big or go home on defense - At this point, the defense has nowhere to go but up, and I put the bulk of the responsibility to change on Don Pellum and the defensive coaches. What Oregon is currently doing on defense barely worked with veterans and NFL-ready talent. With a secondary featuring a true freshman and a guy who was a quarterback six weeks ago, Oregon's scheme has no chance. So let's shake it up. Do something else, anything else. Honestly, I don't care at this point what that is. I would just rather see Oregon's defense fail spectacularly than fail in the same way we've watched them fail for a while. The status quo won't make this team any better, and it just might get Don Pellum fired. A swing for the fences has to be the option for a program that used to thrive on swings for the fences.
- Run the damn ball - Royce Freeman had 14 carries against Utah. Royce Freeman is one of the five best running backs in the country, and got 14 carries against Utah. I honestly don't care what the score is, or whether the run game is "working". Royce Freeman is going to make the Oregon offense go this year, and he needs 25-30 touches a game, at minimum. And honestly, it might take getting away from the read option to get him the damn ball. Without Marcus Mariota, the read defender is going to make the QB keep it every time. We watched Utah do it, and take away the biggest threat in Oregon's attack. So, don't give them the choice. Give it to Royce. When Royce gets tired, give it to Taj Griffin and have him run past people. The offensive line has been better as a run blocking unit this season than they have in pass protection, and we have a half-dozen guys that can run the ball better than any of our quarterbacks can throw it. Run the damn ball, please.
- Remember that you are Oregon football, and are supposed to do Oregon football things - There was one play in the Utah game that gave me hope. The scoring play on Jeff Lockie's first drive was a clever thing of beauty. Bralon Addison motioned from the back of a stack formation wide left into the backfield. Utah's in man coverage, and the man on Addison came with Bralon on his motion, thinking some sort of run play. The ball is snapped, Lockie fakes the handoff to Freeman, and then looks middle to Byron Marshall, running a drag route. Addison's man sees the fake, and steps into the running gap. As soon as he bites on the run fake, the trap is set. Addison does a U-turn, and swings right back out from whence he came, only without the defender. Marshall's route and Lockie's eyes clear out the side of the field, leaving a middle linebacker to chase Addison into the endzone. It was a gorgeous play design that led to an easy touchdown. It was the kind of play that put Oregon on the map, even more so than flashy uniforms and a fast tempo. "Let's do more of that" is much easier said than done. But for the Ducks to have a shot at a conference title without their world-beater at quarterback, they have to do it with creativity. So let's do more of that.
Can Oregon rebound from this? Of course they can. Oregon has more talent than anyone else in the conference, save for maybe USC. If the coaches can find ways to make that talent work, the schedule sets up well for the Ducks to finish the year strong. That said, will they lose again this year? Probably. The back-to-back of Stanford and USC will be no fun, Cal's offense can and will tear apart Oregon's secondary, anything can happen on a Thursday night in Tempe, and Washington has a defense capable of shutting Oregon down just like Utah did. The rest of this season will be nine weeks of nail biting and hair pulling. When the clock hits zero on the Civil War, Oregon might be 10-2, and they might be 6-6. This team may kill you. If you aren't okay with this, there's the door, and you're welcome to leave. More room for me and the other idiots who are stuck with this team forever.