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Oregon football fans could wake up last Saturday morning feeling slightly better about their favorite team as their Ducks finally put up a fight with the Cal Bears before succumbing 52-49 in double overtime.What I disagree with is that the talent is lacking. Oregon has at least mid-to-high range Pac 12 talent. The coaches aren't coaching them up. The longer they are in the program, the more I hate them. Sound like anyone else you (used) to know?
The poor tackling, poor tactical moves and lack of discipline that have characterized all five of Oregon’s losses this year were still evident, in spades. Only this time, unlike the previous three games, the Ducks demonstrated for all to see (and hopefully, for themselves to see) a tinge of fight and competitiveness that you must bring to the fray every play, every game.
You didn’t have to be an Oregon fan to be impressed with freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for six touchdowns and only one interception, which sadly, was on the last play of the second overtime and sealed the win for the Bears, and the fifth-straight defeat for the Ducks.
The buzz by many fans the next day was that maybe Oregon’s problems are over now that they have an outstanding quarterback leading the explosive offense. Unfortunately, with Royce Freeman continuing to struggle with a mysterious injury (could be lower body, could be sternum), that we won’t know what it is for sure until the end of the season or someone slips up on Twitter, the Ducks don’t have the explosive offense they will need to get the 50-plus points they’re going to need to score each game for a shot at victory.
Tactically, it would have been nice to let Herbert throw a higher percentage pass on the play that was picked off. It was second-and-7, a very good time to run the screen (a high percentage pass) that hurt the Bears on at least two occasions during the ball game.
Additionally, the Ducks are going to have to get more option into the run offense, especially if they don’t have the power run attacking the inside defense. The quick screen (a high percentage pass), once a staple of the flash and dash quick-strike offense the Ducks used to have, was not called once. Evidently, Oregon’s receivers no longer can be counted on to block or maybe beat a defender in the open field after the catch.
As the season progresses, the Duck offense is contracting and thus putting less pressure on the defense. In this case, this was the same defense that gave up more than 430 yards rushing against the Beavers; and the Ducks could manage only less than 200 against the same Bear defense. Perhaps Oregon’s rushing offense is easier to defend than OSU’s?
The Bears cleverly saw on films that opponents can take Charles Nelson completely out of any kickoff return opportunity by simply kicking a pooch kick to the tight end standing on the 30-yard line, ready to block. Instead, as the ball approached, he would automatically signal for a fair catch and the Ducks would start on the 30-yard line even when the tight end (who is considered a ball handler) could catch the ball unmolested and run forward 10 or more yards.
After four straight fair catches, former Oregon coach and television commentator Mike Bellotti remarked that it might be a good idea to put a return man at that position. Or my idea, simply tell the tight end to make some yards if there was no one in his face. It would have been a simple adjustment to make and nothing came from the coaching staff that was either distracted, unaware or afraid of making a mistake.
Defensively, the Ducks lined up a bit better, except on third-down plays with 5 or less yards to go. Most of the time, the secondary coverage was zone, which conceded the first down because every defender was laying off the receiver, whoever he was — wide receiver, tight end or running back. As the game wore on and the Ducks became desperate, they tightened up their coverage, both with corners and linebackers and, viola, defenders were actually close enough to receivers to break up some passes to go along with the three potential interceptions they dropped.
It would seem that like last year, the secondary is playing way off the receivers, so afraid of the deep ball. It concedes easy completions on sideline patterns the flat defenders can never reach. For that reason, the Ducks might want to play more two-deep defense, but putting the strong safety 15 yards deep takes one defender away from the run defense which, whether it’s with a three-deep or two-deep secondary coverage, is the worst in college football.
At any rate, Oregon’s corners tightened up as the game wore on and it looked like they were making more plays and showing more aggressiveness. It seemed like there had been a cloud of timidity hanging over those players, who likely could use a dose of psychological support from someone.
The game was stopped a dozen times to haul off an injured Oregon player, usually a defensive player and usually a defensive lineman. It is true that the beleaguered Duck defense was on the field for nearly 120 plays in the game, but as Steve Spurrier, the Old Ball Coach for South Carolina would say, “If you want to get off the field, stop somebody.”
It appeared that the number of plays, lack of depth and possibly conditioning were factors in the injuries. A couple of big guys went down because they were too slow and not athletic enough to protect their legs when blockers came at them. For the Ducks, there are three guys who could currently help the defense out as defensive ends, but unfortunately, they’re all playing tight end right now (Mundt, Bayless, Brown). Those are the types of athletes that need to be recruited to play the quality defense necessary in the Pac-12.
Penalties? Fourteen of them for 145 yards, but tack on at least 80 more on additional yardage negated on the plays that were penalized. Admittedly, there were a couple that were poor calls or bad luck on the Ducks, but perhaps officials are now looking at Oregon knowing they are committing a lot of penalties every game and they call what they expect to see.
One thing for sure is that the corners never know where the ball is on the long throw and feel they need to grab, hold or hook the receiver just a little, even on balls that are overthrown or go out of bounds. Perhaps a strategy could be to put on some Ohio State or Alabama defensive film and watch how the best in the country play the position. However, it would be unfair to overlook that freshman Malik Lovette successfully knocked down a fade route without incurring a pass interference penalty, the first fans can remember since the UC Davis game.
For the fifth time in seven games the Duck defense allowed a touchdown on their opponent’s first drive of the second half, blowing up any kind of adjustment or pep talk the coaches might have delivered at halftime. It didn’t help either that, for the fifth time in seven games, the Ducks allowed their opponent to score on their last possession of the first half. Not only are the points important but think of the psychological barrier that keeps cropping up, as if on cue.
It’s not all on the defense though, as the offense has scored only a touchdown on one of it’s last possessions of the first half and has only two touchdowns to go with a turnover and four punts to begin the second half. This ineptness means the Ducks are giving up two scores on two consecutive possessions around halftime, before and after. This is too much to recover from with the personnel problems facing Oregon. Having a serious lack of talent is one thing, but this halftime collapse is a killer, especially mentally. And Duck fans can see it and feel it, too.
Cal’s coach Sonny Dykes personally gave the Ducks a great chance to get back in the game with two bone-headed decisions in the third quarter when he decided to try a pooch punt with his quarterback (went 10 yards) and then a line plunge, both plays coming on fourth-and-1 situations. Oregon’s defense jammed up the line plunge on an effort that made you proud, just like old-fashioned football. It was very easy to see the Ducks were “selling out” on defense, which sadly, is rare footage this season. With the Bears perfect on fourth-down conversions up to then, you have to wonder why Sonny didn’t have the Bears do what they do best (pass) against a Duck defense that was practically conceding every short-yardage pass attempt.
Those mishaps aside, the Bears managed to pull it together and Herbert, attempting the same pass he threw for a score in the first overtime period, had the second intercepted by a freshman linebacker who, after the Ducks’ scored, had been told by his coach to look for that same pass.
Oregon needs faster, more athletic players who are strong physically and mentally. They need to be motivated, focused and disciplined. They showed some elements of that against California, but not nearly enough. At the Pac-12 level, players win games, but coaches can help, too.
— Ken Woody is a former Fox Sports football commentator who played defensive back, receiver and kicker for Oregon from 1966 to 1970. He coached college football for 18 years, including stints as an assistant coach at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State, and was head coach at Whitman College and Washington University-St. Louis.