Fallen from its coveted pedestal at the top of the Pac-12, Oregon remains stuck in the cellar of the Pac-12 North as it limps back to Eugene after its fifth-straight loss of the season.
Oregon (2-5 overall, 0-4 in Pac-12 play) lost to California Friday night 52-49 in double overtime with a game-sealing interception thrown by Oregon freshman quarterback Justin Herbert. The loss marked the Ducks' fifth loss in a row after winning their first two matchups. Oregon’s five-game losing streak is its longest since 1996.
Only two years ago, Oregon was having one of its best seasons in program history, with Heisman winner Marcus Mariota leading Oregon to the College Football Playoff National Championship game in Arlington, Texas. And while the Ducks lost 42-20 to Ohio State, they posted a 13-2, 8-1 record on the year, the most single-season wins in program history.
After Mariota left for the NFL following his successful 2014 season, former Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. took over the Ducks' offense. Adams was a Pac-12 honorable mention all-conference honoree in 2015 and led the Ducks to a 9-4 overall, 7-2 conference record.
In the second half of the regular season, Adams completed 112-of-169 passes for 1,865 yards and 21 touchdowns in his final six regular-season appearances while guiding his team to a 6-0 record.
This season, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is in his fourth year at the helm of the program after being the Ducks’ offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly from 2009 to 2012. In his first three seasons, Helfrich led Oregon to a 33-8 overall record with a 22-5 mark in Pac-12 play.
This year, Helfrich has a new offensive coordinator at his side, Matt Lubick, after the coach spent his first three seasons as Oregon’s wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Lubick replaced Scott Frost, who was hired as the head coach at the University of Central Florida.
However, new leaders on offense combined with a struggling defense has resulted in the Ducks' failure to live up to preseason hype. They were ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25 poll at the start of the year.
On offense, Oregon is again led by a new quarterback for a second year in a row -- freshman quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert has started the last two games for the Ducks after taking over for graduate transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop.
Herbert made his first career start in Oregon’s 70-21 loss to then-No. 5 Washington on Oct. 8, taking over the starting duties from Prukop. Prukop played in the first five games of the season and completed 92-of-139 passes for 1,173 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Herbert has played in three games, started two, and is 46-of-76 passing for 507 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Despite the quarterback change, Oregon is No. 4 in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, averaging 38.6 points per game. Now led by Herbert, the Ducks are averaging 488.4 yards of total offense per game, good for No. 3 in the conference.
“Obviously they are extremely talented offensively,” Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. “Their wide receivers cops, actually their running back corps is probably the best overall running backs group in the conference. Very explosive offensively. Can really hurt you.”
Despite losing its leading receiver from 2015 -- Bralon Addison -- four Oregon wide receivers have 13 or more catches this season, with junior wide receiver Charles Nelson leading the way with 38 receptions for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
Nelson also contributes both on punt and kick returns. He has five punt returns for 101 yards and 23 kick returns for 635 yards, a 27.6 average. He returned one kick for a 100-yard touchdown in Oregon’s game against Washington State.
“Very dynamic in special teams,” Graham said. “Nelson is as good as a returner as we’ll face in punt return and kickoff return.”
Junior wide receiver Darren Carrington has 25 catches for 373 yards and three touchdowns.
But Oregon’s true strength is not its passing attack, it's in the run game.
The Ducks are No. 1 in the Pac-12 with an average of 248.4 rushing yards per game, despite starting four redshirt freshman offensive linemen.
Oregon junior running back Royce Freeman is the No. 5 running back in the Pac-12 with 82 carries for 523 yards this season and seven touchdowns.
Freeman was fourth in the country (1,836 yards) in rushing last year in addition to becoming the only FBS player nationally to accumulate more than 100 yards from scrimmage in every game.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of Oregon’s loss to Nebraska in week three and had to miss Oregon’s game against Colorado before returning the following week.
Oregon sophomore running back Tony Brooks-James also has seven rushing touchdowns on the year, carrying the ball 62 times for 440 yards.
Oregon will be facing the Pac-12's top-ranked rushing defense in ASU at Autzen Stadium on Saturday (99.9 yards per game average).
“Obviously a very difficult place to play,” Graham said. “We’ve got to go on the road and got to play well so they’ve lost a lot of close football games is where they are at.”
While Oregon’s offense has been holding its own the past seven games, the Ducks' defensive struggles are vast.
Oregon is No. 126 out of 128 FBS teams scoring defense, allowing an average of 43.3 points per game and is No. 123 out of 128 FBS teams in total defense, allowing opponents to average 538.6 yards of offense per game.
First-year defensive coordinator Brady Hoke leads the Oregon defense, replacing Don Pellum, who was demoted after two years on the job and reassigned to coach linebackers.
Hoke has never previously held the title of defensive coordinator prior to his arrival at Oregon, however his most recent position was the head coach of Michigan from 2011-14.
Hoke was fired after four seasons at Michigan with a 31-20 record overall, 18-14 in Big Ten play. In 2014, the Wolverines had a 5-7 season. Hoke’s overall head coaching record is 78-70.
Now with the Ducks, Hoke is tasked with rebuilding an Oregon defense that lost five starters from the Alamo Bowl. With Hoke’s arrival, he replaced the 3-4 defense Oregon had run since 2009, with a 4-3 scheme.
In addition to the implemented change, Hoke’s tackle leader on defense is a new player, freshman linebacker Troy Dye. Dye leads the Oregon defense with 44 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks and one interception.
Dye graduated from high school early in order to enroll at Oregon in time for the start of the winter term and participate in spring practice. Dye was the Pac-12 Player of the Week after his debut game against UC Davis finishing with a game high of 11 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound linebacker was the first true freshman at Oregon to record double digit tackles in his career game since 1996 and first true freshman to start at linebacker in over 38 years.
Oregon freshman safety Brenden Schooler is second on the team in tackles, with 40 in addition to two interceptions. Despite Schooler’s efforts, Oregon is last in the conference in interceptions with five and is at minus-two in turnover margin.
Against Cal, Oregon started two freshmen, three sophomores, four juniors and only one senior -- linebacker De’Quan McDowell. McDowell was a walk-on transfer in 2015. He walked on as a wide receiver before making the switch to linebacker.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound linebacker has 22 tackles so far this season with two tackles for loss and one sack.
Oregon junior safety Arrion Springs returns as one of the standouts of the 2015 season. Springs was a 12-game starter in 2015 and finished the year third in tackles among the defensive secondary (53) and the team-leader in passes broken up (12).
This year, Springs has 32 tackles, three for loss, one fumble recovery, eight pass breakups and eight passes defended.
The Ducks are No. 11 in the Pac-12 in rushing defense and passing defense, allowing 248.4 yards on the ground and 290.1 yards through the air.