Here are Steve's thoughts on the Ducks:
Q: There has been a great deal of criticism of Coach Helfrich this year, even some that have gone so far as to speculate that his job may be in jeopardy. How would you evaluate the job he's done and what if any, have been his failings this season? Finally, how much validity are there to claims that his job may be in jeopardy?
It’s very tough to really get a grasp on Oregon’s situation because the Ducks doesn’t allow media into practices. This lack of transparency doesn’t help Mark Helfrich’s cause, when the only time media and everybody else see the product is in games. If I use only that criterion of what I see in games, then I have to believe Helfrich is in deep trouble.
What I continually hear in post-practice reports from Helfrich is how hard the team works and how all the practices have been very good. The obvious question of course, is if practices are so good and the players are working so hard, then why has the team lost six conference games, three by blowouts?
I think this is a very good example of someone, somewhere in the Oregon Athletic Department setting sights on things like national spotlights, television revenue and setting trends. It’s okay to do that when you have the best player in football as the Ducks did in Marcus Mariota, but now the Ducks do not have a Heisman Trophy candidate on the roster – at least not this year.
If I look for what stamp Mark Helfrich has placed on this program, I’m having trouble doing so. Helfrich took over the head coaching job and vowed to carry on the program that was revamped by Chip Kelly. I’ve seen plenty of the Chip Kelly stamp on the Ducks, but what can I really point to as having the MH brand?
Not a whole lot unless I count, too many penalties (Ducks are dead last in that category in the conference); an extremely porous defense that is last in the conference in points and total yardage allowed, and some major coaching mistakes, as in attempting too many 2-point conversions against Nebraska, a game in which the Ducks tried five 2-point after conversions but were failed four times. The Ducks lost to Nebraska, 35-32. Oregon place kicker Aidan Schneider is extremely accurate (33-for-34 in PATs and 7-of-8 in field goals) so had Schneider tried to kick the four missed point after attempts and made them all, hypothetically the Ducks would have won the game.
There have been other examples of coaching errors, none more apparent than last year’s Alamo Bowl game, where the Ducks had a 31-0 lead at halftime, and for some unknown reason, the Oregon coaching staff called for a quarterback run and that run caused starter Vernon Adams to be hit and subsequently injured. Adams was lost for the remainder of the game and his back up, Jeff Lockie was either running for his life because snaps that he had to field like a shortstop or if he wasn’t in a panic and wondering where the snap went because it was too low, then he was chasing down snaps that sailed over his head, 50-yards in the wrong direction. Oregon of course lost the game in triple-overtime, 47-41 to TCU.
Mark Helfrich coaching decisions can bring back some bitter memories for Duck fans.
Q: Oregon's offense is still producing at a high level. What, if anything, has changed for the Ducks on offense this year?
I would say it’s been off and on that the Duck offense produces big numbers. In conference play the Ducks scored at will against Arizona State and California. Oregon was not bad offensively against Colorado, but against Washington State, Washington and USC, the Duck offense was pedestrian at best.
Part of the reason for that is that Ducks switched starting quarterbacks in the sixth game of the season. I’ll talk a little more about this but the sudden switch is still a bit of a mystery.
Another thing that isn’t quite the same about the Duck offense is that while skilled receivers like Charles Nelson, Darren Carrington and Jalen Brown have had their moments, we haven’t seen the results we anticipated from the passing game.
The other thing that has been missing in the last three or four games is the devastating running of Royce Freeman. Last season Freeman was conference’s top rusher but after sustaining an injury against Nebraska in Week 3, he doesn’t seem to have the same acceleration that he had. The Ducks still have some good backs, particularly Tony Brooks-James, but even if Oregon still rushing team at a 229.9 yard per game clip, it just isn’t the same this season.
QB Justin Herbert has impressed since taking over the starting QB role. Talk how he has improved since assuming the starting job and areas where he still has to improve.
Herbert showed great improvement against ASU by tying a school record of 489 yards passing and four touchdowns. However last week against USC, his performance was not that same high caliber. The USC defense sacked him four times, and some of that was because he took too long to decide what to do.
He sometimes overthrows targets (maybe that was due to a very active pass rush last week) and there are times one wonders if he is correctly reading the zone-read option and handing the ball off too soon. Freeman especially has been caught in the backfield way more than we’re used to seeing.
Herbert has all the makings to be a great quarterback someday and if I am to take a guess how he’ll do at home next Saturday, I’ll sway towards him doing a pretty good job, but he’s not Marcus Mariota, which is now how everybody judges Oregon quarterbacks. Herbert is a pocket passer that can generate enough speed to avoid some tacklers. He’s also a very bright young man and learns quickly.
I think there will be continued debate during the offseason among fans as to whether Herbert should have remained a redshirt and the Ducks continued with Dakota Prukop as the signal caller.
Q: The Ducks defense has been maligned all season. Triage the following causes for their struggles: scheme, experience, size, athleticism, technique, 1st year under new DC, injuries, X Factors.....
It’s fairly easy to diagnose one of the major problems – poor tackling technique. Players are not gaining leverage from their stance, are too often standing straight up, especially on the defensive front where they find themselves being rudely shoved out of the way so that opposing running backs can break off long runs. The linebacker have tended to stand and watch the game go by while attempting to make arm tackles on Pac-12 caliber running backs.
The secondary tends to give a lot of cushion to a receiver that suggests the DBs aren’t fast enough or athletic enough to cover.
On Thursday, defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said the Ducks had one picture of all 11 defenders in the frame and that was what the coaching staff was looking for all the time – flocking to the ball. Just like when the Ducks played Stanford at Autzen Stadium in 2010 when an Andrew Luck pass to Chris Owasu was completed but Owasu was hit hard by Duck defender and fumbled the ball. A flock of Ducks surrounded Eddie Pleasant as he picked the ball up and would have scored had Luck not made an incredible play to knock Pleasant out of bound around the 4-yard line.
Sorry to bring up this bad memory for Stanford fans, but it’s one of the best illustrations I can think of where Oregon defensive backs swarmed to the ball.
Q: There was recently a shot of a stunningly empty Autzen recently. What kind of an environment can Stanford expect on Saturday, and overall how would you say Duck fans are handling this down year? Minor road bump or Doom and Gloom?
If you read eDuck’s message boards you see a lot people demanding that Helfrich be fired. I don’t think that will happen this year, unless there are three big blowouts. Don’t get me wrong, that could happen too, but I think the Ducks will be competitive in all three games.
Empty seats you say? That picture was probably taken in the second half of the Washington game and could be the same picture if McCaffery and company go off on a very fragile Oregon defense.
This should be a competitive game if somehow Oregon’s defense has an epiphany in correct tackling technique. However, no one seriously believes that will happen.