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Are the Ducks Losing Their Innovative Edge?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Photo Credit: Don Hankins via Compfight cc

If Oregon had played Arizona on Saturday, and not Thursday, their 31-24 loss would just have been part of the wildly exhilarating and charming upset avalanche that cascaded down on college football’s week six.

In case you missed it, Alabama lost, too, last weekend. So did Oklahoma. And Texas A&M. And UCLA. It was the first time ever that five teams in the top eight of the AP Poll lost in the same week, and the first time since 1990 that four of the top six lost in one week, as well.

As if that wasn’t enough, USC lost on a last-second Hail Mary against Arizona State, and Stanford lost at Notre Dame. The weekend left the Pac-12 with only one unbeaten team – Arizona, which had to beat a Cal team that’s given up 56 points to Colorado and 59 points to Washington State on a Hail Mary of their own a few weeks ago.

It was a crazy beautiful day of college football, the kind that gives the sport its lore. And it left the Ducks right where they were before they lost to Arizona – in the thick of the playoff race.

After only two days, Oregon was handed a reprieve. There aren’t going to be four undefeated teams to make up the College Football Playoff – hell, there might not even be one.

After next week, either Texas Christian or Baylor and Mississippi State or Auburn will be saddled with a loss. One defeat – especially with the new postseason format – doesn’t kill you in college football. 

If the Ducks win out, they should be in the playoff. But with the spotlight all to themselves on Thursday night, Oregon did a nice job of convincing anyone who was watching that they won’t win out and instead will be confined to Holiday Bowl hell.

You’ve heard the buzzwords. Sloppy. Uninterested. Flat. Unrecognizable. 

The blame has mostly fallen on the shoulders of Mark Helfrich and his coaching staff, in large part because this team looks like a shell of the one Chip Kelly coached just a few short years ago.

Oregon takes on UCLA next Saturday. If they lose, things could get very ugly, very fast.

Truth is, Oregon football isn’t in a great place right now – and not just on the field, where the regression is easy to see.

Off the field, not everyone is pulling in the same direction. Maybe it was a combination of the opponent and it being a weekday, but the crowd at Autzen Stadium on Thursday night was not impressive.

The attendance was announced at just over 56,000, which, while still a sellout, is one of the Ducks’ lowest attendance numbers of the last five years. 

The stadium didn’t look full in places, and a generally uneasy atmosphere developed early on. There were boos throughout. 

There’s a divide in the Ducks’ fan base right now. Longtime fans who watched the Ducks losing in the rain in the worst uniforms in college football in the '80s – and even with those who were around for the Mike Bellotti era – have described the new breed of Ducks fans as “fickle” and “spoiled.”

No doubt, a certain amount of apathy has set in. This program is no fun right now – to coach in, to play in, to support. Oregon isn’t building anymore; they’re simply trying to be as good as they once were. 

Nick Aliotti could hardly stand it when he got out after last year. Knowing he was coaching his last season, when the increasingly malcontented De’Anthony Thomas dismissed the possibility of playing in the Rose Bowl after losing to Stanford, Aliotti railed that he “needed to get his head checked out.”

Aliotti is gone and so is the Ducks’ snarl. So is the Ducks’ sense of urgency. 

If I’m Helfrich, I’m worried right now. Not because I’d fear for my job with another loss, but because Oregon football is on the verge of becoming a toxic place to work.

It’s not all Helfrich’s fault – both his coordinators, Scott Frost and Don Pellum, are struggling with their new duties. The offensive line has been ravaged. 

You could see the loss to Arizona in the close win in Pullman over Washington State. All the signs were there; heck, the Ducks struggled in the first half against Wyoming.

That early season win over Michigan State – as intoxicating as it was – is appearing more and more like nothing but a hoax. 

The difference that day was that Oregon was playing to win instead of playing not to lose. They went for the jugular in the second half of that game. We haven’t seen anything like it before or since under Helfrich. 

Outside of that game, the ambition is lacking. So is the energy and focus. Oregon isn’t out of the playoff race. But they’re teetering on the brink of a collapse that will have an impact far beyond that of the 2014 playoff. 

The Ducks’ act is tired. No one is talking about the blur offense anymore or those cheeky play cards.

Everyone plays fast now. Everyone uses the play cards, and mostly, no one fears Oregon now. Hear a lot about teams faking injuries against the Ducks recently?

I didn’t think so.        

What the Ducks have right now is less talented coaches running a scheme that was revolutionary five years ago.  

With Helfrich, it’s been all about the status quo. And while I like the new coach’s local roots, his solid personality, and his loyalty to his guys, Oregon’s identity under Kelly, and even under Bellotti, was innovation.

The Ducks used to be ahead of the curve. Now, they’re just trying to keep up.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from Abe Asher, check out his page here. To read the rest of our columns, check out our page here.

Banner Photo Credit: Monica's Dad via Compfight cc


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