For the better part of a decade, the University of Oregon football program has been a benchmark for success. Since 2000 the Ducks have either won or shared the PAC12 Title six times, two National Title Game appearances and a stigma of being able to score at will. Most of the Ducks major success has come since 2009 under coaches Chip Kelly and now with Mark Helfrich. Just two years ago in 2014, Oregon lost the National Championship Game to Ohio State 42-20 and that was just three years removed from a loss to Auburn 22-19 in the 2011 title game.
Last year the Ducks had what was considered an off year: 9-4. Most schools in the country would love a 9-4 record.
But fast forward to this year. Oregon is sitting at 2-5, bowl aspirations just about faded, and a fan base that is questioning the validity of Mark Helfrich as a Head Coach.
So where has it all gone wrong?
When you look at Oregon last year and this year both, the one aspect of their team that has a void is at the quarterback position. In 2015, Vernon Adams Jr., was a highly touted transfer from Eastern Washington who a lot of people thought would be able to replace Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, who had left early for the NFL. What ended up happening was a carousel or quarterbacks as the year went on that led to a lack of stability. Same issues this year. Another transfer, this time Dakota Prukop from Montana State, was set to lead the Ducks.
Just as last year, since game one, there has been a back and forth between the quarterbacks playing for Oregon. This year it is Prukop and true freshman Justin Herbert. This lack of continuity at the quarterback position leads to “little things” happening such as false starts, misreads on zone option plays, and misreads in the passing game.
This was in full effect in Berkeley this past Friday night.
The freshman Herbert got the start and it did in fact start off rocky. In the middle of the 2nd quarter and down 21-0, Herbert connected with Pharaoh Brown for 27 yards making the score 21-7 and injected some confidence in the Ducks. This led to a crazy game where Cal would go from up 31-14 at the half, to down 35-34 in the early part of the 4th quarter. Tied at 42, things went to overtime and traded touchdowns in the first overtime.
After Cal kicked a field goal on their possession of the 2nd overtime, Oregon was in a position to win a huge game for them confidence wise and would be able, for at least a week, stem any talk of a Mark Helfrich firing.
What happened was a sure enough misread by Herbert, an interception, and another loss. When you look at the play, piece by piece, before the snap, Cal lines up in an obvious man-under coverage. What this means is that the corners and safeties were in man coverage with the linebackers playing a zone coverage underneath as seen below:
When you play against this coverage, the usual, good, read is to the outside and it is based solely on numbers. One on one to the outside and usually two against one in the middle of the field as happened here.
Being this was a first down play, the sensible read would have been to throw to either of the outside receivers, take the 7 yards, and get ready for 2nd down.
The lack of experience at the position led Herbert to misread the play, try to hit a receiver down the middle of the field, which as you know now was intercepted ending the game.
While there is some justifiable pressure on Mark Helfrich to turn things around and quick, this is not a total disaster. Oregon has some good ball players. Again, two years ago, they were playing for a National Title. But whether or not the pressure on Helfrich is justified, one thing is for certain, and that is the past two years of Oregon failures can start to be traced back to the quarterback position and the lack of stability at the said position. For the Oregon offense to run the way it is designed, a stable quarterback must be the priority in Eugene.