On Saturday night, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich compared the Ducks’ game-losing end-zone interception to the idea of being in a train wreck.
But, with Oregon at 2-2 after its first back-to-back losses since 2007, it looks as though it’s not just that singular play that made most Ducks fans feel some sense of vertigo. This season as a whole -- and especially the last two weeks as the Ducks lost two games in two very different ways -- has the feeling of Oregon walking a tightrope between disaster and pulling it together.
One doesn’t have to look too hard to see what 2-2 with questionable decision-making and a late-game loss means to others in this business.
So, as the Ducks march into a four-game stretch that will require a lot of improvement out of every facet of the game, it seems like it’s a good time to take stock of the unit as a whole.
“We have to be in the solution business," Helfrich said Sunday night. "It's easy to figure out and point the finger ... anybody can do that. It's a delicate balance of being positive and being realistic with where we are.”
It’s clear to see the Ducks have issues and the coaches are certainly working toward solutions. Here are a few of the biggest issues facing the Ducks now, as well as a balance of positivity and realism for what those issues mean moving forward.
Issue: The Ducks keep putting themselves in third-and-long situations.
Reality: Oregon has faced 17 third-and-long (10-plus yards) situations this season. They’ve converted seven of those attempts (41.2 percent), which is more than double the conference average (20.1 percent). Strangely enough, the Ducks are almost as efficient on third-and-long as they are on all third downs -- converting 47.4 percent of third downs. But, the bad news in all of this is that even though the Ducks might be better at getting out of those situations than most, they’re still putting themselves in those situations in the first place. The worse news is that the rest of the Ducks opponents are pretty good at putting teams in third-and-10-plus and not allowing conversions. The only defense on Oregon’s schedule that has given up four or more third-and-long conversions this season is USC.
Positivity: Dakota Prukop is far more efficient than most quarterbacks when it comes to converting on third-and-long. He has completed a pass on 85 percent of third-and-long situations for the Ducks, which is the best percentage among Power 5 quarterbacks who have faced at least five situations of third-and-10-plus and some of the biggest offensive plays of the season have come on third-and-long situations.
Issue: The Ducks haven’t been forcing turnovers at a strong enough clip.
Reality: Oregon is at plus-three in turnover margin, which isn’t bad. But, it also isn’t good enough when considering how important turnovers have been to getting the program to national prominence. From 2011 to 2014 Oregon led the nation in turnover margin (plus-64) and points-off-turnover margin (plus-394). Season-by-season that breaks down to a plus-16 turnover margin and and plus-98.5 points-off-turnover margin, respectively. Oregon’s offense has done a good job taking care of the ball, but the defense could be doing more in terms of getting the ball back to its offense (or doing the scoring itself).
Positivity: The Ducks’ six turnovers have come from young playmakers, which is always a good sign for the future of a program. Sophomore linebacker Kaulana Apelu has recorded Oregon’s only forced fumble, but he’s a first-year player on the defensive side of the ball (appeared in 13 games in 2015 on special teams). Both true freshman starters have recorded interceptions -- Troy Dye has one while Brenden Schooler has two -- while redshirt sophomores Jalen Jelks and Khalil Oliver have a pick apiece as well.
Issue: Oregon’s run defense.
Reality: It’s not good. The Ducks are giving up 192.5 rushing yards per game (91st in FBS). They’ve allowed 10 rushing touchdowns (T-109th in FBS). Opponents are converting 66.7 percent of their third-down rushing attempts. Last weekend the Ducks allowed Colorado quarterback Steven Montez, in his first start, to pick up major yardage on the ground. None of this is good news considering the rushing attacks the Ducks are about to face -- Christian McCaffrey, Demario Richard, Myles Gaskin.
Positivity: The Ducks are transitioning to a new system and that’s never easy, especially when a coach is essentially retrofitting players who were recruited to play in a different scheme. But, for four games now, defensive coordinator Brady Hoke has said he’s not happy with his team’s tackling ... that’s not scheme. But Hoke seems to believe he has the pieces to make this defense work. Oregon has at least eight more games to prove him right.
There are countless ways to interpret every issue that affects a team. And finding the solutions to these issues -- the important part of it all -- is up to the coaches. But time is ticking and Oregon needs to find answers to these issues (and several others) before too long, because if they don’t opponents will continue to have their own answers for the Ducks.