EUGENE — Oregon’s season has already included a quarterback change, the end of the program’s 12-year reign over a bitter rival, an apology from the head coach and a lukewarm vote of confidence from the athletic director.
The Ducks spent their bye week searching for answers after starting 2-4 overall and 0-3 in Pac-12 play.
Two years after appearing in the College Football Playoff title game, the program’s goals for the remainder of the 2016 regular season aren’t as lofty.
“Pretty much our only goal is to improve,” coach Mark Helfrich said. “We always talk about a relentless pursuit of better. That’s what we’re doing. It’s certainly not showing up in the scoreboard in the last four weeks, if you look at that limited window, which has been frustrating for all of us.”
Here’s a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the first half of the season before the Ducks attempt to hit the reset button Friday at California:
Promising crop of freshmen: Oregon’s offense has been turned over to true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, who showed some poise and potential in his first start against Washington’s unforgiving defense. The former Sheldon High three-sport star is playing behind an offensive line with four redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup. With left tackle Tyrell Crosby expected to return next season, the future appears to be bright on offense.
Although the defense has struggled, true freshman linebacker Troy Dye has had flashes of brilliance, leading the team with 7 1/2 tackles for loss and three sacks. True freshman safety Brenden Schooler and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Drayton Carlberg have also emerged as key players.
The rushing offense: Despite the youth on the offensive line, the Ducks lead the Pac-12 in rushing, averaging 257.8 yards per game. Royce Freeman, who missed the loss to Colorado with an injury, has 513 net yards on only 67 carries (7.7 yards per) with seven touchdowns. Tony Brooks-James has played well with 331 yards rushing and seven total touchdowns. Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin have combined for 390 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the ground.
Sound kicking game: Aidan Schneider, who is 3 for 3 on field goals and has made all 18 extra points this season, is the most accurate placekicker in school history. The Ducks decided not to go with the sure thing at Nebraska, finishing the tone-setting 35-32 loss in Lincoln 1-for-5 on two-point conversions. Matt Wogan is arguably the team’s most consistent player with 29 touchbacks on 40 kickoffs.
No Big Sky magic: Dakota Prukop was unable to deliver in the clutch during losses to Nebraska and Colorado. After struggling against Washington State, the Montana State graduate transfer was benched in favor of Herbert. Oregon had the most efficient passers in the nation the previous two seasons in Marcus Mariota (2014) and Vernon Adams Jr. (2015). Prukop is 18th nationally in that category after completing 66.2 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Thin at wide receiver: After catching four passes for 141 yards and a touchdown against Virginia, Olympian Devon Allen suffered a torn ACL on special teams at Nebraska. Another reliable starter, Dwayne Stanford, is out indefinitely with a knee injury suffered at Washington State. Gifted freshman Dillon Mitchell is still getting up to speed after being slowed by an injury in fall camp.
Darren Carrington leads the team in receiving with 304 yards and three touchdowns, but the dynamic deep threat hasn’t had the same chemistry with Prukop or Herbert that he had with Vernon Adams Jr.
Penalty problems: There was one area where Oregon actually showed some improvement during its back-to-back losses to the Washington schools. The team only had a combined nine penalties for 82 yards. But the Ducks still rank 121st nationally in penalties, averaging 8.3 accepted penalties for 78.5 yards per game.
And the Ugly
Defensive woes: Helfrich reassigned Don Pellum to linebackers coach after the Alamo Bowl collapse and hired former Michigan coach Brady Hoke to fix the defense. Oregon ranks 125th out of 128 FBS teams in points allowed (41.8 ppg) and 127th (ahead of only Rice) in yards allowed (522.3 ypg).
70-21: Helfrich apologized for the score after Oregon’s humbling loss to Washington at Autzen Stadium. The only time the program has allowed more points was during a 71-7 loss at Texas on Dec. 6, 1941. It was the third-most lopsided defeat for the Ducks in the series with the Huskies behind losses in 1974 (66-0) and 1951 (63-6).
Helfrich on the hot seat: Helfrich had a 24-4 record after his first two seasons, guiding Oregon to a Pac-12 championship and an appearance in the national championship game. But after the Ducks lost four consecutive games for the first time in 10 years and started conference play 0-3 for the first time in 20 years, Helfrich spent part of his bye week doing a sit-down interview with Tom Rinaldi for an ESPN feature titled “Dead Ducks.”
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens will be watching closely to see if Helfrich can get the program turned back around during the final six games of the regular season.
“I’m disappointed, the coaches are disappointed, the student-athletes are disappointed,” Mullens said. “And there’s a lot of frustration. No one thought we’d be 2-4, no one expected to be 2-4 halfway through the season.”