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Helfrich’s future the million dollar question

EUGENE — Mark Helfrich hasn’t lost his sense of humor during a bleak season.

During Oregon’s 45-20 loss to USC on Saturday night, an ESPN sports business reporter tweeted that Phil Knight is willing to fund a $10 million salary for a coach to get the Ducks back in contention for a national championship.

“That’s the nature of the profession,” Helfrich said at his weekly Sunday press conference at the Knight-funded Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. “It would be cool if it was that easy.”

Before answering a follow-up question, Helfrich joked: “I take it that wasn’t me that was getting the $10 (million)?”

The athletic department is still paying the fourth-year coach to get the program back on track after the Ducks fell to 3-6 overall and 1-5 in the Pac-12.

Helfrich said Oregon’s young team didn’t have any issues dealing with a late-arriving, laid-back homecoming crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

But some players said they were not ready for the Trojans.

“It’s very strange to say the least,” senior tight end Johnny Mundt said of being on the wrong end of lopsided scores two years after dominating opponents en route to a Pac-12 championship and the College Football Playoff title game. “There’s downs where we’re just getting stuffed in the backfield, and I feel like we don’t know what the heck we’re doing out there.

“But we’re figuring it out, we’re learning as we go. We’ve just got to pick up things a lot quicker and keep the momentum going, catch balls that are wide open and make explosive plays because that’s the big momentum shift right there is explosive plays.”

When asked if he was surprised the Ducks don’t know what they’re doing at times nine games into a mess of a season, Mundt clarified:

“To say that we don’t know what we’re doing is not the right thing. There’s a pause where you’re not completely confident in what you’re doing,” Mundt said. “We need to minimize that pause, be confident in all of our calls, all of our plays, and play Oregon football.”

The offense, which is led by a true freshman quarterback playing behind an offensive line that includes four redshirt freshmen, was held to 288 total yards.

Justin Herbert was sacked three times and recovered a bad snap while completing 18-of-33 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown.

“They brought a lot of stuff we weren’t prepared for, different blitzes that we haven’t seen yet,” Herbert said of USC’s defense.

Redshirt sophomore running back Tony Brooks-James made his first career start ahead of classmate Royce Freeman. The duo combined for 63 net yards on 18 carries.

Wide receiver Charles Nelson produced the team’s longest run, a 25-yard touchdown on a misdirection play.

“They outplayed us up front,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. “They just flat came out and beat us.”

The Ducks had averaged 40.5 points and 519.1 yards per game before getting outclassed by USC (6-3, 5-3), which has won five consecutive games heading into this Saturday’s showdown at No. 4 Washington (9-0, 6-0).

“When you play a good football team it will expose some things,” Lubick said. “So us as coaches, we’ve got to go back and first of all build our own players’ confidence, correct what we can correct and get ready for next week. I know next week is a good defensive football team as well.”

Oregon opened as a 2 1/2-point underdog against Stanford on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

Prukop mops up

Dakota Prukop played for the first time since the Washington State game. The former starting quarterback was 2-for-4 passing for 41 yards and ran for a 15-yard touchdown on the Ducks’ final drive of the fourth game.

According to the coaches, Prukop has handled the staff’s decision to go with Herbert well.

“His attitude has been awesome,” Lubick said. “One of the reasons Justin is playing well is because of Dakota’s leadership and the way he treats him.

“It was neat to see him come in and have some success.”

When healthy last season, Vernon Adams Jr. enjoyed wild success, including a six-touchdown performance in a win over USC, after transferring to Oregon from the Big Sky Conference.

Prukop didn’t transfer from Montana State to back up the quarterback of the future during his senior season.

“He’s been very positive in a tough situation,” Helfrich said of Prukop. “That’s a hard situation to manage, a guy that’s a competitive guy, a prideful guy. He has done a great job of outwardly being supportive and continuing to compete.”

Notable

Brenden Schooler has four a in nine games, which ties the Oregon freshman safety for the most in the Pac-12. Washington State senior Shalom Luani has four in eight games. … Freshman linebacker Troy Dye, who had 13 tackles against USC, is second in the Pac-12 in tackles per game (8.4). … Tight end Pharaoh Brown, who has a TD reception from Herbert in three consecutive games, leads the Ducks with five scoring receptions. … Oregon started the same 11 players on defense in consecutive games for the first time all season. Brady Hoke’s unit ranks 125th nationally in points allowed (42.6) and 127th in yards allowed (535.2) out of 128 teams.

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich and the Ducks host Stanford on Saturday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS