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Ducks Football at a Crossroad Following Alamo Bowl Debacle

Saturday, January 09, 2016

 

For the past 5 years, as sure as the sun comes up in the morning you can count on the Oregon Ducks football team to be among the nation’s elite, competing for both the Pac-12 and National Championships. Even this year, with so much in flux at the QB position after losing Heisman winner Marcus Mariota to the NFL, the Ducks entered the year ranked in the top 5 of the preseason poll, mostly due to the sterling reputation they had built up over the previous half decade of dominance.

As the season unfolded, however, things quickly took an ugly turn with defensive struggles and quarterback injuries dominated the early season headlines as the Ducks sputtered to a 3-3 start, including embarrassing home losses to Utah and Washington State. Some began to posit if it may have signaled the end of Oregon’s run as a Pac-12 power.

Then the second half of the season happened. Vernon Adams returned from injury and the Ducks finally looked like the top 5 team they were supposed to be as they reeled off an impressive 6-game winning streak to finish off the season, including an (almost) season-defining victory on the road against eventual conference champions Stanford. Suddenly, all was right with the world again.

Then the Alamo Bowl happened.

We can probably skip the nitty gritty details, but, suffice it to say that it was a microcosm of the tumultuous season that preceded it (albeit in reverse). With Adams running the show, the Ducks looked like their dominant selves, jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead. But, after he was knocked out of the game late in the first half with a neck injury… oh god, my eyes!

It’s hard to find a more fitting place for an outmanned team to get slowly and methodically worn down to defeat than the Alamo. Although, unlike the original, I’m not sure too many Duck fans will be clamoring to remember this debacle.

At the end of the day, however, it was only a 2nd tier bowl game, and other than it putting an end to team’s streak of 10-win seasons, there wasn’t really much lost from this meltdown. The wounds, although deep, were mostly superficial.

The real story is where this will lead the team next year and the year’s following. Prior to the bowl game, Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost bolted Eugene to take over Head Coaching duties for AAC doormat Central Florida. He brought with him OLB Coach Erik Chinander to be his Defensive Coordinator.

Unsurprisingly, the end of the season also saw the end of Don Pellum’s rocky (to be kind) tenure as Defensive Coordinator. Shortly after the game, it was announced that the long-time Ducks coach was being demoted back to the job he held for the majority of his 26 seasons on the sidelines of Autzen: coaching the team’s linebackers.

It also saw the end of Vernon Adams’ brief stay in Eugene, as the senior transfer graduates after a great individual, but ultimately disappointing, season that saw him lead the nation in QB Rating but also struggle to stay on the field, the latter of which cost the Ducks any chance they had at a return trip to the College Football Playoff.

So, with openings at both coordinator positions as well as under center, there are a ton of questions to be asked and, as of yet, few concrete answers to be had.

Yes, the Ducks promoted popular Wide Receivers Coach Matt Lubick to Offensive Coordinator, and they have secured their second straight FCS All-American graduate transfer from the Big Sky Conference in Montana State Quarterback Dakota Prukop, just a few weeks ago. Those moves should help keep the high-flying offense humming along. In theory, at least.

That’s because Lubick has never coordinated a collegiate offense before, and Prukop, while undoubtedly talented, has never taken a snap at the FBS level. The talent is there with both, but, so is the uncertainty of being new on the job.

Even more importantly, though, Oregon still needs to find a new man to lead the defense. As much as the offense struggled without a star QB running the show, it was the defense that drew the ire of fans from start to finish last season. That’s been a long-running theme in Eugene, where the defensive side of the ball has long played second fiddle to the offense ever since Mike Bellotti took over for Rich Brooks and his vaunted Gang Green defense.

Mark Helfrich and Athletic Director Rob Mullens have promised to conduct a “national search” for a new DC, and given the Ducks deep pockets, you have to expect they’ll be willing to whip out the checkbook if needed to secure the right candidate. But, that’s also easier said than done. Being a defensive coordinator in the high-flying Pac-12 can be a thankless job, particularly when paired with a warp speed offense that consistently gets drubbed in time of possession and puts tons of stress on their other half.

Which brings us to the man tasked with making all these decisions (or at least, the guy who will be putting his neck on the line for them): Head Coach Mark Helfrich. While Helfrich will certainly return to the sideline next season, his seat will no doubt be warmer than it has been for any coach in Eugene for some time. And, depending on how things go next season, it could be scalding hot by year’s end.

As crazy as it sounds, another 9-win season would put the Coos Bay native square in the crosshairs of both fans and big-time sneaker donors alike. Anything less, and the rumbles for a change at the top of the program will get louder than the billowing engine of the Harley Fat Boy that leads the team onto the field each Saturday.

At the same time, the Ducks return gobs of elite talent next season, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. If Prukop can prove to be even just a decent Pac-12 QB, and the defense can make some strides under new leadership, a second trip in three years to the College Football Playoff is by no means out of the question. Of course, if those things don’t happen, fans may be looking back wistfully on a 9-win season.

So, while it may not quite be time to panic in Eugene, it’s been a long time since there have been this many questions at so many important positions for what has been one of college football’s most stable programs. Only time will tell if we’ll look back on 2015 as but a small blip on the radar or an ominous sign of things to come. Either way, 2016 seems destined to be pivotal year for Oregon Football. For better, or worse.

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 this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

Related Slideshow: Slideshow: Duck Fans React to NCAA Football Championship

Fans gathered throughout Portland Monday night to watch the NCAA Football Championship, the first ever to be determined by a playoff series.  GoLocalPDX caught some of fan reactions in the heat of the moment. 

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Front, Dan Tewksbury Class of 2012, back, Chris Martinez Class of 2012 

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1st Quarter Buffalo Wild Wings (Eastside)

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Mark Strong, 4th Quarter, Rialto Poolroom Bar

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Jessica Fitton, 1st Quarter, Buffalo Wild Wings (Westside)

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1st Quarter, Buffalo Wild Wings (Eastside)

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Buffalo Wild Wings (Eastside) 1st Quarter

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Front, Dan Tewksbury Class of 2012, back, Chris Martinez Class of 2012 

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Kimberly Almeda, 3rd Quarter, Rialto Poolroom Bar

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Evry Salazar, 2nd Quarter, Buffalo Wild Wings (Westside)

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Left to right, Alex- Class of 2012, Kat- Class of 2012, Kylie Class of 2012, Kaelee- Class of 2012, Kylie - Class of 2012 

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Left to right Jake Bowen 2010 , Nick Calvert 2010, Michael Burk 2010, Front - Jake Biskar - Beaver 

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Left, Doug Sellers - Class of 1985, Right, Darrell Gilmore - Class of 1985 

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Jason Andress, Post game, Rialto Poolroom Bar

 
 

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