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After big loss, Helfrich faces make or break year

COURTESY: ANDY NELSON/THE REGISTER-GUARD - Oregon Ducks backup quarterback Jeff Lockie crouches on the turf at the end of the three-overtime Alamo Bowl at San Antonio, Texas.SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The anatomy of an awful loss by Oregon, a historically bad defeat, one that everybody seems to be describing as “epic” starts and ends with coach Mark Helfrich.

At least the third-year head man, the former offensive coordinator under the great Chip Kelly, pointed the finger at himself first and foremost for Oregon's 47-41, triple-overtime loss to TCU in the Alamo Bowl, in which the Ducks led 31-0. Disingenuous coach speak? Yes, partly, as he covered up for his team’s flaws. The truth? Yeah, partly.

He’s the one who hired Don Pellum as defensive coordinator, and the former offensive coordinator (Scott Frost) and the new one (Matt Lubick). He’s the one who recruited and coached backup quarterbacks on the roster, including Jeff Lockie. He’s the one overseeing development of quarterbacks. He’s the one signing off on offensive and defensive game plans, and offensive packages designed to produce yards and points, and he’s the one arguing against something as simple as putting the QB under center to prevent bad snaps. He’s the one ultimately in charge of defense, make no mistake. He’s the one setting the course for the program. OK, he’s wanting to take the blame, then blame should be put squarely on him.

“Blame me, I’m 100 percent good with that,” he said after Saturday’s collapse at the Alamodome.

Big picture-wise, a 9-4 record with a transfer quarterback (Vernon Adams Jr.) who missed time with an injury, and unqualified backup QBs, can be seen as a somewhat successful season. Just think what things would have been like had the Ducks not landed Adams and been forced to go with Lockie as the starting quarterback? Probably something along the lines of 4-8 or 5-7.

But, where there is a problem there is also a solution or two. One would think there would be more coaching changes, particularly with Pellum as defensive coordinator (Update: Helfrich reassigned Pellum to linebackers coach on Monday, and will hire a new coordinator). Loyalty and tenure only go so far in regard to these long-term UO coaches. Maybe a philosophy change on defense, away from bend-don’t-break? The Ducks finished last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (37.5 points allowed per game) and total defense (485.3 yards), overtaking OSU for last-place honors and setting the UO record for points allowed (488). Helfrich refused to give Pellum a vote of confidence and assure the coordinator would be back (and then reassigned him Monday).

Maybe Helfrich uses the Ducks’ open coaching slot for a quarterbacks coach to work alongside Lubick. The QB situation has to be paramount moving forward, because going back for years, UO offense has always given the defense margin for error — a reality fully on display in the TCU game, when Adams led Oregon to a big early lead before exiting from a hard shot to the head on a midfield quarterback draw play.

The Ducks are trending downward. They had to attract another transfer (Dakota Prukop) to stop-gap the QB position for next year, while young players work on developing. It’s hard to fathom how Oregon could be in such an unhealthy situation at the QB position, given the program’s latest success. Again, Helfrich led the recruitment and coaching of QBs under Kelly — to his credit, helping land Marcus Mariota — but the string of ineffective recruited QBs features Lockie, Morgan Mahalak and others.

“That positon is absolutely a premium,” Helfrich said.

Every year, teams lose seniors, but it’s hard to imagine the Ducks being better on the offensive and defensive lines next year. The three best offensive linemen depart (Tyler Johnstone, Matt Pierson, Matt Hegarty), as do the two best D-linemen (Alex Balducci and the incomparable DeForest Buckner). In addition, four linebackers are graduating: original starters Rodney Hardrick, Joe Walker, Tyson Coleman and Christian French.

The Ducks will have to retool their defense, especially without somebody of Buckner’s talent and leadership. The secondary will return intact, but that doesn’t guarantee the unit performs markedly better; it was the seasonlong work-in-progress unit.

But the Ducks will be seemingly equipped with its slew of skill players — Royce Freeman, three backup running backs, Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson among receivers (assuming Nelson plays both defense and offense, and special teams, again).

Are the Ducks still a perennial Pac-12 contender? Maybe. Are they still a national-caliber team? Remains to be seen. Without a solid QB situation, one would think not.

Coaches and players say all the right things about Lockie, who said during bowl practices that he fully intends to compete with Prukop and others to play next year. In the Alamo Bowl, the Ducks managed 43 yards after halftime with Lockie at the controls (while giving up 403 yards and 47 points to TCU and backup QB Bram Kohlhausen, by the way, an eye-popping disparity).

Lubick, serving as coordinator for the first time, said he was “proud of our guys. They never quit.” The Ducks just didn’t finish, a juxtaposition of effort versus execution.

TCU coach Gary Patterson said the Adams injury equalized “the playing field,” given the suspension of Horned Frogs star QB Trevone Boykin for the game. Boykin’s replacement, Kohlhausen, the game’s offensive MVP, said they took note of Adams’ injury: “I don’t think anybody walking out of that tunnel in the second half (trailing 31-0) really had a doubt that with their quarterback out, 31 points ... we get something on the board, we get a couple turnovers, defense plays well ... I mean, 31 points was easy.”

How could Lockie not maintain the ample (once 31-0) lead, especially with Freeman and others to call on? The dropoff was severe from the injured Adams, even though Lockie had another two months since his previous play contributed to the Ducks’ early 3-3 record. Lubick’s explanation was pretty clear, actually.

“Nah, at the end of the day, we didn’t execute on certain things,” he said. “Turnovers (Nelson kickoff return fumble), a snap here and snap there (by backup center Doug Brenner), and a drop or two. ...

“We would have loved to run the ball every snap (Freeman, after all, had 130 yards and three scores). But you have to complete some passes. To get 31 points, we played fast and had them on their heels. So, if you’re going to control the clock you still have to be able to execute. At times we didn’t execute. Hat’s off to them. They’re a good defense, and they force you to execute.”

Lockie doesn’t limit what the Ducks can do, Lubick adds. (It begs the question, then: Why can the coaches not input plays and packages that allow Lockie to be successful? Remember when Kelly groomed Justin Roper to win MVP honors at the 2007 Sun Bowl?).

“Nah, we ran our offense,” the coach continued. “It was a tough situation to put him in. Vernon takes the ‘one’ reps; we do the ‘twos’ in practice, but (Adams) gets all the looks.

“You come to a game cold and you’re not used to it and you have to adjust to it. It’s hard. Could he have played better? Yeah, but a lot of guys could have played better. His mindset and type of person he is, he’s as good as it gets. He’s a coach on the field.

“The quarterback, it’s a bad deal, because they take way too much of the blame. Way too much of the blame. To pick a snap off the ground is a hard deal. That one (pass play to Carrington) would have scored a touchdown, that could have changed the game (but Lockie’s knee touched ground picking up a low Brenner snap). ... We thought one play would change the way (TCU) had to play, too. It didn’t happen. They had enough time they could be balanced, run and pass.”

For their parts, Lockie and Brenner were stand-up guys to the media (as opposed to some others who didn’t report for post-game interviews).

“No idea what was going on,” Brenner said. “Just a weird thing. My snaps are usually perfect.”

“I was ready. We were ready to go,” said Lockie, who went 7 of 15 for 36 yards after Adams’ 13 of 19 for 197 yards and a TD to Carrington.

One of his misses was a second-overtime pass over the head of an open Carrington; it would have been a touchdown. “It was a simple task, but everything that went wrong ... it was a combination of everything,” Lockie said. “They just steamrolled, and it was like the Utah game, we couldn’t stop it.”

Of Brenner, who replaced injured center Hegarty, Lockie said: “He was our next guy up. We stuck with him, we trust him. We were trying to pick him up and give him as much confidence as we can. It was his first significant playing time at center this year.”

The Ducks suffered one other catastrophic loss this season, the 62-20 drubbing by Utah where nothing went right (not just Adams’ injury forcing him out). They also blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and lost to Washington State and survived other games where they gave up many yards and points after halftime.

Poor second-half defense was a seasonlong trend. The Ducks were outscored 163-114 in the third quarter of games, 110-106 in the fourth quarter and 44-37 in overtime. Good teams usually don’t get outscored after halftime, especially not by 60 points.

“This whole year, especially on the defensive side, it’s been a struggle in the second half to finish games,” Buckner said.

Pellum’s thoughts, after the TCU fade: “Wish we could have been fresher. Structurally, we were pretty good. They made plays and we didn’t. Execution and finish.”

Against Oregon State, arguably the Pac-12’s worst offensive and overall team, the Ducks gave up 35 second-half points, including 28 by OSU’s offense, but hung on for the 52-42 win. Players and Helfrich say they relaxed, and UO safety Tyree Robinson, for example, said the Ducks learned their lesson heading into the bowl game.

But Nelson said maybe the most damning thing after the TCU game:

“I feel like a lot of guys got comfortable and just hit cruise control,” he said. “You can’t do that in a game like this. ... (The Horned Frogs) were just out there executing plays. I felt like they wanted it more than we did in the second half. ... We have to go into the second half ready to play.”

Still, backup QB play, defense and motivation and urgency — those things can be traced right back to coaching. We’ll see whether the Ducks make the right moves and get better or continue trending downward under Helfrich.

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