UCLA could join ranks of Duck beaters
A 4-8 season in 2016, coming after a 42-point home loss to Utah and a 31-0 blown lead in the Alamo Bowl among other lowlights in 2015, demoralized the Oregon Ducks' program.
It also led to a regime change — Mark Helfrich and assistants out, Willie Taggart and assistants in.
So, now where does the UO program go after being outscored 82-17 in the past two weeks by Washington State and Stanford? Because of an injury to QB Justin Herbert, the Ducks appear to be spiraling downward.
Oregon (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) plays at UCLA (3-3, 1-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday, and the Bruins hope to join the parade of Pac-12 teams to beat the Ducks in recent years.
The Bruins haven't beaten Oregon since 2007 (0-6 record); ironically, it was 16-0 at Pasadena, California, when the Ducks had gone through devastating quarterback injuries in Chip Kelly's first year as offensive coordinator, and, in another irony, last Saturday's seven points at Stanford ranks as the lowest UO scoring output since the ugly game in the California sun on Nov. 14, 2007.
Think about it: Every Pac-12 team has beaten the once-vaunted Ducks since 2014, except UCLA, after the UO reigned supreme on many teams for many years.
Taggart and players were asked whether the 49-7 loss to Stanford, coupled with the 33-10 home loss to Washington State, and with despair over quarterback play added in, would lead to the team feeling demoralized.
"This team won't be demoralized," Taggart said. "We have kids who work their tail off. We've got an opportunity to go to L.A. and get into the win column. We've got to get some of that, what do you call it ... we've just got to get better." Perhaps one of his own favorite words, "juice," escaped him.
Added linebacker Troy Dye: "We're not going down the same path as last year."
Not being able to complete passes has been the biggest problem in the past two games; Braxton Burmeister and Taylor Alie went a combined 5 of 13 for 33 yards at Stanford. True freshman Burmeister is clearly not ready to play, and Alie is a walk-on player who has been a program stalwart with his character but not a Pac-12-level performer. It reminds of 2015, when the Ducks lost games using Jeff Lockie and Alie, with Vernon Adams Jr. on the shelf.
It begs reminding fans that, continuing a trend in recent years, two scholarship quarterbacks (Travis Jonsen, Terry Wilson) transferred from the program in the offseason. And, as well as Taggart has done on the recruiting trail, he couldn't persuadee either one, especially Wilson after spring ball, to stay and provide quality QB depth. So, a true freshman slid into the backup QB spot.
"He's going out there and learning a lot," running back Royce Freeman says, of Burmeister. "Experiencing a lot. He's only going to get better. ... Don't need to be a hero."
It's not lost on the UO defense that offense has its issues at quarterback. But, as Dye points out, "it's not our job. You give up 49 points in a Pac-12 game, you're going to lose."
Herbert, who suffered a broken collarbone in his left, nonthrowing shoulder against California, threw the football in practice last week.
"He's getting better," Taggart says. "He wants to play badly." But the coach wouldn't put a timeline on when Herbert might return to practice or play. "I try to stay out of that," Taggart says. "Leave it to the doctors. He's rehabbing his tail off. He's just got to heal."
As badly as Oregon has looked in the pass game the past two weeks, the Ducks stand a good chance of moving the ball and scoring points at UCLA. While WSU held the UO ground game in check, the Ducks ran for 276 yards at Stanford, led by Freeman's 143, and averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a team.
And, what kind of run defense awaits the Ducks on Saturday? The worst in the Pac-12, as UCLA has given up a whopping 313 yards per game — 113 yards more per game than the next worst team, Oregon State.
Burmeister and Alie run pretty well, the Ducks have good backs (Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, if he's not in concussion protocol), and the offensive line "played their (butts) off" at Stanford, Freeman says.
The Bruins give up a league-worst 523 yards total offense and 11th-worst 40.5 points per game.
But UCLA also has pro prospect Josh Rosen at QB — a league-leading 392.3 yards per game — and plenty of talent. The Ducks gave up 504 yards to Stanford, couldn't get one sack, had a punt blocked, added to their nation-leading penalty count with nine for 101 yards, continued to struggle on third and fourth down and had three turnovers.
The Ducks know what they have to do — something.
"We've just got to play better," Taggart says. "We've got to get back to work and get back in the win column."