Bye gives Ducks time to regroup
It seems like the bye week in college football always comes at the right moment.
For the Oregon Ducks, to not be playing this Saturday, to give quarterback Justin Herbert more time to heal, and for the defense to have ample practice to prepare for Khalil Tate and Arizona's offense, it's an ideal weekend off.
It's the first November bye week for Oregon since 2010. The Ducks (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12) need a win for bowl eligibility, and they have two home games to finish the regular season, Arizona on Nov. 18 and Oregon State on Nov. 25. The Ducks want to avoid suffering the first back-to-back losing seasons since 1985-86. Best-case scenario is a 7-5 record, a three-game improvement from the woeful 2016.
"Our senior class is not trying to go out like last year," defensive back Tyree Robinson says. "If we can go out with a bowl game, that's where our focus is. Arizona's a great team. They've been clicking late in the season. We've got to try to get one at home. That's where we're best, at home."
The Ducks are 4-1 at home, losing only to Washington State. The road slate ended 1-4 for the Ducks, after last weekend's 38-3 drubbing by Washington at Husky Stadium. Since Herbert's injury, the Ducks have leaned on the run game to beat Cal and Utah at home, and lost all four road games by a combined score of 151-34, largely because the downfield passing game has gone AWOL with Braxton Burmeister at quarterback.
It wasn't long ago that Oregon was considered one of the Pac-12's and the country's best programs. Now, it's harkening to the late 1980s/early '90s, where coach Willie Taggart's team getting a sixth win to become eligible for a bowl would be considered a big deal.
"Coach T says we're going to end this (well) for the seniors, make a bowl game for the seniors," tight end Jacob Breeland says. "If I was a senior, I'd want that, too. Our mind-set is good."
Herbert returned to practice before the Utah game, suited up but did not play, as Burmeister helped the Ducks win. Same thing during UW week — Herbert practiced and then suited up, and even had his helmet on at kickoff, seemingly indicating that he could play. But Taggart didn't come close to playing him, and Burmeister's downfield throwing problems hindered the Ducks again.
Burmeister went 7 of 13 for 31 yards. In six games, he has completed 43 of 76 attempts for 324 yards, with six interceptions. That's 7.5 yards per completion, and 4.2 yards per attempt — not good.
Could Herbert return from his broken collarbone against Arizona? "I hope so," Taggart says. "That'd be nice. Really nice."
Defense and special teams gave up big plays against Washington, but the offense's inability to stretch the field meant the Ducks went scoreless in the final 52 minutes, 16 seconds. The run game performed well, putting up 247 yards, led by Royce Freeman's tough 122 yards on 24 carries.
Everybody on the team knows, as well as opponents, that it's the passing game that holds the Ducks back. Says Breeland: "(UW) knows we can't really execute the passing game; they did some things to stop the run."
Burmeister was thrust into playing, after two more experienced quarterbacks (Travis Jonsen, Terry Wilson) transferred in the offseason.
"We can only control what we can control," Robinson says. "We're doing a good job ... eventually the offense will start clicking. If we worry about our job and that we can play better as a defense, rather than worry about the offense scoring ... that's what happened to us last year. We weren't focused on what we need to do. We've got to be ready to help them out."
Says Freeman, who is at 5,364 career rushing yards and 58 total TDs and counting, as well as part of a 9-14 record the past 23 games: "We're very capable (offensively), we've just got to dial in on the details and polish some things up."
The Ducks have taken their lumps, but will they be better for it, if Herbert returns?
"Early, everybody felt sorry for themselves," Taggart says, of Herbert's absence. "Once he started practicing again, they started feeling a little better. If he came back, I'm sure everybody will be excited. We all know what it is; if we can get the kid back, it'll be great for our football team.
"We're taking our lumps. We'll take them. But we'll come back swinging, I promise you that."
Three points scored at Washington was the first time Oregon had gone without a touchdown since a 16-0 loss at UCLA on Nov. 24, 2007 (a loss due in large part to QB injuries) — a 130-game stretch.
Adding to the pain, after a 12-game winning streak against the Huskies, the Ducks have been outscored 108-24 in the past two meetings.
"They're disappointed. We lost," Taggart says, of his players. "I told them I love them, keep their heads up, we've got a bye week to get some work in, get our bodies back. The bye week is much needed for our football team right now.
"We still have a lot to play for. We've got to make sure we play our tails off for those seniors, and it's a good thing we've got two home games. We'll play our butts off for our seniors, and we've got the home crowd behind us."
But even with Herbert, they could be challenging games. Tate has taken the Pac-12 by storm, rushing for 1,000 yards in the past five games, already establishing the Pac-12 record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,087 yards, nine touchdowns, 11.7 per carry). He's also shown passing ability with eight touchdowns.
Ironically, the Ducks' next two opponents play each other on Saturday. The Wildcats (6-3, 4-2) host the Beavers (1-8, 0-6).
The Ducks can make their season a positive one with a win or two in November. We'll see what happens, defensive back Brady Breeze says.
"Whoever is the starting quarterback, we're going to trust him and be all for it," he says. "If (Herbert) makes a comeback, great, if not we'll keep supporting Braxton, make sure he works hard and we work hard on defense," especially with Tate on the horizon.
"We've got a lot of work to do in these next two weeks," Breeze says. "And it'll be a tough game against Arizona, they've got a really good offense and that quarterback is running all over the place. We've got to be able to keep him contained and do our thing."
And one would think that Oregon State would dearly love to contribute to Oregon's 2017 misery.
— Jason Vondersmith