EUGENE, Ore.—As it turns out, the sky is not falling here in the Willamette Valley, a place known for rolling green hills, tasty pinot noirs and, in the last decade, unprecedented college football success.
But walk around Oregon's Eugene campus the last six weeks and you might have heard otherwise. The Ducks, fresh off an appearance in last season's national title game against Ohio State, dropped two games in September, including a complete disaster of a 62–20 home loss to Utah on Sept 26. They tumbled out of the AP Poll for the first time since 2009 and followed that up with a clunker against Washington State, a 45–38 overtime defeat. That prompted what might have been the tweet of the season, from Washington State's official athletics Twitter account, mocking the Ducks' uniforms and commemorating the Oregon Trail.
And then the panic set in.
Despite an impassioned plea from former All-America quarterback Joey Harrington—celebrated as Ducks' royalty long before Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy last fall—following the Utah loss, Oregon fans took to the Internet to write scathing reviews of third-year coach Mark Helfrich and his assistants, bemoaning a fall from grace. On ESPN's College GameDay, host Lee Corso said Helfrich was at a "crossroads in his career" and needed to overhaul his staff. What's more, opposing teams and fans seemed to revel in Oregon's spiral. Before the Ducks visited Washington on Oct. 17, Seattle radio personality Dave "Softy" Mahler said he felt deeply conflicted about the Oregon-Washington State game, because he didn't know who to root for. "It's like North Korea playing Iran," he cracked.
Oregon beat Washington 26–20 (its 12 consecutive victory over the rival Huskies) to improve to 4–3 and then went into a bye week. So now, with the Ducks set to play at Arizona State on Thursday night, can everyone take a deep breath and start to put things in perspective?
Oregon, as Harrington pointed out in his tirade, is not Alabama. The Ducks do not have the history of programs like Michigan, Texas or even—gasp—USC, teams that have won for half a century and cemented their college football legacy. The Ducks aren't there, Harrington said. They're trying to get there.
Consider the following: Mariota, the best player in program history, has left for the NFL. Of course there was going to be a drop off. It turns out there was no capable backup waiting in Eugene, so Oregon plucked FCS sensation Vernon Adams Jr. from Eastern Washington, where he had a history of slicing and dicing Pac-12 defenses. Oregon coaches haven't totally owned up to this problem, issuing repeated pledges of confidence in redshirt junior backup Jeff Lockie, even though his 2015 statistics (54 of 84 passing for 544 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions) leave something to be desired. Still, Frost acknowledged this week—in response to a question about how Adams fell off the FBS radar coming out of high school—that recruiting is an "inexact science." Sometimes, coaches miss.
Adams broke the index finger on his throwing hand in Week 1 (courtesy of a cheap shot from his former team, no less) and all hell broke loose. Oregon's defense is not very good (the Ducks rank last in the Pac-12 in total defense, giving up 461.9 yards per game; their pass defense is atrocious, allowing 306.6 yards per game, almost 25 more than any other team in the conference). But this is life with a young secondary. And these struggles aren't reason enough to revamp the entire staff.
Coaches can ignore outsiders all they want, and many claim they do not pay attention to criticism of their program. Players live on social media, though, and it's nearly impossible to tune out the Internet completely (and remain eligible, at least). But that doesn't mean that chatter actually resonates in the locker room.
"We talk to the kids all the time about not listening to the detractors, not listening to the critics," said offensive coordinator Scott Frost. "Most people that are criticizing them couldn't draw up 11 guys on a football field, where they're supposed to line up. So the people that think they know things, don't."
Adams, who has shown flashes of playground-like brilliance while throwing for 853 yards with six scores and two interceptions in 2015, said he was drawn to a program in which expectations can seem out of whack. "You try to ignore it but some of it can be funny and some of it can be harsh," he said. "Those fans expect more, because Oregon's been such a good team the past 10 to 12 years."
The graduate transfer added, "I like to compete and I like to win." He knew he could get both those things in Eugene. Moving forward, his plans are simple: He believes these Ducks can win out.
With Adams finally healthy and firmly in place as the starter, and with the return of redshirt sophomore receiver Darren Carrington, who has been suspended by the NCAA since failing a drug test before the national title game in January, the Ducks stand a shot at running the table in the Pac-12. During the bye week Adams had time to build chemistry with Oregon's receiving corps, which is among the deepest in the nation even without senior Byron Marshall, who is likely lost for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a lower-leg injury suffered against Utah.
The Ducks can start their climb back Thursday night. In Tempe they will have an opportunity to make a statement if they can handle a blitz-happy Arizona State defense. Helfrich joked this week that the Sun Devils bring pressure from anywhere, everywhere and all the time, sometimes opting to blitz "four guys off the bus." The key, he says, is to be "patiently aggressive" and stay in attack mode. Adams says he likes when teams blitz a lot, because it provides his playmakers with more potential one-on-one situations.
There's also something to be said for budding self-belief: After hanging on for that victory in Seattle, Oregon players and coaches admitted to feeling a flood of relief. In the hallway after that win, Frost said many of the 2015 Ducks lacked the "killer instinct confidence" of teams past. But on the heels of a big defensive stop—true freshman Ugo Amadi picked off Washington's last-ditch effort to come from behind—that unit can feel at least marginally better as it prepares for the second half of the season.
Arizona State is the slim favorite Thursday night, but don't be surprised if the Ducks, well, surprise. With three losses they're out of the playoff race, but they can build for next year and beyond. And they can spoil someone else's run, a role other teams have previously embraced against them. "We are at a place where there's some percentage of fans [who say] if you lose a game, it's fire me, drop football," Helfrich said. "Whatever that extreme reaction is, there's some percentage of that everywhere. But we're also at a place where you can win it all. Absolutely, you'd much rather be at a place where people care a lot."
Helfrich said Tuesday he and the staff very much believe the Ducks' best football is in front of them. He means this season, as Oregon still has dates with Cal (Nov. 7), Stanford (Nov. 14) and USC (Nov. 21). But his statement could also apply to the program as a whole. Unlike longtime powers Texas, Alabama and Michigan, Oregon hasn't won a national championship.
But that doesn't mean it can't. First, though, everyone needs to take a deep breath.