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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Willie Taggart's first year and the slump of monumental proportions

Oregon's cheerleaders are never in a slump,
but they've had little to dance for in the last few weeks.
This is what I mean about squandering the brand: in back-to-back blowout losses to Washington State and Stanford (each for the second year in a row, worse yet) Oregon football has produced its lowest point total over two games since 1992.

The Ducks finished 6-6 that year and lost to Wake Forest in the Independence Bowl.

Like this one, '92 was a season of mediocrity and struggling for an identity: Sophomore quarterback Danny O'Neil threw for 11 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Running backs Sean Burwell and Ricky Whittle combined for 1456 rushing yards and 8 TDs. 

The young secondary, Herman O'Berry, Alex Molden, Chad Cota and Eric Castle had 13 picks. Receiver Ronnie Harris took a punt return to the house, and an undersized freshman named Cristin McLemore caught his first touchdown pass.

25 years ago today the Ducks lost to #1 Washington 24-3 at Autzen Stadium before an announced crowd of 47,612, half of whom were wearing purple and gold. The week before they fell to #20 USC in The Coliseum 32-10.

They did cap the year with a 7-0 victory over Oregon State at Parker Stadium, then bought their way to Shreveport for some disappointing football in horrible weather, sleet, high winds and mispronounced names.

Oregon's first Rose Bowl in three decades was born in all that futility. It followed two years later in the 1994 season when some promising young players, O'Neil, McLemore, Cota and Castle among them, matured.

The Ducks rise to prominence, big bowls and Top 20 finishes was hard-earned. It started with a meeting after the 1996 Cotton Bowl and a promise to build an indoor practice facility, a new vision for the program built around offense and speed.

Seven games into the Willie Taggart era, the Ducks are in the midst of a two-game losing streak in which the patented offense has been completely grounded. Last week they managed just 33 yards passing with three turnovers. 

The loss of sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert has been felt deeply. But what's even worse and more alarming is the lack of discipline and execution this team has displayed.  They rank dead last in the FBS with 95 penalty yards per game. They've had two punts blocked and surrendered an onside kick. Big gains and touchdowns have been taken off the board by blocking infractions behind the play. 

These Ducks specialize in the drive-killing mistake. After a promising start against mediocre competition they can't convert on third down and can't find any balance in their offense. Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister has struggled mightily despite a promising prep career and good practice habits. He looks lost, discouraged, uncomfortable and overwhelmed. His teammates haven't given him enough help, nor has the play-calling, which has become unimaginative and predictable.

The one positive from last week's loss to Stanford was Oregon's ability to run the football. With everyone in the stadium knowing exactly what they had to do Royce Freeman and his backfield mates ran for 286 yards against a solid Stanford defense, though the going got much harder after halftime when defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and linebacker Peter Kalambayi came off targeting suspensions that sidelined them for the first two quarters.

Injuries are one thing, but what's alarming about the 2017 Ducks is their lack of discipline and execution. Blocked kicks. Penalties. Unforced, untimely errors. That points to coaching. Certainly the youth of the team is a factor, but Taggart's mantra coming in was "No excuses."

The Florida native and his staff have proven themselves to be great at relating to players and generating enthusiasm on the recruiting trail. Oregon has the #6 class in the country right now according to Rivals.com. The Ducks have a new energy and a new swagger after the malaise of last year's 4-8 swan dive under Mark Helfrich.

All that is good, but Taggart, who is almost impossible not to like with his enthusiasm and quick smile, has to show he can coach. Does he teach this team anything? How will they improve over the last five games? Will Burmeister settle down and show some progress?

Justin Herbert is a wonderful talent, and his return will give the Ducks a boost of confidence. But it won't magically cure the chronic mistakes that have made the Ducks a losing football team in PAC-12 play. Certainly it's important to have patience with the rebuild and to accept the fact that the return to conference dominance and the Top Twenty won't be easy, but well-coached teams do the little things well and execute the fundamentals. In Stanford's 49-7 blowout win over the Ducks The Cardinal had just one turnover, no sacks, and two penalties for 15 yards.

The Ducks have to stop keeping themselves out of the end zone and getting big plays called back. Willie Taggart has to show he can teach them to play smarter football, or Oregon has wasted a lot of money.

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