Royce Freeman

It's hard enough to keep QBs healthy these days without asking them to run the ball

It's hard enough to keep QBs healthy these days without asking them to run the ball

OK, I don't pretend to know a whole lot about football. Unlike baseball and basketball, I never coached it.

But I do have a tip for young offensive coordinators who weren't even born when I started watching college football. I mean, this is just a tip built on what I've seen over the last several decades of watching games. Take it or leave it:

If you have a quarterback who can throw the ball, maybe even a quarterback considered a blue-chip NFL prospect, TAKE THAT OPTION PACKAGE OUT OF YOUR OFFENSE, PUT IT IN THE TRUNK OF AN OLD JUNK CAR AND RUN IT INTO A VERY DEEP RIVER!

Guys, it's hard enough to keep a quarterback healthy and upright these days without asking him to carry the ball 10-15 times a game. You know better than I do that defenses are going to see a target on his back -- a way to take your most important player away from you. I've written about this kind of thing before and I usually get a bunch of people telling me, "You can't put bubble wrap around these guys. It's football and people get hurt."

Yeah, they do. But why increase the chances of that happening? My goodness, even big strong, tank-like running backs like Royce Freeman have trouble getting through a season without an injury. Most quarterbacks just aren't built to withstand the pounding. Nor should they have to take that abuse. They're too important.

And honestly, it's possible to run an effective offense without some sort of option that includes the quarterback running the ball. Take a look at your TV on Sunday -- the pros have no trouble doing it.

Oregon lost two quarterbacks Saturday night and obviously, Justin Herbert is going to be impossible for them to replace. For what? A short run to the end zone that any one of three or four Duck running backs could have accomplished?

It made me sick to see Herbert hurt on such a play. What a waste. The guy's future is NOT as a runner. His team's future is not with him running the ball. You CAN get along without that play and the entire option attack -- particularly if your offensive line is as good as people say it is. But you can't get along without Herbert -- at least not nearly as well.

And don't get me wrong, it's not just the Ducks who do this. It's a virus all over college football.

No, you can't put bubble wrap around your quarterback. But you can ask him not to run the ball unless he has to AVOID getting tackled. And don't play him with a big lead late in games, either.

Because he's that valuable -- and you're soon going to find that out.

WATCH: Rapid reaction- Ducks win, but at what cost?

WATCH: Rapid reaction- Ducks win, but at what cost?

The Oregon Ducks rebounded with a win Saturday at Autzen Stadium, but it came with a cost. 

As the Ducks improved to 4-1 with a 45-24 victory over Califoria (3-2), they saw senior running back Royce Freeman and sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert leave the game in the first quarter with injuries. Neither returned to action. 

Walk-on quarterback Mike Irwin would have likely played had freshman Braxton Burmeister gone down after he replaced backup Taylor Alie, injured in the fourth quarter. 

BOX SCORE

Stay tuned for injury updates and more throughout the evening. 

UO's Herbert and Freeman leave Cal game during 1st QTR

UO's Herbert and Freeman leave Cal game during 1st QTR

EUGENE - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman and sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert left the field and headed toward the locker room during the first quarter of tonight's game against California at Autzen Stadium. 

The pair never returned to the game.

Freeman gained 13 yards on a run to the right side and then immediately left the field favoring his shoulder.  A few plays later Herbert threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Brenden Schooler to give the Ducks a 10-0 lead. After the touchdown, Freeman could be seen walking out of the stadium. 

Freeman's return was originally announced as "questionable."

On Oregon's next drive, Herbert scored on a short run in which he got hit pretty hard by a Cal defender. The touchdown made the score 17-0, UO.  Shortly after scoring, Herbert could be seen walking through the tunnel toward the Ducks' locker room. 

Freeman left the game with 51 yards on six carries. 

Herbert is 7 of 8 for 86 yards for one touchdown. 

The Ducks led 17-7 at halftime but gained just 32 yards in the second quarter after amassing 159 in the first quarter. 

Oregon led 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter after senior running back Kani Benoit scored on a 68-yard run. 

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Set TD mark in down game

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Set TD mark in down game

Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman became the Ducks' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns Saturday when he scored on an 11-yard run in the second quarter of UO's 37-35 loss at Arizona State. 

It was Freeman's 10th rushing touchdown of the season and 54th for his career, putting him ahead of LaMichael James (53). Freeman now needs six rushing touchdowns to surpass former Oregon State running back Ken Simonton's Pac-12 Conference record of 59 rushing touchdowns (1998 to 2001). 

Freeman also rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries against the Sun Devils to move closer to breaking James' career rushing yardage record of 5,082. Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break James' record. 

RECORD WATCH

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries at ASU (2-2).  

Previous games: Freeman rushed for 157 yards at Wyoming, 153 yards vs. Nebraska and 150 against Southern Utah. 

2017 total: Freeman now has has rushed for 541 yards rushing in four games.  

Career total: Freeman has 4,687 yards career rushing yards. 

Freeman needs: He is 396 yards away from breaking James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman rushed for one touchdown to eclipsed James.   

2017 total: Ten.

Career total: Freeman has 54 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Next up: The Ducks host California (3-1) on Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. 

What exactly is it that the Ducks are trying to do on offense?

What exactly is it that the Ducks are trying to do on offense?

Oregon's 37-35 loss at Arizona State Saturday night was one big, hot mess.

A lot of things went wrong, plenty of mistakes were made and there was blame enough to go around. But I came away from the game amazed at how much improvement Oregon has made on the defensive side of the ball. And also wondering just what in the world the Ducks are attempting to do on offense.

First, the defense. This is a far cry from the group last season that couldn't tackle consistently and was seemingly out of position all night. The Ducks this season are organized and most often in the right position to make plays, even though -- like all college defenses this side of Alabama -- they don't always make them. They even covered receivers one-on-one pretty well when it mattered. Sure, you'll say, they gave up 37 points Saturday night to the Sun Devils.

Of course they did. A lot of that was because of the inconsistent and sometimes even inept offense. Oregon's offensive failings kept its defense on the field for 38:06 of the game. The Oregon offense managed just 21:54 of playing time. That's awful. And folks, don't blame Oregon's uptempo offense. ASU was not huddling, either.

I just don't understand what it is the Ducks want to do with the ball. Going into the game at Tempe, I assumed this was a team that was going to hang its hat on a power running game, running downhill behind powerful Royce Freeman. Well, where did that go?

Freeman averaged 5.4 yards per carry but ran the ball only 15 times. Oregon attempted only 30 rushing plays and 10 of those were assigned to quarterback Justin Herbert. Please tell me why on earth the Ducks didn't come out and establish their running game?

It seemed to me that once Oregon fell behind it panicked a bit and began to lose patience with the run game. And I will say, this is not exactly the most diverse offense Oregon has put on the field over the last decade. There was not a lot of deception or variation. There is a lack of creativity.

And a couple of other things, while I'm at it:

Going 1 for 11 on third down with all the offensive talent Oregon has in the backfield is just crazy. Most of that was because there were way too many long-yardage situations on third down. Too many times when Herbert had to pass on third-and-long and everyone knew it.

And yes, 14 penalties is ridiculous. And just an obvious point -- penalties are a direct result of coaching. Or lack of it. You can talk all you want about cleaning that up, but the bottom line isn't talking, it's doing. It's been a problem all season and that's on the coaches.

Lastly, Oregon had two cracks late in the game at running a two-minute offense and looked sadly unprepared to do so. I'm shocked that Herbert wasn't able to work the ball down the field at least close enough for a long field goal. He's too good back there not to be able to do that. Yes, Oregon's receiving corps is decimated and seemingly lacking in speed. But the Ducks either couldn't protect Herbert or he was having trouble judging where his receivers would be when he cut the ball loose. The defense got late stops when needed and the offense just couldn't even get close to paying it off.

So Oregon may be at a point where the defense is more reliable than the offense.

Who saw that coming?

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Whenever the down marker flips to "3" on opposing offenses, Oregon's punt return team jumps to attention and the offense becomes antsy. It's becoming a pavlovian response.

That's because 79 percent of the time this season, the Ducks' defense has stopped opposing teams from converting on third down, a dramatic shift from last season. And it all starts with attitude and desire. Oregon senior safety Tyree Robinson said he urges the defense on every third down to dig deep for that extra burst of energy that allows them to play harder so they can get off the field. 

“I think guys have really bought into that , which kind of makes us a special defense right now,” Robinson said. 

According to Oregon sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tirelessly preaches the importance of making plays on third down, or, the "money down," as he calls it. 

“We have to go out there and make that money,” Dye said. 

Right now, the No. 24 Ducks (3-0) are filthy rich. Opposing offenses have converted just 21.3 percent of the time on third downs, best in the Pac-12 Conference. Last year Oregon allowed a 48.5 percent conversion rate, 11th in the Pac-12. 

The Ducks' defense has shown dramatic improvement over last season in every category imaginable. A low third down conversion rate for opponents and eight turnovers forced have been two of the most important areas of improvement. They lead directly to the team allowing 23 points per game, down from 41.7 a year go. 

Wyoming (1-2) on Saturday managed to convert just 4 of 15 third down attempts during Oregon's 49-13 victory. Two Saturdays ago, Nebraska converted just 2 of 14 attempts during a 42-35 loss at Autzen Stadium. 

"It's great to see those guys get off the field on third down and get the ball back to our offense,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

He credits the success to the defense doing a great job of studying opponents and having an idea of what they like to do on third down. Also, they have done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. Oregon already has 10 sacks after getting just 25 last season. The Ducks sacked Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen twice on Saturday while pressuring him all evening. A projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Allen managed just 64 yards passing against Oregon. 

“When you can get to the quarterback, and he didn’t have time to pass the ball, that’s what usually happens," Taggart said. "And if you can get to him early, he will start looking at the rush and I thought that’s what he did.”

Dye said the defense entered this season with something to prove and a chip on its collective shoulders following such a poor season in 2016 when the Ducks ranked 128th in total defense. Robinson said the experience gained last year by so many young players forced into action has paid off this season. 

“It’s awesome to have a defense that we have so much confidence in," UO quarterback Justin Herbert said.

But will it last? Oregon hasn't exactly faced quality offenses to date. Wyoming's 14.3 points per game ranks 120th in the nation. Nebraska ranks 63rd at 31.7 points per game. Oregon won 42-35 over Nebraska on Sept. 9. The Cornhuskers (1-2) lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois on Saturday. 

The Ducks begin Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday at Arizona State (1-2). There are 11 teams in the conference averaging better than 31 points per game, including the Sun Devils. Most teams have great passing offenses that will challenge the Ducks' Pac-12 leading 89.7 passing defense efficiency rating. 

ASU junior quarterback Manny Wilkins is averaging 308 passing yards per game with seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions. 

The Pac-12 is going to be a challenge, one the UO defense is looking forward to facing. 

“Oregon is not just an offensive school anymore," Dye said. "We play defense, too.”

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: One away from setting TD mark

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: One away from setting TD mark

Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman rushed for 157 yards on 30 carries during a 49-13 win Saturday at Wyoming to move to within less than 500 yards of breaking the Ducks' career rushing record held by LaMichael James.

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break LaMichael James' record of 5,082 (2009-2011). Freeman ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing at 153.3 yards per game, trailing Stanford's Bryce Love (174.7). His 460 rushing yards rank third in the nation. 

Enjoying watching Freeman's hot start is the man who hands him the ball, sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert.

“It’s really fun to watch," he said. "Sometimes I hand the ball off and don’t carry out my fake and just watch.”

 

Here is a quick look at where Freeman's chase stands:

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 157 yards on 30 carries and scored three touchdowns at Wyoming (1-2).  

Previous games: Freeman rushed for 153 yards against Nebraska and 150 against Southern Utah. 

2017 total: Freeman now has has rushed for 460 yards rushing in three games.  

Career total: Freeman has 4,606 yards career rushing yards. 

Freeman needs: He is 477 yards away from breaking James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman rushed for three touchdowns.   

2017 total: Nine.

Career total: Freeman has 53 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Freeman needs: He is tied with James and needs one more rushing touchdown to sit alone atop the career mark. 

Next up: The Ducks play at Arizona State (1-2) Saturday in Tempe, Ariz. 

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: 153 yards closer to James' record

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: 153 yards closer to James' record

EUGENE - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman rushed for 153 yards on 29 carries Saturday against Nebraska to move closer to breaking LaMichael James' career rushing mark. 

Freeman also scored two touchdowns during the 42-35 win over the Cornhuskers at Autzen Stadium. 

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break LaMichael James' record of 5,082 (2009-2011). 

Here is a quick look at where Freeman's chase stands:

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 153 yards on 29 carries and scored two touchdowns vs. Nebraska.  

Previous games: Freeman Rushed for 150 yards vs. Southern Utah. 

2017 total: Freeman has rushed for 303 yards in two games.  

Career total: Freeman now has 4,449 yards rushing. 

Freeman needs: He is 634 yards away from breaking James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman rushed for two touchdowns.   

2017 total: six. 

Career total: Freeman has 50 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Freeman needs: He is four away from breaking James' record. 

Next up: The Ducks play at Wyoming (1-1) Saturday in Laramie, Wy.

Oregon's plan for Royce Freeman: "Feed the horse."

Oregon's plan for Royce Freeman: "Feed the horse."

The Oregon Ducks once again have a very deep group of running backs but that won't prevent coach Willie Taggart from making the most out of his top ball carrier, senior Royce Freeman.

“Royce is our guy," Taggart said Monday. "Feed Royce then everybody else will get their carries as they go. We're going to feed the horse."

That horse went for 150 yards on 23 carries and scored four touchdowns during a 77-21 win over Southern Utah on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks rushed for 348 on the night with redshirt senior Kani Benoit gaining 107 on just seven carries. Redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James gained 32 on nine carries.

All told, eight Ducks carried the ball with some attempts going to receivers on fly sweeps, a play Taggart used prominently while at South Florida. But all of that came against an FCS program. Rushing yards won't be as easy to come by against stronger competition, such as Nebraska, which plays at Oregon on Saturday afternoon. 

In such games, Freeman must be the guy, just like LaMichael James and Jonathan Stewart were before him. Both former Ducks running backs played alongside strong backups but each carried the load while producing huge seasons. Taggart plans to follow that same pattern with Freeman, even though he said the Ducks are fortunate to have three starting-caliber running backs. 

“The beauty for us is that we don't have to change our offense because one guy is in the game," Taggart said. "We can continue to run the plays we want to run."

Oregon simply prefers to run most of them with Freeman. 

”And if Royce gets tired we will put the next guys in," Taggart said. 

Maybe no game in recent memory better defines Oregon's long-time depth at running back - thanks to the recruiting of former position coach Gary Campbell - than last year at Nebraska when Freeman went down early with 31 yards on five carries during the 35-32 defeat. 

In his place, Benoit went for 100 yards on six carries, Brooks-James gained 37 yards with three touchdowns, and Taj Griffin rushed for 68 yards on eight carries, including a 50-yard scoring run. 

Still, Freeman is Oregon's starter for a reason. The 235-pound running back, who should break James' career rushing record sometime in November, if not earlier, inflicts punishment on defensive players that pays off later in games. The fact that he can get a rest here and there only makes him stronger late in games while defenses begin to fade. 

"It definitely does (take the pressure off of me,)" Freeman said following Saturday's game. "And I feel like it takes pressure off of (running backs coach Donte Pimpleton), as well, knowing that he has a deep backfield and that if any one of us gets tired or any one of us has any problems out there, we have more than capable other versatile running backs behind me."

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Royce rolls for 150 vs. Southern Utah

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Royce rolls for 150 vs. Southern Utah

EUGENE - The return of Oregon running back Royce Freeman gave the senior a second chance at becoming the Ducks' all-time leading rusher. 

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break LaMichael James' record of 5,082 (2009-2011). 

Freeman got off to a good start Saturday with 150 yards on the ground during a 77-21 win over Southern Utah at Autzen stadium.  However, he began strongly last season before injuries derailed his chances of breaking James' record in three seasons. 

Freeman began the 2016 season with 3,203 career yards after rushing for a program-record 1,838 in 2015. That figure broke James' single-season record of 1,805 set in 2011.

Freeman needed 1,880 yards in 2016 to break James' career mark. Freeman gained 294 over the first two games of the season before an injury all but ended his chances of breaking James' record. A sternum injury suffered against Washington sent Freeman on the worst stretch of his career and he finished the season with 945 yards.  

Many figured Freeman would enter the NFL Draft but new coach Willie Taggart convinced him to return for his senior season. 

Record, or no record, James should still be regarded as the greatest running back in program history after Freeman is done.  

James set his mark on 771 carries over three seasons while averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Freeman will have needed four seasons and he's already carried the ball 726 times, gaining 5.9 yards per attempt. 

Freeman is also likely to break James' all-time rushing touchdown mark of 53. 

Here is the start of our weekly update on Freeman's record chase. 

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 150 yards on 23 carries and scored four touchdowns against Southern Utah. 

2017 total: See above. 

Career total: Freeman now has 4,296 yards rushing. 

Freeman needs: He is 787 yards away from breaking James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman scored four times on the ground.  

2017 total: See above. 

Career total: Freeman has 48 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Freeman needs: He is six away from breaking James' record. 

Next up: The Ducks play host Nebraska (1-0) Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Freeman last season at Nebraska rushed for 31 yards on five carries before going down witth a foot injury and missing the next game at home against Colorado.