Royce Freeman

Oregon Spring game: Herbert and Team Free win 34-11

Oregon Spring game: Herbert and Team Free win 34-11

Team Free 34, Team Brave 11

How Team Free won: For starters, Team Free had quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for touchdown passes to lead his team to the win Saturay at Autzen Stadium. 

While it's unfair to judge a quarterback competition based on a spring game, the fact is that the sophomore, who started seven games last season, appeared to be vastly superior to Team Brave's quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen and freshman Braxton Burmeister

Herbert threw two touchdowns in the first half. The first went for 13 yards on a throw to senior receiver Darren Carrington II that ended a 75-yard opening drive for Team Free. 

In the second quarter, Herbert found Carrington for a 30-yard touchdown to make the score 14-3. 

On the other side, Jonsen had a couple of highlight plays in the first half. He escaped pressure and then flipped a pass into the left flat to redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James for a gain of 19 to the Team Brave 47. Later, Jonsen threw deep down the left sideline to sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell for 44 yards to the Team Free 30. That set up 36-yard field goal from redshirt freshman kicker Zach Emerson.

But other than that, Jonsen wasn't very impressive. He misfired on a couple of passes and had a deep ball intercepted when Team Free senior cornerback Arrion Springs snatched the ball out of the sky and fell to the ground at the 16. 

Burmeister flashed some serious running skills and certainly has a quality arm, but he also looked like a freshman. In the first half, he threw too early on a pass to senior receiver Charles Nelson, the pass was tipped and intercepted by freshman defensive back Billy Gibson.  

Herbert went 16 of 26 for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Jonsen was 5 of 15 for 86 yards with one interception. Burmeister was 3 of 7 for 63 yards and was sacked four times. He did rush for 57 yards on 

The game was limited to 24 minutes of running clock in the second half. 

Top performers: Brook-James gained 71 yards on 18 carries in the first half but was banged up on a pass play when Burmeister hung him out do dry on a deep ball and Springs hit him as the ball arrived. 

Brooks-James returned to action and in the fourth quarter scored on a one-yard run. He finished with 84 yards rushing and caught three passes for 43 yards. 

Freshman wide receiver Darrian McNeal caught four passes for 54 yards for Team Free.

Punter Blake Maimonte averaged 45.2 yards on four punts with a long of 49. 

Mitchell had three receptions for 75 yards for Team Brave. 

Carrington had three touchdown on four receptions for 116 yards. 

Royce Freeman rushed for 43 yards on 12 carries and a 1-yard touchdown for Team Free.

Plays of the game: Senior running back Kani Benoit, who finished with 105 yards on five carries,  took a hand off in the third quarter, cut left to open field then turned it up before crossing at an angle to the right side of the field to finish off a 95-yard socring run for Team Free to make the score 28-3. 

In the fourth quarter, Herbert heaved a deep pass down the right sideline toward a well-covered Carrington. But he leaped over the defender to haul in the pass for a 44-yard gain to the 17-yard line. 

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert goes all Joe Namath before spring game

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert goes all Joe Namath before spring game

Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert laid down a bit of a prediction for the Ducks' spring game, which will be played at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.   

Herbert, who went No. 1 overall to Team Free in the spring game draft, dropped a few names of players on his team. They include senior wide receiver Darren Carrington II and senior running back Royce Freeman. Essentially, the Ducks' best three offensive weapons from last season are on the same team.

Team Fire should score plenty of points. But will it win the game?

"Yeah," Herbert said while barely cracking a smile. "We'll win."

Team Fire is being coached by special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie while safeties coach Keith Heyward will head Team Brave, to be quarterbacked by redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart said he likes to see the players get a little trash talk rolling but also wants them to focus on the main goal of the game. 

"Once everything happened and the teams were picked, you start to hear guys talking a little bit of trash about the game and what they're going to do," Taggart said. "You hear coaches talking a little trash. It's all fun and dandy but we also want to get better."

Taggart said he hopes to see a lot of plays being made by his young team after four weeks of installing a new offense and a new defense. He also wants to see which players will rise to the occasion in a game atmosphere. 

"I'm excited to see our team go out and actually play in front of people," Taggart said. "I've always said, 'the spotlight does strange things to some people.'  Some people show up and show out. Some people hide. We want those guys that are going to show up and show out. The guys that are going to hide, we probably need them to stay in the locker room."

Herbert, the odds-on favorite to be the starter next season, said he likes how the team has progressed during spring drills, especially after everyone became more comfortable within Taggart's offense. 

"I thought we did a lot of good stuff near the end," he said. "I think we started slow."

As for the game, Taggart recognized that Team Fire might appear to be a bit loaded. But, he added that he doesn't believe that means they are going to win. 

"(Fire's roster) looks stacked but the best team usually wins, not the best players," Taggart said. 

 

Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Running back drills during Oregon's spring practices have been a bit light on the running backs. 

Senior Royce Freeman, redshirt senior Kani Benoit, and redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James have been the only three going through drills under new running backs coach Donte Pimpleton in what appears to be a thin crew of familiar faces. But appearances can be deceiving. The Ducks remain very much stacked at the position regardless of the overall numbers. And the group is as close as ever.

“We’re like brothers,” Freeman said.

Oregon's running game should look quite familiar next season in new coach Willie Taggart's no-huddle offense, but there will be more of an emphasis in running straight ahead (downhill) and being physical, both along the offensive line and for ballcarriers, especially the 235-pound Freeman.

Taggart, who has reviewed all of last season's game film, said he believes Freeman must run behind his pads better. Meaning, he must be more physical and allow his size and pad level to go through defenders rather than provide tackling angles that benefit defenders. The same points were made about Freeman under former running backs coach Gary Campbell. But in the team's old system, the running game relied a bit more on finesse than this new system under co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, who came to Oregon from power-running Alabama. 

Cristobal wants the offensive line to be more physical and has added some downhill running plays to Taggart's offensive scheme that the new run game coordinator wants to see Freeman exploit with his size and strength by delivering "body blows," similar to wearing down an opponent in boxing. 

“Come the fourth quarter, your yards per carry and your knockdowns you have, your trunk yardage plays and explosive plays should increase by a significant amount,” Cristobal said. "We want to make it so by the fourth quarter people don’t want to tackle Royce Freeman.”

Or, any other running back on the team for that matter. Cristobal said the entire group has shown toughness this spring. 

“You want to be around guys that enjoy collisions,” Cristobal said. “That search and seek opportunities to be physical and to be tough and to establish a mindset.”

Oregon's depth at running back will receive a jolt next fall. Junior Taj Griffin, who injured his knee late last season, could return at some point, or he could redshirt to save the year of eligibility. Either way, the Ducks will also welcome in freshmen running backs, C.J. Verdell and Darrian Felix. Cyrus Habibi-Likio could also play running back but is expected to start out on the defensive side of the ball. 

So, depth shouldn't be an issue. Then again, does a team really need more than Freeman, Benoit and Brooks-James to be successful? Not likely.

“You know you’re gong to get the same type of talent level [no matter who is] going in,” Benoit said. “There’s not going to be a drop off.”

Freeman said the group was reminiscing the other day about having been together for so long. Benoit will enter his fifth season at UO while Freeman and Brooks-James enter their fourth. The bond among the group, Freeman, said is strong. Benoit said that sense of brotherhood trumps any potential hard feelings about playing time. 

“We all feed off each other," Benoit said. "We all try to make each other better."

Pimpleton, Benoit said, has been working out well and in some ways is like Campbell in how he relates to the players.

“Really calm, but he gets his point across,” Benoit said. “We accept that well. He’s not a yelling coach, he’s not a berating coach. He tells you what you need to do, if not then you’ll come to the sideline. He’ll just waive you over.”

Pimpleton, who along with other assistant coaches who aren't coordinators hasn't been made available for interviews this spring, is putting a heavy emphasis on running backs learning to recognize defenses and fully understand the blocking schemes. 

"That helps us run a lot better knowing where our lanes are and where the holes are going to be," Benoit said. 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: Quarterbacks, Wide receivers/Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive lineLinebackersDefensive backs.

Today: Running backs.

New Ducks: Darrian Felix (5-11, 194, Fort Myers High School, Fort Myers, Fla.),  C.J. Verdell (5-9, 195,Mater Dei Catholic High School, Chula Vista, Calif.) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis High School, Mountain View, Calif.).

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210) and Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

The situation: Oregon is set to return four running backs that combined for nearly 2,200 yards rushing last season.

For that reason, finding playing time for any of the three incoming freshmen could prove to be impossible.

None of them has a chance to beat out Freeman for the starting job. Chances are that Brooks-James is too experienced and talented to be unseated at No. 2.

The only way one freshman would have a chance to rise into the rotation would be if Benoit transfers and/or Griffin is slowed in his return from the knee injury he suffered late last season.

While all three incoming freshmen were three-star recruits, Verdell is the highest-rated among them. Rivals.com had him as the 26th-ranked running back in the nation. He rushed for 2,399 yards and 36 touchdowns on 9.2 yards per carry as a senior.

Habibi-Likio, who says he also hopes to play linebacker or safety, wasn't quite as productive as Verdell but brings more size and power to the party. 

Felix is a burner with more size than Griffin. 

The verdict: Unless something gives, Oregon will have seven scholarship running backs on the roster next fall. That means the three freshmen will redshirt if all four returning backs are healthy and ready to go. If not, one of the freshmen could make a mark as a backup or on special teams. But figure that at least two freshmen running backs will redshirt in 2017.

Oregon 2017 Outlook - RBs: Royce Freeman's return means Ducks remain loaded

Oregon 2017 Outlook - RBs: Royce Freeman's return means Ducks remain loaded

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: Quarterbacks; Tight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

Today: Running backs.

Key loss: None. 

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210), Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

What we know: Freeman's return was not required for Oregon to remain potent at this position but having him back certainly gives new running backs coach Donte Pimpleton less to worry about in 2017.

Freeman, should he remain healthy, will likely break LaMichael James' career rushing mark of 5,082 yards. Freeman, who has 4,148 for his career, needs 934 yards to tie James.

What might be more intriguing than watching Freeman chase history is seeing how Brooks-James evolves as a player. He showed flashes of elite ability last season while filling in for an injured Freeman to the point where he became the primary ball carrier in several games, even starting at USC. Had Freeman entered the NFL Draft, next season would have been Brooks-James' time to shine as the starter, but he should still receive enough carries to surpass the 771 yards he racked up last season on 7.6 per carry. Brooks-James will likely be the featured back in 2018 should he stick around for his senior season. 

Benoit, like Brooks-James, has shown abilities worthy of a starter but he won't get that chance with Freeman's return. Nevertheless, Benoit (300 yards last season) gives Oregon a starting-caliber running back off the bench. 

What we don't know: Griffin was lost for the season with a knee injury in early November. He should be able to recover by the start of next season, but where he fits in as a specialty back in Taggart's offense remains to be seen. Chances are Griffin settles back into his role of receiving spot carries in the hopes he breaks a long one, as he did with a 50-yard touchdown run at Nebraska last season. 

UO has two running backs committed to the 2017 class. Both should plan on redshirting behind this group. 

Final word: This position carries with it the least amount of mystery on the team. Pimpleton should have the easiest transition out of all of Oregon's new assistant coaches.  

Position grade: A. Oregon should lead the conference in rushing once again.  

Next up: Tight ends.

Oregon RB Royce Freeman returning for senior year

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Oregon RB Royce Freeman returning for senior year

New Oregon football coach Willie Taggart might have just landed his biggest recruit for the 2017 season.

Running back Royce Freeman will return for his senior season, the university announced today, giving Taggart the use of the team's best offensive weapon.

Freeman, baring a major injury, will almost assuredly break LaMichael James' career rushing record of 5,082 yards next season. Freeman has 4,148 for his career and needs 934 to tie James.

He entered this season with a chance to break the record but experienced his worst year of his career, rushing for 945 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 games. He lost two games due to an injured leg but also ran poorly upon his return and suffered a bruised sternum against Washington in the sixth game of the season.

Counting that game against the Huskies, Freeman in four consecutive outings gained just 136 yards on 53 carries. He ultimately lost his starting job to Tony Brooks-James prior to the team's loss at USC before earning it back. Freeman finished the season strong with three 100-yard performances over the team's final three games. 

Oregon sources told CSN two weeks ago that it was a high probability Freeman could return if he received a low NFL Draft grade. Although his official grade is unknown, one draft expert said several scouts told him they projected Freeman to be selected in the third or fourth round. A scout told CSN that Freeman certainly had a down season compared to his first two years and likely would have been a middle-round selection in 2017.

Freeman now has a chance to raise his draft stock. However, his lack of elite speed is an issue. Freeman has great size at 230 pounds but does not possess great speed.

Former UO running back Jonathan Stewart played at Oregon at 235 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine at 4.48 seconds, which helped him get selected in the first round. Freeman is not projected to run nearly that fast, which will certainly continue to hurt his stock.

However, a strong senior season certainly couldn't hurt him. Every round matters and Freeman could play his way into making more money on his rookie contract in 2018.

OSU and Ryan Nall pound Oregon in Civil War, 34-24

OSU and Ryan Nall pound Oregon in Civil War, 34-24

Oregon State 34, Oregon 24

How Oregon State won: The Ducks (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12) once again couldn't get it done and allowed Oregon State (4-8, 3-6) to pound the ball at them all game Saturday in the 120th Civil War at Reser Stadium. 

OSU sophomore running back Ryan Nall carried the Beavers with 155 yards and four touchdowns on 31 carries. Three touchdowns came after Oregon had built a 24-14 lead in the third quarter. 

The first half ended with a 14-14 tie. Oregon freshman quarterback Justin Herbert struggled in the half with 49 yards passing and several errant throws.

Both teams benefited from turnovers committed by the other team. OSU receiver Victor Bolden Jr. was stripped by Oregon cornerback Arrion Springs in the second quarter and the Ducks recovered at the Oregon 17. 

That led to an Oregon score to make the game 14-7, Ducks. 

Later in the half with the score at 14-14, UO had a chance to take the lead when running back Tony Brook-James fumbled giving OSU the ball at its six-yard line.

UO led 24-14 in the second half but couldn't hold on. When the rains came, UO's passing game virtually ended. Meanwhile the Beavers kep running the ball at will on the Ducks to win the game. 

What it all means: Oregon State has ended its eight-game losing streak to the Ducks. OSU last defeated Oregon in 2007. The UO loss certainly doesn't help coach Mark Helfrich's chances of not losing his job after the program's worst season since 1983. 

Key sequence: The Ducks jumped out to a 24-14 lead in the third quarter thanks to a 23-yard touchdown pass from Herbert to junior wide receiver Charles Nelson followed by a 46-yard field goal from kicker Aidan Schneider. 

Then the rains came, Oregon's passing game went south and OSU's running game began controlling the Ducks and the game clock. Nall scored on runs of 14, 6 and 2 for the Beavers, who scored 20 unanswered points to win the game. 

Play of the game: Oregon took a 14-7 lead with a little razzle dazzle early in the second quarter. A reverse went from Freeman to wide receiver Jalen Brown who stopped and threw a perfect strike to Darren Carrington II for a 33-yard touchdown pass. 

High Flying Ducks: Junior running back Royce Freeman went over 100 yards for the third consecutive game to finish with 106. He ended the season with 946 yards. This is the first time since 2006 that UO finishes a season without a 1,000-yard rusher. 

Herbert had an off day but did throw for 133 yards and a touchdown. A second TD was dropped by a wide open Johnny Mundt on a fourth down play with under a minute to go. 

Key Beavers:  Quarterback Marcus McMaryion had a solid game, passing for 101 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 81 yards.

Next up: At 4-8, neither team is bowl eligible. The Ducks coaches are schedule to hit the recruiting trail on Sunday, assuming they still have jobs. 

Civil War Prediction: Herbert and Oregon's offense too much for OSU

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Civil War Prediction: Herbert and Oregon's offense too much for OSU

There's little reason to believe that Oregon's defense will slow down Oregon State's offense led by bruising running back Ryan Nall in Saturday's 120th Civil War at Reser Stadium. 

The Ducks are simply too battered and young on defense to do so despite the unit's strong showing during last week's 30-28 upset win at then-No. 11 Utah. 

Where Oregon should have the advantage in the game that kicks off at 1 p.m. is when the Ducks' balanced and potent offense, led by freshman quarterback Justin Herbert and re-energized junior running back Royce Freeman, is on the field against the Beavers' defense. 

OSU's defense has held its own mostly against one-dimensional teams, such as Utah (19-14 loss) and Stanford (26-15 loss). Teams with strong passing and rushing attacks have eaten the Beavers' defense alive. 

Oregon fits that mold. 

A case could be made that OSU's passing defense is solid. The Beavers rank fourth in the Pac-12 in passing defense (211 yards allowed per game) and have surrendered just 13 touchdown passes (fourth fewest in the conference). OSU on Oct. 8 did a number on California quarterback Davis Webb, holding him to 113 yards passing with zero touchdowns and one interception on 45 attempts (23 completions) during a 47-44 overtime win at Reser. 

But that could be viewed as more of a fluke buoyed by the fact that Cal rushed for 317 yards and four touchdowns on the Beavers. Other strong passing teams have feasted on OSU's defense. Washington State junior quarterback Luke Falk threw for 415 yards and five touchdowns against OSU. Washington sophomore Jake Browning passed for 291 and three touchdowns.  Colorado redshirt freshman Steven Montez racked up 293 yards and three touchdowns.

Doing to Herbert what OSU did to Web will require slowing down Freeman and the Ducks' rushing attack. Teams simply have not shut down Oregon's passing attack over the years when the running game is rolling beyond maybe limiting passing yards simply because UO leans on its running game.

The Ducks' rushing attack ignites the entire scheme because it sets the pace of play Oregon seeks to achieve while also creating enviable passing situations.

Nothing OSU has done this season indicates it will slow down UO's running game. OSU ranks 10th in the conference in rushing defense while UO leads the conference in rushing. 

Freeman needs 161 rushing yards to reach 1,000, and will likely get it. If UO simply gets 225 rushing yards, that will open the floodgates for Herbert and the Beavers will be toast. 

Herbert has had mediocre games against teams like No. 6 Washington, at No. 12 USC and home against Stanford. In those three games, Herbert passed for five touchdowns with three interceptions. However, those teams slowed down UO's running game nad happen to possess three of the five top ranked defenses in the conference.

Teams ranked below that threshold have been at Herbert's mercy. He lit up California, Arizona State and Utah for 13 touchdown passes with one interceptions. He threw for six touchdowns at Cal and he tied a program record with 489 yards passing against Arizona State. Last week against a solid Utah defense, Herbert had four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) in the second half. 

All of that spell trouble for the Beavers. 

A quick look at OSU:

Oregon at Oregon State

When: 1 p.m., Reser Stadium, Corvallis. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Oregon by 3.

Records: Oregon (4-7, 2-6 Pac-12), OSU (3-8, 2-6). 

Coaches: Oregon's Mark Helfrich (37-15); OSU's Gary Andersen (5-18 at OSU, 54-56 overall). 

Last week: Oregon won 30-28 at No. 21 Utah. Oregon State won 42-10 over Arizona.  

Beavers' impact players: Nall will certainly do damage to Oregon. The question is whether sophomore quarterback Marcus McMaryion can duplicate what he did during a 42-10 win over Arizona last week.

McMaryion delivered by far his best performance with 265 passing yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. In five prior outings McMaryion threw for four touchdowns with five interceptions.

The Ducks' defense is vulnerable against just about anything so it's reasonable to consider that McMaryion would have a strong game. If he does, that would place even more pressure on Oregon's offense to get into the 40s in order to win.

OSU's receivers haven't exactly a threatening bunch. Then again, mediocre quarterback play hasn't helped.

McMaryion had his monster game minus receivers Victor Bolden Jr. and Seth Collins.  Collins is reportedly still out while Bolden could return. He would bring an added boost and compliment junior Jordan Villamin, who had six receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. 

On defense, senior inside linebacker Caleb Saulo ranks third in the conference with 7.9 tackles per game while junior inside linebacker Manase Hungalu ranks tied for fourth with 7.4.  Sophomore outside linebacker Bright Ugwoegbu has 5 1/2 sacks and ranks tied for sixth in the conference with 11 tackles for loss. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 4. On paper, Oregon has got this. 

But the Civil War rarely plays out as expected. The Ducks are young, have a weak defense and are playing on the road against a hungry Beavers team that must smell blood in the stream.

While real life Beavers are herbivores, the OSU version would like nothing more than to feast on these Ducks for the first time since 2007. 

OSU will play the Civil War as if it were a bowl game, so if the Ducks come unprepared, they will lose. If Oregon truly turned the corner as a team last week against Utah, it will roll. 

Prediction: Oregon 45, OSU 30. The Ducks will clear 500 yards of total offense and put way too much pressure on OSU to keep up. If Oregon State plays like it did against Cal, or McMaryion plays like he did against Arizona, the Beavers will be in position to steal this game. That said, the Ducks could be playing for their jobs of their coaching staff and are coming off of a huge showing at Utah. The team on display that day beats any team OSU has put on the field all season long. Smart money is on those Ducks showing up in Corvallis. 

Something is wrong with Oregon RB Royce Freeman

Something is wrong with Oregon RB Royce Freeman

LOS ANGELES - Oregon running back Royce Freeman didn't express displeasure with having lost his starting job to Tony Brooks-James for the Ducks' game Saturday at USC.

In fact, Freeman said he understood why he didn't start the team's 45-20 loss to the Trojans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"Tony deserved to start," Freeman said. "He's been performing really well. (Running backs Gary Campbell) explained that to me. I've just got to improve."

Freeman didn't make a case for regaining his starting job while delivering a fourth consecutive poor outing with 38 yards on 10 carries on Saturday. Over the last four games, Freeman has amassed an anemic 136 yards on 53 carries. When pressed further about why his play has dipped so dramatically, Freeman went on to deliver several other bland answers that didn't come close to explaining how two months ago he entered the season with a chance to break the program's all-time rushing record and has since become a backup. 

Now, he is second on Oregon (3-6, 1-5 Pac-12) in rushing and is coming off the bench. Even more alarming is that he doesn't seem alarmed by this development. 

This all begs the question: What's going on with Freeman? Has he simply checked out on a disappointing season?

Brooks-James rushed for 25 yards on Saturday after gaining 241 over the previous two games. Brooks-James' performance in prior games, Freeman said, earned him the start on Saturday.  

"Tony has had a lot of production out there," he said. "So they rewarded him with the start, which is rightfully so. I'm just going to pick up my game."

Oregon rushed for just 85 net yards against the Trojans, whose front seven dominated the Ducks' offensive line. So Saturday's troubles were not all on Freeman or Brooks-James. Still, Freeman hasn't been himself for awhile.   

Freeman bruised his sternum during the team's 70-21 loss to Washington on Oct. 8 and hasn't been the same since. However, he insists the he has been healthy since after the team's 52-49 double-overtime loss at California on Oct. 21. Yet his performance has not picked up. That led to Brooks-James seizing the starting job on Saturday. 

The problem is that nobody can really explain what Freeman's problem has been. Brooks-James has been good, but he is not on par with Freeman as an all-around running back. 

"I thought he ran hard tonight," Oregon offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said of Freeman. "It was more of just a case where Tony was playing really good. We thought he deserved an opportunity to start off the game."

If Freeman is healthy but simply not performing, one would have to at least raise a question about his desire. To that Lubick said he has seen no signs of Freeman not playing hard.

"His attitude has been great," Lubick said. "We told him, 'hey, we're probably going to start Tony.' He's the type of guy that if he is hurt he's not going to tell you because he's so tough."

Freeman said he thought he did some good things on Saturday. 

"I feel like I've been rushing pretty hard," he said. 

Lubick said at times Freeman has been the victim of bad blocking. That he was certainly banged up in the recent past. 

But none of that explains losing his starting job to Brooks-James. That points to something different. 

Something that remains a mystery. 

Ducks need Royce Freeman to be Royce Freeman

Ducks need Royce Freeman to be Royce Freeman

The recent spectacular play of Oregon running back Tony Brooks-James has provided two lessons: 

1. The post-Royce Freeman era, which begins next season, will be in good hands. 

2. The Ducks need Freeman to return to being Freeman in order to reach a bowl game. 

This is not to slight the play of Brooks-James, who gained 241 yards on 24 carries over the team's last two games while Freeman has amassed just 98 yards in his last 43 carries in the team's last three outings. 

Instead, it's to point out that while Brooks-James has played fantastic football he won't provide enough out of the backfield to thrust the Ducks (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) into a bowl game.

Freeman, who has been badly banged up for much of the season, has been running tentatively and minus the his usual burst. That has led to more touches for the soaring Brooks-James, but has also made the Ducks worse off. 

Why? Because Oregon needs its best players to be at their best in order to win either this week at USC (5-3, 4-2) or in two weeks at No. 16 Utah (7-2, 4-2). Winning one of those two road games, and defeating Stanford at home and then taking down Oregon State in the Civil War, would give the Ducks the six victories they need to become bowl eligible.

Winning at the Trojans, whose defense has played very well lately, or against a Utes' defense that has been strong all season, would be very difficult without the 235-pound Freeman consistently pounding away for tough, positive yards. 

Brooks-James, at 195 pounds, is running better inside than he ever has, but he isn't nearly as good as Freeman at banging out important short runs. Brooks-James said he has improved greatly thanks to practice situations that have prepared him for big moments. But he has yet to prove that he can carry the ball 20-plus times and grind out a game. 

USC and Utah will make doing so necessary for Oregon because their defenses won't allow a glut of big running plays. Grinding out the tough yards will be imperative toward maintaining manageable down-and-distance scenarios that alleviate pressure from freshman quarterback Justin Herbert. 

Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell said he plans to continue playing the back that is performing the best.

"I always go with the guy whose got the hot hand," he said. "When Tony is running well, I'm going to give him the ball. When Royce is running well, we're going to give him the ball."

Campbell said he knew Brooks-James was capable of becoming a big-play back when he recruited him. That is proving to be true with Brooks-James already having a career-high 572 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. 

"He's doing exactly what we brought him here to do," Campbell said. 

Brooks-James' break-away style fit the team's game plan against ASU. 

"Tony was able to break some tackles and bounce around and get into the open and use his speed where Royce is not a lateral kind of back and Tony is," Campbell said. "That was the kind of game we needed form Tony and he provided it for us."

Freeman has a career-low 561 yards after going for 1,836 last season. Oregon is in danger of not having a 1,000-yard running back for the first time since the 2006 season.

Campbell hinted that Brooks-James could start at USC, but Freeman is listed as the starter on the team's depth chart. To Freeman's credit, the junior said it didn't bother him to watch Brooks-James, a redshirt sophomore, shine while he has struggled. 

"I don't get frustrated," he said. "blocking and going against defenses and all of that other stuff is very complicated...it's always a win for the running back regardless who gets it."

That's a great attitude to have, but the Ducks will need both running backs to excel in order for UO to avoid missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004.