Oregon Ducks

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards. 

Ducks midseason report card: Offense

Ducks midseason report card: Offense

The Oregon Ducks have already matched last season's win total (4-8) with a 4-2 record. So, there is no denying that the Ducks are on the upswing. However, two losses in the PAC-12 raise questions as to just how far Oregon remains from being conference title contenders. 

Oregon's best asset right now is its youth. The Ducks are starting only four seniors on offense and three on defense (four depending on inside linebacker). That means 15 starters will return next season as well as a host of other young players who are seeing playing time. 

Oregon's offense, despite starting six freshmen and sophomores, has been one of the best in the conference averaging 43 points per game. 

Nevertheless, we all saw just how fleeting success can be when the starting quarterback goes down. Without sophomore Justin Herbert (collarbone), Oregon managed to score just 10 points during a 33-10 home loss to Washington State on Saturday. It's the lowest scoring output by an Oregon team since the Ducks lost 19-8 at Boise State to open the 2009 season. 

With that all said, here is a report card on the offense through the midway point of the season:

Quarterback - B-plus: Herbert picked up where he left off last season and continued to eleveate his level of play. He leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency (172.9). The only real knock on Herbert is that he struggled to generate points in the second half against Nebraska and Wyoming, and he couldn't get the team into field goal range on two final drives during a 37-35 loss at Arizona State. Neither situation, however, could be blamed solely on Herbert. 

The reason this position doesn't receive an "A" is because of the mediocre play of the backups, senior Taylor Alie and freshman Braxton Burmesiter.  Both looked out of place at this level in comparison to Herbert. The lack of depth at this position places Oregon in danger of struggling just to become bowl eligible. 

Running backs - A: Oregon is as deep and skilled at this position as it has ever been.

Senior Royce Freeman ranks third in the conference in rushing yards per game (109.2) despite leaving the win over California with a shoulder injury after having gained 51 yards in the first quarter. Freeman is tied for the conference lead with 10 touchdowns. 

Senior Kani Benoit has performed just as well in a backup role. He has rushed for 329 yards this season and leads the team in yards per carry at 7.3.  His 54.8 yards per game ranks 12th in the conference and his eight rushing touchdowns leave him tied for sixth. 

Tony Brooks-James hasn't gotten off to a great start with 158 rushing yards on 3.5 per carry but he has also caught 11 passes for 136 yards. 

Offensive line - B-minus: The offensive line has played very well most of the time but has also experienced enough lapses and has committed enough penalties to not warrant less than an "A" grade.

Oregon ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (239.3). However, a lack of production in the second half against both Nebraska and Wyoming can be traced back to an inconsistent running game. The line was absolutely dominant against California when the Ducks rushed for 328 yards even though Herbert and Freeman went out in the first quarter. But against Washington state, with Burmesiter at quarterback, the line failed to carry the team and the Ducks were held to 132 yards rushing. 

This is a very quality group but consistency has been an issue. 

Wide receivers/tight ends - C-minus: Losing senior slot Charles Nelson (ankle) for three games set this young group back. It's unfair to expect consistency from a corps that includes a converted cornerback (redshirt sophomore Malik Lovette), a converted safety (sophomore Brenden Schooler) and converted running back (junior Taj Griffin).

That said, the group has been about as spotty as expected. Freshman Johnny Johnson III looks like a future star and sophomore Dillon Mitchell is starting to live up to his potential. At tight end, redshirt sophomore Jacob Breeland has also played well. 

But that's a lot of freshman, sophomores and young men making position changes to expect greatness right away. What we've seen is very inconsistent play that has hurt Herbert at times and certainly didn't help Burmeister in his start. 

Still, in the end, the team's youth is its greatest asset and this position figures to be much better in the future. 

Next up: Defense and special teams.  

Taggart: "we'll see" which QB starts at No. 23 Stanford

Taggart: "we'll see" which QB starts at No. 23 Stanford

Oregon coach Willie Taggart didn't commit to starting freshman Braxton Burmeister at No. 23 Stanford on Saturday but instead indicated that senior Taylor Alie would compete for the job. 

“We’ll let it go through the week and see how the week goes and make sure that the guy that gives us the best chance to win is in there to play,” Taggart said. 

Interesting. 

Burmeister made his first career start in place of injured sophomore starter Justin Herbert (collarbone) during a 33-10 loss to No. 8 Washington State on Saturday. Burmeister did not look particularly good while completing 15 of 27 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. 

Alie, however, didn't look better when he filled in for Herbert during a 45-24 win over California two weeks ago. Alie completed 9 of 13 passes for just 41 yards with one interception. 

Alie left that game after suffering a concussion and on Friday was ruled out for the WSU game limiting Taggart's options. However, while both quarterbacks haven't perform well, it is clear that Burmeister, a four-star recruit signed last January, is the the more talented player of the two. 

Expect Burmeister to show improvement in practice this week and start at Stanford. 

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Chase slows to a crawl

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Chase slows to a crawl

Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman once again had an underwhelming game this time going for 62 yards on 12 carries during a 33-10 loss to No. 8 Washington State on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

After gaining 460 yards during Oregon's first three games, Freeman has rushed for just 194 yards over his team's last three contests. That includes a 51-yard performance two weeks ago against California when he left the game in the first quarter after suffering a shoulder injury. Had he not gotten injured, Freeman easily could have gone over 200 yards considering that the Ducks rushed for 328 on the evening. 

WSU, however, did a good job of confusing Oregon's offensive line with movement and stunts and the Cougars keyed on the running game of Oregon because they did not fear freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister, who was making his first start

The Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) next play at No. 23 Stanford (4-2, 3-1). The Cardinal ranks ninth in the PAC-12 in rushing defense allowing 182 yards per game.

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break James' record of 5,082.. 

RECORD WATCH

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 62 yards on 12 carries against the Cougars. 

Previous games: Freeman rushed for 51 yards vs. Cal, 81 yards at ASU, 157 yards at Wyoming, 153 yards vs. Nebraska and 150 against Southern Utah. 

2017 total: Freeman now has has rushed for 654 yards rushing in six games.  

Career total: Freeman has 4,800 yards career rushing yards. 

Freeman needs: He is 283 yards away from breaking James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman did not score against Washington State.   

2017 total: Ten.

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

Next up: The Ducks play at 8 p.m., Saturday at No. 23 Stanford.  

Overwhelmed Burmeister needs more help from his friends

Overwhelmed Burmeister needs more help from his friends

EUGENE – The good news is that Braxton Burmeister can only get better. The bad news is that it won’t matter unless he receives a little help from his friends.

The freshman quarterback made his starting debut Saturday night for the Oregon Ducks against No. 11 Washington State and the results were not good. He didn’t run well. He didn’t pass well. He didn’t call the cadence particularly well, at times.

But what transpired on offense for the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) during a 33-10 loss had as much to do with what went on around Burmeister as it did what went on with Burmeister,

Asking him to adequately fill in for the injured Justin Herbert (collarbone) was a tall order to begin with. Doing so while the offensive line had a subpar night and the starting receivers included a former safety and former running back proved to be completely unfair.

“I think this game he can learn a lot from,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. “He got that first game out of the way. He will be better as we move forward. But he needs a lot more help around him.”

The game was clearly too fast for Burmeister who struggled to read coverages and deliver accurate throws on time, if at all. Burmeister flashed some speed when he took off running but didn’t make defenders miss and took a lot of punishment. That could have proven to be problematic had he been injured because senior Taylor Alie was unavailable because of the concussion he suffered during last week’s win over California.

Burmeister ended up completing 15 of 27 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions and was sacked four times. He rushed for 35 yards on 11 carries but after sacks finished with negative four yards rushing.

His best two passes came on a 30-yard touchdown toss to a wide-open sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland that gave UO a 10-7 lead in the first quarter, and a 39-yard pass to sophomore Brenden Schooler who got open on a post route in the fourth quarter.

Other than that, it was dink and dunk for short gains. In fact, 11 of his completions went for eight yards, or less. Burmeister completed at least seven quick screens that went nowhere because WSU’s defense were dialed in on them as if they knew Oregon didn’t have many other options.

“We just didn’t really have enough time back there to make some plays,” Breeland said. “He’s got a good arm. He can throw the ball well.”

True freshmen players are not allowed to speak to the media.

When the Ducks did try to go downfield, Burmeister either found no open receivers and was sacked or flushed from the pocket, or he made an errant through. Several times he threw deep down the sideline on passes that had zero chance for completion because they were too far thrown and/or landed out of bonds.

Hindering the entire process for Burmeister was the wide receiver situation. Senior Charles Nelson ended up missing his third game with an ankle sprain after he warmed up during pregame in hopes of playing. Junior Taj Griffin, who also plays running back, started in his place. Sophomore Dillon Mitchell was unavailable because of the concussion he sustained against Cal leading to Schooler, a safety up until fall camp, starting in his place.

The results were inconsistent route running all game long that added to Burmeister’s confusion and indecision.

“Those are the lumps that you take with having young guys in there,” Taggart said. “A lot of those guys, they made some mistakes, too. We have to do a good job as coaches to make sure those guys are sharp on their assignments…especially when you have a young quarterback.”

But one had to know that all of the above was going to happen with a freshman quarterback making his first start while being saddled with such an inexperience receiving corps.

The biggest surprise proved to be the Ducks' subpar play of the running game. After Herbert went down and out in the first quarter Cal, the Ducks’ offensive line struggled for a quarter before completing dominating the Golden Bears to the tune of 328 yards rushing (5.9 per carry) on the night.

A repeat performance would be needed against WSU (6-0, 3-0), which entered the game with a rather strong defense but not much better than Cal’s.

But Oregon responded by rushing for 132 yards on 49 carries (2.9 per attempt). Senior Royce Freeman, still bothered by an injured shoulder that knocked him out of the Cal win in the first quarter gained 62 on 12 carries.

“We knew what Washington State was going to throw at us with all the movement,” redshirt sophomore center Jake Hanson said. “We just didn’t do a good enough job picking it up. Plain and simple.”

A better day rushing would have opened up more play-action, boots and roll outs for Burmeister, as well as given him better down-and-distance situations. Oregon converted on just 2 of 17 third down attempts

“I thought their D-line did a good jog against us,” Taggart said. “I didn’t think we played our best game upfront offensively. They did a lot of movement upfront that caused us some problems.”

So, where does Oregon go from here?

On the surface, they appear to be in huge trouble with games coming up at Stanford, at UCLA, then home against Utah before playing at Washington. Becoming bowl eligible might rely on winning home games to end the season against Arizona and Oregon State.

Herbert was said to be out 4-to-6 weeks, however, there appears to be a belief that he could return closer to the four than the six. That would but Herbert back in action for Utah on Oct. 28.

That would be great news for the Ducks, but in the meantime they need Burmeister and company to get better.

Despite what we all saw on Saturday, that could easily happen. Now that Burmeister has seen Pac-12 speed, he can adjust. The coaches must simplify the offense even more to allow for better receiver play and for Burmeister to flourish. It is also very likely that the Ducks get back Nelson and Mitchell this week at Stanford. If so, we should see an immediate uptick in the passing game.

Finally, none of that will translate into wins unless the offensive line and the running game can carry the offense.

“Everybody has got to get better,” Taggart said. “We have to go to work and learn from this tape. But more importantly we’ve got to know what we’re doing.”

Some takeaways from the short-handed Ducks' 33-10 home loss to Washington State

Some takeaways from the short-handed Ducks' 33-10 home loss to Washington State

 * I would totally agree with the idea that freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister wasn't ready for his first Pac-12 start. What did anybody have the right to expect? But let me add something else -- I didn't think the rest of the Ducks were ready to give him much help. They didn't protect him well and didn't provide enough of a running game to take the heat off him in the pocket.

* I'm not sure why the Ducks are having so much trouble on third down. Going 2-17 on third down (and 0-3 on fourth down) is an embarrassment. This team has a solid offensive line and good running backs. And really, the Cougars didn't spend the whole game with nine men in the box. I wouldn't mind seeing an extra tackle or tight end on the field in some of those short-yardage situations. I mean, you have to do something, right?

* I did think Burmeister showed some ability to run but he better learn how to slide when necessary. Certainly he showed some toughness, surviving four sacks and some hard open-field hits.

* Jim Leavitt's defense was again terrific. When you can get 18 incomplete passes out of Luke Falk and sack him four times, you're doing a lot of things right.

* The Ducks scored 10 points at home against the Cougars. And that's a team that gave up 44 to Boise State and 23 to Oregon State. Yes, I know about the injuries, but still...

* I would expect Burmeister to show improvement each week if he doesn't get too banged up. The first order of business moving forward is to protect him better and get the running game going.

* Playing without an experienced quarterback is almost impossible.

* Oregon's yellow uniforms were bad enough, but it appeared each player was told to finger paint something on the shoulders of the jersey. That's called "bad optics."

Watch: Rapid Reaction - Ducks are in trouble, Burmeister is not ready

Watch: Rapid Reaction - Ducks are in trouble, Burmeister is not ready

The absence of starting quarterback Justin Herbert was simply too much for the Ducks to overcome against the Washington State Cougars. 

Keep it locked on our social media @CSNNW for postgame quotes, videos, and podcasts throughout the night and all day tomorrow. 

Box Score: WSU 33, Oregon 10 

Rapid Reaction: 

Videos:

Coach Taggart: I told Braxton I loved him
Taggart knew he was playing with 1 hand tied behind his back
Aaron Fentress and Bri Amaranthus: Good or No Good?

Podcast:

WSU will look to expose Oregon's improved defense

WSU will look to expose Oregon's improved defense

No. 11 Washington State is going to reveal exactly how much Oregon’s defense has truly improved this season.

Ample evidence exists to show that UO has experienced a dramatic upswing on defense from last year but it’s difficult to tell if UO has gone from horrible to good or simply from horrible to decent.

While Oregon’s defense has gotten off to a strong start – just 26 points allowed per game – the Ducks have yet to face an animal as fierce as the Cougars’ offense, led by senior quarterback Luke Falk.

“Literally for Washington State, he makes everything go and he has a good supporting cast and it’s been working,” Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “We just have to make sure that we’re detailed in our game plan and our execution. But he’s going to make his plays.”

Salave’a, who coached at WSU from 2012 through 2016, knows a thing or two about Falk. Salave’a also knows a thing or two about Oregon’s best chance of containing WSU’s quarterback. Pressure. Loads of pressure. Otherwise, Oregon (4-1, 3-0 PAC-21) will be toast on the back end.

“I think that it’s very important that we get to Mr. Falk,” UO coach Willie Taggart said.

Oregon’s defense last year was historically bad for the Ducks and the problems began early in the season.

Through five games in 2016, Oregon gave up 153 points, or 38.3 per game, to four Power Five conference opponents; Virginia, Nebraska, Colorado and Washington State. The Ducks ended up allowing 41.2 points per game on the season.

Through five games last season, the Ducks have surrendered 96 points, or 32.0 per game, to three Power Five Conference teams, Nebraska, Arizona State and California (3-2, 0-2).

The caveat for Oregon is that it has faced just one team considered to be somewhat explosive on offense and that’s the Sun Devils (2-3, 1-1). ASU put up 489 yards on Oregon, which has allowed 332.2 per game.

WSU (5-0, 2-0) is averaging 495.8 yards per game with 343.6 coming from Falk’s right arm.

Oregon ate up Cal sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers during a 45-24 win last year but he is one of the least efficient passers in the conference.

Falk is one of the best having completed 74.5 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

“He’s going to move the ball. We know that,” UO defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said. “He’s just that good. But hopefully we can challenge him a little bit.”

The best way to do that is to apply pressure. WSU has allowed the second most number of sacks in the conference this season (19).

Oregon has made the most sacks in the conference (20).

UO got to Bowers seven times. The problem is, he still managed to put up 255 yard and three touchdown passes. What, then, will Falk be able to do against Oregon?

Another potential problem for the Ducks is what their defense does after a WSU receiver has the ball in his hands. The Cougars spread teams out and throw a ton of quick passes in hopes of breaking some big gains.

Oregon’s open-field tackling prowess is much improved over last season. But, again, the Ducks haven’t played teams loaded with playmakers other than ASU.

Sun Devils receiver N’Keal Harry went for 170 yards on seven receptions and Jalen Harvey gained 133 on eight receptions.

Leavitt had success against Falk last year while guiding Colorado’s defense. The Buffaloes held him to 325 yards passing and 26 of 53 passing with an interception. Colorado won 38-24 but Falk did throw three touchdown passes.

WSU is better than it was last year and Colorado’s defense was loaded with eight senior starters.

Oregon’s defense is quite young and is starting two freshman in the secondary, safety Nick Picket and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr.

WSU is not limited to Falk, either. When he struggled against Boise State, WSU coach Mike Leach turned to sophomore Tyler Hilinski who threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

Come Saturday night we will all have a better understanding of where Oregon’s defense truly is in its rebuilding phase under Leavitt and Taggart.

At the very least we already know that the Ducks’ D is headed in the right direction.

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Injury slows progress

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Injury slows progress

Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman saw his progress toward becoming the Ducks' all-time leading rusher slowed over the past two weeks. However, plenty of time remains for him to surpass LaMichael James providing Freeman can avoid a major injury setback. 

Freeman appeared to be headed for a big night during a 45-24 win over California on Saturday before a shoulder injury forced him to leave the game in the first quarter after having already gained 51 yards on six carries. The week before, Freeman gained 81 yards on 15 carries during a 37-35 loss at Arizona State. 

The 51-yard performance moved Freeman to within 345 yards of breaking James' record with seven games remaining. Freeman practiced this week and appears to be set to return to action Saturday when the Ducks (4-1, 1-1 PAC-12) host No. 11 Washington State (5-0, 2-0). However, he could be limited because of the injury. 

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break James' record of 5,082.. 

RECORD WATCH

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 51 yards on six carries before leaving the game against Cal with a shoulder injury.   

Previous games: Freeman rushed for 81 yards at ASU, 157 yards at Wyoming, 153 yards vs. Nebraska and 150 against Southern Utah. 

2017 total: Freeman now has has rushed for 592 yards rushing in four games.  

Career total: Freeman has 4,738 yards career rushing yards. 

Freeman needs: He is 345 yards away from breaking James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman did not score.   

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. 

Burmeister is the answer in Herbert's absence

Burmeister is the answer in Herbert's absence

EUGENE - Oregon freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister must live up to his billing as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the nation coming out of high school if the Ducks are going to survive life without sophomore Justin Herbert, out at least a month with a fractured collarbone. 

It's that simple. The problem is, that's a tough ask. 

Asking any freshman quarterback, regardless of perceived skillset, to perform at an elite level in year one is for the most part unrealistic. 

Few have met such expectations. Equally as unrealistic is asking redshirt senior Taylor Alie to suddenly deliver as a starting quarterback when last year he was moved to wide receiver because he had struggled playing quarterback at this level. 

So, as the Ducks (4-1, 1-1 PAC-12) embark on this journey without Herbert starting on Saturday with No. 11 Washington State (5-0 2-0) at home, they do so with an experienced but limited senior and a talented but promising freshman. 

What could possibly go wrong?

The solution is to shrink the playbook as much as needed and get Burmeister onto the field either as the starter or as the backup. 

But make sure Burmeister plays. He is the more talented of the two. Let that flourish. At the very least, he will have gained that much more experience moving forward rather than burning his redshirt to play backup to a guy in Alie who is only playing quarterback out of necessity. 

Maybe, Oregon gets lucky and Burmeister plays like Herbert did last year when he started his first game at this exact same point in the season. 

We already know what Alie, great person by all accounts who worked his tail off to earn a scholarship after walking on at his hometown university, is all about as a quarterback. 

Former UO coach Mark Helfrich told us during the spring of 2016 when he moved Alie and former quarterback Jeff Lockie, the backups to Vernon Adams Jr. in 2015, to wide receiver behind transfer Dakota Prukop, 4-star recruit Travis Jonsen and 3-star recruit Terry Wilson Jr.  

The move stated clearly that Alie was, at best, the No. 5 quarterback on the team behind two players who had never taken college snaps and Lockie, who certainly didn’t perform well in place of Adams. 

Herbert joined the Ducks in the fall of 2016 making Alie essentially No. 6. 

By the spring of 2017, Alie moved up to pseudo No. 5 behind Herbert, Jonsen, Wilson and Burmeister, but remained at wide receiver. 

Wilson elected to transfer during spring drills, which led to Alie once again receiving quarterback reps. When Jonsen left the program over the summer that put Alie into a competition with Burmeister for the backup role. 

But let’s be clear. Just because a bunch of dominoes fell thrusting Alie into the backup role, and now the likely starter, doesn’t mean that he is your typical backup in waiting. He is not. He is in that position by default. So if Alie starts against WSU, one shouldn't expect miracles. 

Burmeister, however, is here because, unlike Alie, the freshman was recruited to play this position at this level. 

Oregon co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo insisted this week that the team's game plan wouldn't shift without Herbert moving forward. Arroyo said he has worked with both Alie and Burmeister to always be ready

“We’ve made the room very aware, and I’ve been doing this a long time, that all it takes is one play, and there it is,” Arroyo said. “That’s to fruition and so we move forward.”

Yet, we saw the game plan shift against Cal when Herbert went down at the end of the first quarter. He had passed for 86 yards on 7-of-8 passing to that point. Alie threw for 41 yards on 9 of 13 attempts with one interception before going down with a concussion in the fourth quarter. 

Burmeister completed one pass for four yards in the final minutes. 

Those numbers represent a strategic shift of seismic proportions.

This week, however, the staff will have a chance to formulate game plans that best fit Alie and Burmeister against WSU's defense, ranked third and allowing 20.2 points per game. Advanced preparation will also help against the continuation of the heart of the schedule with games at No. 24 Stanford, UCLA, home against Utah and at Washington up next.  

If Herbert is fortunate, he will return in time for a home game against Arizona on Nov. 18. 

Preparation should improve the overall production for both Alie and Burmeister but neither will come close to matching Herbert's NFL-caliber passing abilities. 

The extreme variable in all of this is that Burmeister is a superior runner to both Herbert and Alie. Plus, the freshman has a live arm.

Burmeister rushed for 3,449 yards and 68 touchdowns while at La Jolla Country Day High School in La Jolla, Calif.  That's in addition to the 11,512 yards and 127 touchdowns he threw for with just 33 interceptions. 

Those are video game numbers, and although some have questioned the strength of the league he played in, the bottom line is that he had the skills enough to receive scholarship offers from a couple of dozen programs including Washington, Florida and Arizona. 

UO coach Willie Taggart said Burmeister has come a long way since joining the team in time for spring drills last March. 

"He has a better understanding of the offense and what we're trying to do," Taggart said. 

Burmeister has displayed, according to Taggart, greater confidence as his knowledge of the offense has increased. 

“It’s allowed him to go out there and play fast and execute," Taggart added. 

Arroyo said that Herbert’s experience is the top asset lost when he went down. 

"You can't put a price on that," Arroyo said. "That's huge."

Arroyo said the starter is not clear and will be determined after a week of competition. 

There is a chance, Arroyo said, that UO could play both, something Oregon did with Kellen Clemens and Jason Fife (2002-2003) and Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf (2005-2006). 

Whatever the plan is, Burmeister must be a huge part of it. Start him. Or, at least play him a lot. He came to Oregon as the potential quarterback of the future. He must deliver now. Otherwise, Oregon will be in serious trouble until Herbert returns.