Oregon Ducks

BREAKING: Oregon fires coach Mark Helfrich, replacement unknown

BREAKING: Oregon fires coach Mark Helfrich, replacement unknown

Oregon dismissed football coach Mark Helfrich tonight following a meeting with athletic director Rob Mullens, according to sources.

[WATCH: Facebook Live Stream from Rob Mullens' Press Conference]

The news comes days after Oregon ended it's season with a 34-24 loss at Oregon State in the Civil War to finish with a record of 4-8, the program's first losing record since 2004 and worst mark since 1991 (3-8).

Helfrich (37-16) and the coaching staff, which includes several assistants with tenures at Oregon ranging from 15 to 34 years, hit the recruiting trail on Sunday not knowing what their futures would be.

Helfrich held a press conference Sunday morning to discuss the 2016 season. He said then that had had called Mullens earlier that day to set up a meeting but Mullens told him he couldn't because he was heading to Texas early that morning to be a part of the College Football Playoff selection committee. 

Helfrich, according to a source, went to California to recruit on Sunday and returned on Monday. Mullens returned to Eugene today and the two finally met tonight. 

[PODCAST: UO Athletic Director Rob Mullens addresses the firing]

At that meeting, sources said, Helfrich had to sell Mullens on a plan to turn things around. Also factoring into the equation was Helfrich's buyout price tag of $11.6 million with three years remaining on his contract, and the fact that no obvious coaching replacement candidate had been identified. Another factor was that the coaching staff includes many who have been with the program for from 14 to 33 years. Letting go of an entire staff would require a slam-dunk alternative option that might not have existed. 

Clearly, that meeting didn't go well for Helfrich. This is the first time Oregon has fired a head football coach in 40 years. 

Oregon issued a release at 7:12 p.m. that included this statement from Mullens.

"We want to thank Mark for his eight years with the University of Oregon and appreciate his efforts on behalf of Oregon football," Mullens said. "We wish Mark and his family the best."

The release included this statement from Helfrich: "It is a great honor to have served as the head football coach at the University of Oregon," Helfrich said. "It is with respect and disappointment that we receive this decision. Plain and simple — we didn't win enough games this season. Thank you first to my wife, Megan, and our family, the fans, the campus community, the board, our donors and administration. To our coaches, staff and their families, it is impossible to communicate my gratitude for the environment we got to work in every single day. Finally, to the players — thank you, and I love you. The future is bright for this young, talented team, and we will be supporting them and their new leadership."

Helrich went a respectable 37-16 during his four-year stint but didn't survive going 4-8 in a disastrous 2016 season that saw the Ducks be forced to rely on youth because of injuries and poor recruiting that led to ineffective upperclassmen. 

No potential replacement candidates have been named, although a dozen or so names have been tossed around the rumor mill for weeks. 

Oregon began the season 2-0 before three-point losses at Nebraska and home against Colorado. The Ducks then were crushed at Washington State and home against Washington. The 70-21 home loss to the Huskies ended an 11-game winning streak for Oregon in the rivalry and signaled the moment when Helfrich officially became in danger of being fired.

That week, Mullens appeared on a campus radio program and did not offer unwavering support for Helfrich.

The Ducks then went out and lost 52-49 at Cal in double overtime. The game featured the emergence of freshman quarterback Justin Herbert who threw six touchdowns in the game and followed up with 489 yards passing in a home win over Arizona State.

Herbert provided hope for a turnaround but it was short lived. The Ducks were blown out in losses at USC and home against Stanford to end up 3-7 with no chance of becoming bowl eligible.

Oregon, however, proved once again that it hadn't quit on the season when the Ducks won 30-28 at then-No. 11 Utah. 

That good feeling ended with Saturday's loss to Oregon State. The Ducks led 24-10 in the third quarter before falling to pieces. It was the first time OSU has defeated the Ducks since 2007.  

Other than the rough 2016 season, Helfrich's tenure at Oregon has been quite productive. 

The Oregon native from Coos Bay began his career at Oregon in 2009 when Chip Kelly hired him away from Colorado to become the Ducks' offensive coordinator after Kelly replaced Mike Bellotti as head coach. 

However, because Kelly continued to call plays, Helfrich never received much credit for the Ducks’ “blur” offense that ripped through the Pac-12 over the next four years leading to three conference titles, a national championship game appearance, and victories in the 2012 Rose Bowl and the 2013 Fiesta Bowl.

When the NFL came calling on Kelly, however, Helfrich became the obvious choice as successor in order to maintain continuity on an offense led by quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Oregon held some token interviews but Helfrich was a virtual shoe-in. He took over as head coach on January 20 of 2013, just four days after Kelly accepted the head coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Helfrich-era picked up right where the Chip Kelly-era had left off.

The 2013 Ducks, led by second-year starting quarterback, Marcus Mariota, began the season scoring 50 or more points in five consecutive games, reached 8-0 and were ranked No. 2 in the nation.

Then, it all came crashing down. An upset loss at Stanford was followed two weeks by a blowout defeat at 17-point underdog Arizona.

The Ducks salvaged the season with wins in the Civil War, and over Texas in the Alamo Bowl to finish ranked No. 9 in the country.

With Mariota and plenty of high-end talent returning, the Ducks looked to finish the job in 2014. That season began with great expectations and Mariota as a Heisman candidate.

Oregon jumped out to a 4-0 start but injuries along the offensive line led to a 31-24, upset loss at home to Arizona. The Ducks then got healthy and got rolling, once again, winning eight consecutive games, including a Pac-12 championship rematch with Arizona, 51-13.

The Ducks were 12-1, ranked No. 2 in the college football rankings, thus qualifying for the first ever college football playoffs.

Plus, Mariota, fulfilled his promise by claiming Oregon’s first ever Heisman Trophy.

Weeks later in the Rose Bowl, the Ducks destroyed defending national champion Florida State, 59-20, ending the Seminoles 29-game winning streak.

That victory sent the Ducks to the national championship game for the second time in five seasons.

However, the Ducks, minus an injured Devon Allen and a suspended Darren Carrington, were no match for Ohio State in Dallas. The Buckeyes 42-20, and once again Oregon fell one win short of claiming a national championship.

That game proved to be the last for Mariota, who became the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Oregon hadn’t developed a quarterback to replace Mariota and had to turn to transfer Vernon Adams Jr. He battled injuries that only magnified the dramatic fall of the defense that went from allowing 23 points per game to 37.

The Ducks limped out to a 3-3 start that included a 62-20 loss at home to Utah. Just like that, the narrative that Helfrich could not maintain Oregon’s winning ways was born.

But once Adams got healthy, the Ducks got back on track. The defense improved slightly and Oregon won six consecutive games, including a 38-36 upset win at No. 7 Stanford, all but ending the Cardinal's playoff hopes.

The Ducks had to settle for a trip to the Alamo Bowl, but at least were in line to claim an eighty consecutive 10-win season.

As it turned out, the Alamo Bowl would be the worst moment of Helfrich’s career.

The Ducks led 31-0 in the second quarter before Adams went down with a concussion, center Matt Hegarty also went down. Backups Jeff Lockie and Doug Brenner proved ineffective, the defense couldn’t get a stop and before anyone knew what was happening the Ducks had lost 47-41 in triple overtimes.

That loss led to Helfrich entering the 2016 season with a huge black mark on his resume. Following it up with a losing record certainly gave those in power reasons to consider letting him go. 

PODCAST

Oregon faces virtual must-win against struggling Utah

Oregon faces virtual must-win against struggling Utah

Oregon reaching a bowl game appeared to be a virtual given not too long ago. Three blowout losses later and the Ducks find their postseason hopes leaning against the ropes with reality rearing back to deliver a knockout blow.

The Ducks will host Utah on Saturday in what should be considered all but a must-win for Oregon, which faces a tough schedule down the stretch.

UO coach Willie Taggart, when asked following his team's 31-14 loss at UCLA on Saturday how important it would be for these young Ducks (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) to gain the experience that comes with playing in a bowl game, said he couldn't even consider such things at the moment. 

“We’re not thinking about bowl right now,” Taggart said. “We need to get another win...If we get another win then we’ll start thinking about those other things. But it’s really, really important now that we find a way to win a ball game.

Failing to reach a bowl game this season should be viewed as a colossal disaster. Despite Oregon going 4-8 last year, plenty of reasons existed to expect the Ducks to win at least six games in 2017. Starting out 4-1 then failing to capture two additional victories over seven remaining contests would certainly be a bad look for Taggart and the program, even when factoring in the loss of sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert (collarbone), who has missed the team's last three games. His return date is unknown. 

Surely Oregon should have been expected to scratch out two more wins with anyone at quarterback. 

Oregon's margin for error to reach 6-6 and become bowl eligible is virtually zero with Utah visiting Autzen on Saturday. As it stands right now, Oregon has one seemingly very winnable game remaining and that's the Civil War on Nov. 25 at home to close the regular season against Oregon State (1-6, 0-4). 

The Ducks also have one seemingly guaranteed loss, with or without Herbert, and that's Nov. 4 at 12 Washington (6-1, 3-1).

If those two games turn out as most of the world would expect them to, the Ducks would need to get a win against either the Utes or surging Arizona on Nov. 11 to reach six victories.

Herbert should return no later than Nov. 11. His injury was said to keep him out 4-to-6 weeks. This Saturday would be the fourth week since the injury occurred Sept. 30 against California. The Arizona game happens seven weeks out. But defeating the Wildcats would be anything but a given even with Herbert and that game looks now like a sure loss if he were not to play.

Arizona sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate has been lighting up the Pac-12 since becoming the Wildcats' starter on Oct. 7.  Tate has amassed 694 yards rushing in three starts and 468 passing with 11 total touchdowns. Arizona has won all three of his starts while averaging 46.3 points per game. 

He has had the opposite impact on his team that Oregon freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister has had on his since replacing Herbert. The Ducks have scored 31 points in three games with Burmeister at quarterback. Simply math would indicate that UO would have a tough time defeating Arizona and Tate without Herbert. 

Even with Herbert, expecting him to out-duel Tate after sitting out seven weeks would be foolish. Herbert could help UO put up numbers but Arizona should be expected to also score a lot of points making the outcome very much in doubt. 

Consequently, it's imperative that the Ducks win over Utah in order to ease the pressure of having to take down Tate and Arizona. 

Believe it or not, the Ducks have a chance to do so even if Burmeister makes his fourth start. Utah is reeling at the moment having lost three consecutive games. The Utes' offense is a mess, which is exactly what the Ducks need to see. If Utah can be held to under 27 points it is possible that Burmeister makes enough progress to lift the Ducks to a close win. 

What Oregon truly needs is for Herbert to make a miraculous recovery and play on Saturday. Either way, the Ducks had better approach this game with a do-or-die mentality.

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Oregon vs. Utah

When: 2:45 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Utah minus 3 1/2.

Records: Ducks (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12), Utah (4-3, 1-3).

Last week: Arizona won 45-44 in overtime at California (4-4, 1-4). Oregon lost 31-14 at UCLA (4-3, 2-3). 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-49, 4-4 at Oregon); Utah's Kyle Whittingham (108-53).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. Utah has lost three consecutive games to Stanford, at USC and home against ASU. The offense has fallen on hard times while the defense went from allowing 19 points per game through the first four contests to giving up a still solid 27.0.

Oregon, these days, can accommodate such numbers with an offense that has scored 31 points over the last three games. One could very easily see Utah winning this game 24-17. 

Preliminary pick (waiting on Herbert news): Oregon 27, Utah 20. Oregon will be home against a mediocre opponent that is struggling on offense. That, and a couple more plays from Burmeister than usual, will be enough to help the Ducks get that all important fifth victory. Then Taggart can start talking about how important it would be for his team to appear in a bowl game. 

Taggart unconcerned with Darren Carrington Jr.'s return

Taggart unconcerned with Darren Carrington Jr.'s return

Former Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington Jr. will return to Autzen Stadium on Saturday when the Ducks host Utah.

That reality got me thinking: How incredulous would Carrington, a true diva receiver, be right now had he spent the past three weeks playing for Oregon (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) with struggling freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister failing to get him the ball?  It certainly would have been entertaining to watch Carrington get open over and over only to end up throwing his arms around in frustration over not being targeted by Burmeister, who has passed for 246 yards in three starts. 

Remember, Carrington caught passes from Marcus Mariota, Vernon Adams Jr. and Justin Herbert. Carrington would have lost his mind under these circumstances. 

Unfortunately, we were denied such entertainment when UO coach Willie Taggart Jr. dismissed Carrington from the team over the summer following a DUII arrest.  Carrington will have his chance to exact a little revenge on the Ducks, who desperately need to win in order to improve their bowl chances. But Taggart, when asked how his team would prepare for Carrington, said his struggling team has far more pressing issues to contend with. 

"Go to practice, prepare well, get ready to go out and try to play our best ball game to try to win," Taggart said. "I don't think we're going in saying we've got to stop Darren Carrington. We've got to go and play better than what we've played. It doesn't matter who is on that other side of the ball."

Taggart's decision to remove Carrington from the team remains a sound one. The move sent a message to the rest of UO's roster that Taggart would not tolerate repeat disciplinary problems from players. The decision, that took weeks to reach following Carrington's arrest, also put a large hole in the Ducks' receiving corps. Maybe most importantly, Taggart's decision was probably the best thing for Carrington. He needed a shot in the gut to let him know that his talents won't alone carry him to success. Oregon would survive with him. The NFL could survive without him.

Carrington appears to have gotten the message and is thriving for Utah (4-3, 1-3). Carrington has caught 45 passes for 649 yards and five touchdowns. He leads the Pac-12 with 92.7 receiving yards per game and his 6.4 receptions per game rank fourth.

Could Carrington have helped Oregon? Yes. Of course. But only if he had avoided being a distraction, something he failed to do in three seasons with the Ducks.  A focused and discipline Carrington would help any team. But he wouldn't have helped Oregon these past three weeks without a viable quarterback to get him the ball. 

Carrington should be thankful that Taggart gave him the boot and even more thankful that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham gave him a chance. 

The hope here is that all of the turmoil that Carrington has created and experienced leads to him maturing and having a strong NFL career. 

Oregon freshman QB Braxton Burmeister deserves an apology

Oregon freshman QB Braxton Burmeister deserves an apology

PASADENA, Calif. - If Oregon coach Willie Taggart allowed freshmen to speak to the media, I would consider it warranted to offer freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister an apology. 

Not necessarily for the mostly critical remarks myself and other members of the media have hurled toward his play. That's simply part of the job and unavoidable. It also isn't personal. He has not played well during three consecutive losses for Oregon (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12), outscored 113-31 during that stretch, including a 31-14 loss Saturday at UCLA. 

Where an apology is warranted is in relation to Burmeister having been unfairly placed squarely in the crosshairs of the media and fans thanks to circumstances beyond his control resulting in mounds and mounds of criticism.  A 4-1 start for Oregon raised expectations. Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert going down with a broken collarbone placed those expectations on the Burmeister's shoulders. Suddenly, all eyes were fixated on him, waiting to see if he could perform feats he clearly isn't ready to tackle. That is an incredibly unfair situation. 

Burmeister looked somewhat improved against the Bruins (4-3, 2-3), passing for 74 yards and rushing for two scores. All that stat line really tells anyone is that the bar was set really low following his 23-yard passing performance with two interceptions the previous week during a 49-7 loss at Stanford. 

One would expect better from a former four-star recruit rated by Rivals.com as the No. 7-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation. But that's part of the problem. Recruiting rankings and hype fuel expectations for instant success, even at a position where patience and proper grooming usually lead to better results. 

Burmeister, who amassed more than 14,000 yards of offense at La Jolla Counry Day High School (Calif.), simply isn't prepared for this level of competition. He should be on the sideline watching, listening and learning while wearing an Oregon baseball cap and headphones. His job should be charting the action on a clipboard or waving his arms around signaling in plays. Instead, he's getting pounded on the field and ripped away from it because too many observers expected him to live up to the hype. But hype is no match for reality and expectations rarely trump logic.

Burmeister's reality thus far = 52.9 completion percentage, 82 passing yards per game, one touchdown pass and five interceptions.

That statistical line screams, "I'm not ready for this."

The fact is that Burmeister is the fourth best quarterback Oregon has had on its roster this year. However, redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen and redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr. transferred to junior colleges because they couldn't beat out sophomore starter Justin Herbert. He broke his collarbone while scoring on a touchdown run against California leading to senior backup Taylor Alie taking the field. He then suffered a concussion forcing UO coach Willie Taggart to burn Burmeister's redshirt in order to finish the Cal game.  That led to Burmeister, far more talented than Alie, becoming the starter way ahead of his time.

In a perfect world where backup quarterbacks were content being backups until their time, Burmeister would be redshirting, safe from complicated game plans, snarling defenses, journalists cozy in the press box and the ire of a fan base spoiled by the play of former UO greats; Joey Harrington, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon, Darron Thomas, Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr.  

But remember that none of the aforementioned former quarterbacks were asked to start as a freshman. Only Mariota, who redshirted behind Thomas in 2012, would have certainly been better as a true freshman than Burmeister is now.

They were all fortunate to be able to sit and learn. 

Then there's Herbert, another quarterback savant whose rare gifts are further illustrated by Burmeister's struggles. 

As badly as things have gone for Burmeister, there are signs of hope that he could develop into a quality quarterback down the road. He is one tough dude. In three games, Burmeister has been smacked around pretty good while being credited for 40 carries (including sacks). He also can run well. He isn't on the level of Mariota and Dixon, but he could certainly rush for 500 yards in a season providing his passing could keep defenses honest, which it isn't right now.

However, Taggart would like for him to be wise in the face of his competitiveness after taking off. 

“He’s got to be smart and throw the ball away and get down when he should...” Taggart said. "We need for him to learn that ASAP and not take a lot of those hits because some of them are unnecessary.”

As for passing, Burmeister has a live arm and displayed some budding accuracy at UCLA. It's a lot easier to be accurate when you can read defenses quickly, anticipate the throw and deliver the ball with confidence. That's tough to do for any freshman. 

On his thrown interception in the third quarter, Burmeister forced the ball deep down the right sideline after the intended receiver had run the wrong route, according to Taggart. Burmeister also tried to execute a pass play when the call was a run, resulting in him getting blasted by an unblocked pass rusher.

"Those are some of the freshman mistakes that you make and that we need for him not to make," Taggart said. 

Unfortunately, Burmeister clearly isn't ready to avoid making such mistakes. Nor is he ready to take on the Pac-12 as a true freshman. Yet, here he is, saddled with this enormous burden and facing unfair criticism. 

For that reason alone, Burmeister deserves an apology. 

Desperate Ducks running out of time to find answers

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USA Today

Desperate Ducks running out of time to find answers

PASADENA, Calif. - The Oregon Ducks left Southern California on Saturday a desperate football team, and their coach, Willie Taggart, departed as a man searching in vain for answers following a 31-14 to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. 

Three consecutive lopsided losses by the combined score of 113-31 have made it clear that this young and battered team is all but incapable of producing a winning product without starting quarterback Justin Herbert, who has missed three games with a broken collarbone. 

There is plenty of blame to go around. Select any section of the team and you could find fault within. But the bottom line is that all of the team's woes can be linked right back to the absence of Herbert. 

The offense, aside from the yard-churning play of senior running back Royce Freeman, is a disaster. The defense, brilliant at times, isn't skilled or wise enough to carry a team in such a high-scoring conference. 

All of these realities left Taggart somewhat exasperated while he explained mistake after mistake made by his young quarterback, freshman Braxton Burmeister, and the rest of the team.

“Those are the headaches that you get right now," Taggart said in a frustrated tone. "But, you understand that it’s going to get better."

If it doesn't in a hurry, Oregon (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) could miss a bowl game for the second consecutive season. The Ducks need two victories to reach six and become eligible. Right now, three of the team's four remaining games appear to be imminently losable without Herbert. 

It shouldn't be possible that one player could mean so much to a team. Even in 2015 when the Ducks lost quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., they managed to score 140 points over three games with backup Jeff Lockie as the starter. Taggart would give almost anything right now for that type of offensive production. 

The positive sign Saturday was that the team certainly looked better than it did during a 49-7 loss at Stanford last week. Burmeister, who passed for 23 yards against the Cardinal, connected on some promising throws on Saturday but still amassed just 74 yards through the air. UCLA knew the Ducks couldn't throw well and stacked up against Freeman, who gained 160 yards on 29 punishing carries to become the program's all-time career leading rusher

Oregon fell behind 14-0 before Burmeister manufactured two scoring drives that required 15 plays each and ended with him scoring on the ground. Such long drives covering 6:03 and 5:16 were a departure for UO. But it worked and gave the Ducks hope. In the second half, however, the mistakes resurfaced. Drives died. UCLA (4-3, 2-3) added some scores and that was that.

“We can’t do that to ourselves," Taggart said of the miscues. "I think for us, we’ve got to play cleaner and smarter, all around.”

Especially when you don't have a quarterback that can make plays. Oregon, and most teams for that matter, is not capable of playing so perfectly that they can overcome not having a playmaker at quarterback. The Ducks had to be nearly perfect against a team led by a vastly superior quarterback in Josh Rosen, held to a reasonable 266 yards passing and two touchdowns. 

Taggart said the team entered the game with three goals they needed to reach in order to win the game: Don't turn the ball over. Force turnovers. Reduce penalties. They only accomplished the latter, committing just three for 15 yards after entering the game averaging 10.2 per game, while coughing up two turnovers and forcing zero. 

The fumble was committed by freshman running back Darrian Felix on the Ducks' opening drive and converted into a touchdown. The interception came in the third quarter with the Ducks trailing 24-14. The receiver on the play, Taggart said, ran the wrong route but Burmeister forced a pass deep to him anyway. His underthrown ball ended up in the hands of UCLA cornerback Colin Samuel. 

“We’re taking our lumps right now with a lot of these young guys playing but those guys will continue to get better and we’ll find a way,” Taggart said. 

The biggest positive, according to Taggart, was that his team fought back from being down 14-0 in the first quarter to tie the game at halftime. 

“I thought our guys showed a lot of fight,” Taggart said.

However, when things went south in the second half, so did the team's resolve. 

“Right now I think from a mental standpoint we have to get ourselves right, staying positive, especially when things go wrong," Taggart said. 

When asked if Herbert could return next week at home against Utah, Taggart said he had no idea. Notice that he didn't say "no."

If Herbert returns, the Ducks would have a strong chance to win at least two more games and become bowl eligible. But that is hardly a given. If he remained out until the Ducks host Arizona (4-2, 2-1) on Nov. 18, UO would be in serious jeopardy of not reaching a bowl game for the second consecutive season. 

That certainly was not the plan when Taggart took over for Mark Helfrich, fired last winter. Starting quarterback or no starting quarterback, Taggart was expected to at least get the Ducks back to the postseason. A lot must change in order for that to happen. 

“I believe in this team and love this team and I feel like this team will get it corrected," Taggart said. "We’ve just got to stay the course, stay positive and find the way.”

The opportunities to do so are drying up quickly. 

Royce Freeman becomes Oregon's all-time leading rusher

Royce Freeman becomes Oregon's all-time leading rusher

PASADENA, Calif. - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman became the Ducks' all-time leading rusher with a 16-yard run in the fourth quarter of the team's 31-14 loss at UCLA.

The run left Freeman with 153 rushing yards on the day and 5,096 for his career. He finished the game with 160 yards on 29 carries and has 5,103 for his career. 

Freeman entered the game needing 140 yards to break LaMichael James' career record of 5,082, amassed over three seasons from 2009 through 2011. Freeman is in his fourth season with UO. 

Freeman breaking the record today appeared to be a given. The Bruins (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) entered the game ranked last in the conference and 128th in the nation in rushing defense allowing 313 yards per game. Oregon (4-3, 1-3) entered the day ranked third in the conference and 18th in the nation in rushing with 244.3 yards per game. 

Freeman started the game ranked third in the conference and ninth in the nation with 797 rushing yards. 

Freeman began the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break James' record. 

Oregon's defense faltering in Pac-12 play

Oregon's defense faltering in Pac-12 play

EUGENE - Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was all smiles when he met with the media on Wednesday outside of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. He was also very anxious to get out to the practice field. About 90 seconds into the interview session, Leavitt moved one foot toward exiting while asking, "Anything else?"

Well, yeah. Can't get away that easily when we get you once a week and the defense is getting lit up as of late. The Ducks (4-3, 1-2 Pac-12) have given up 143 points (35.6 per game) in four Pac-12 games after allowing just 69 in three non-conference games. So, who could blame Leavitt for wanting to get the practice. Like the Ducks' offense - 17 points in the last two games - the defense has plenty of work to do.

But unlike the offense, which is operating without quarterback Justin Herbert, the Ducks' defense doesn't have an obvious excuse to lean on. The main 11 starters have remained mostly the same with a few depth chart changes and a couple of players missing games here and there. Only inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu has been lost for the season. 

What's happened to the defense is simple. It went from playing very average offenses to facing quarterbacks that can put points on the board. UO has allowed 12 touchdown passes in four Pac-12 games and now faces the challenge of contending with UCLA's Josh Rosen, who has thrown for 17 scoring passes this year. UCLA hosts Oregon at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Rose Bowl. 

It's bad enough giving up touchdown passes. But Oregon isn't even intercepting any to balance things out a bit. After intercepting six passes in non-conference play, the Ducks have picked off just one pass in conference. 

"We do it all of the time in practice, we've just got to translate it into the games," Robinson said.

Getting interceptions against scout team quarterbacks is not the same as facing Pac-12 starters. The quarterback foursome of Arizona State's Manny Wilkins, California's Ross Bowers, Washington State's Luke Falk and Stanford's Keller Christ have given the Ducks problems. Even Bowers, sacked seven times, managed to throw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The one interception for UO in conference came at Stanford on a dropped and tipped slant pass in the end zone that landed in the arms of freshman cornerback Deommodore Lenoir.

Maybe the most concerning problem is that those same quarterbacks have had poor games against other teams. Falk threw five interceptions in last week's 37-3 loss at Cal. Bowers threw four in a loss to USC. Wilkins threw two at Stanford. Chryst had two picked off at San Diego State. So, they've given up the ball. Just not to Oregon. 

Back to Rosen. He threw for three interceptions and zero touchdowns in a 47-30 loss last week at Arizona. He now has eight on the season, tied for the second most among conference starting quarterbacks.

He is a bit of a gunslinger that likes to take chances. So, if Oregon is going to pull off the upset, the Ducks must find a way to pluck a few of his passes out of the air. 

"We're always focused on turnovers whether that's stripping the ball out, punching it our, quarterback throwing it and get it," UO safeties coach Keith Heyward said. "We just haven't made plays."

Leavitt pointed out that the Ducks have had chances at intercepting a few more during conference play, but failed to catch the ball. 

"Those are missed opportunities," he said. 

With the offense struggling so badly, the defense can't afford to not force turnovers. The mediocre play of backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister, a true freshman, has resulted in too many short drives that result in no points. Oregon's defense was on the field for 37 minutes during its 49-7 loss at Stanford. That's too much pressure to put on a young and rebuilding defense. 

"Obvious we feel like we have to stop the opponent no matter whether the offense is playing like it was before or playing like we are now," Heyward said. "We just have to take care of our own side of the ball and get stops."

Part of the problem is some of the youth of the secondary. The Ducks are have started safety Nick Pickett and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. Lenoir has seen his playing time increase. They represent the future of the Ducks' secondary. Sometimes growing pains can be tough. 

"They're trying," Leavitt said. "They're doing the best they can. They are going to be great players. I'm really excited about them."

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Oregon at UCLA

When: 1 p.m., Saturday, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: UCLA minus 6 1/2.

Records: Ducks (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12), Bruins (3-3, 1-2).

Last week: UCLA lost 47-30 to Arizona (4-2, 2-1). Oregon lost 49-7 at No. 22 Stanford (5-2, 4-1).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-48, 4-3 at Oregon); UCLA's Jim Mora (44-27).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. Oregon should run wild but unless the Ducks get some big plays from Burmeister they won't have much of a chance of keeping pace with Rosen and his fleet of receivers.

Redshirt sophomore tight end Caleb Wilson leads the Pac-12 with 7.6 receptions per game over five games. He has caught 38 passes for 489 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt senior wide receiver Darren Andrews is second at 7.3 receptions per game. He has made 44 receptions for 591 yards and seven touchdowns. Redshirt junior Jordan Lasley leads the conference in receiving yards per game (108.4) over five games while catching 54 passes for 543 yards and three touchdowns. 

Final pick: UCLA 44, Oregon 30.  Burmeister will improve enough to help the offense break 20 for the first time in three weeks but it won't be nearly enough. 

#AskFentress, an Oregon Ducks Twitter Q&A - UCLA week

#AskFentress, an Oregon Ducks Twitter Q&A - UCLA week

I took to twitter this week to answer fan questions about the Oregon Ducks (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12). You can find all of them using #AskFentress. Here are some of the best ones as Oregon prepares to play at UCLA (3-3, 1-2) at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

 

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Now 140 yards away

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Now 140 yards away

Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman returned to his 100-yard rushing ways on Saturday with 143 on 18 carries during a 49-7 loss at No. 22 Stanford. 

It was Freeman's first 100-yard game since he began the season with three straight such performances before going for 81, 51 and 62 over the following three games. 

Freeman now needs 140 to become Oregon's all-time leading rusher. He should reach that mark on Saturday at UCLA. The Bruins (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) rank last in the conference and 128th in the nation in rushing defense allowing 313 yards per game. 

Oregon (4-3, 1-3) ranks third in the conference and 18th in the nation in rushing with 244.3 yards per game. Freeman ranks third in the conference and ninth in the nation with 797 rushing yards. 

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 143 yards on 18 carries at Stanford. 

2017 total: Freeman now has has rushed for 797 yards rushing in six games.  

Career total: Freeman has 4,943 yards career rushing yards. 

Freeman needs: He is 140 yards away from breaking James' record. 

Previous games: Freeman rushed for 62 against Washington State, 51 yards vs. Cal, 81 yards at ASU, 157 yards at Wyoming, 153 yards vs. Nebraska and 150 against Southern Utah. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' previous record: 53.

Freeman's record: Freeman has 54 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Last week: Freeman did not score at Stanford.   

2017 total: Ten.

Next up: The Ducks play at 1 p.m., Saturday at UCLA. 

Taggart hopeful Burmeister will improve in time for UCLA

Taggart hopeful Burmeister will improve in time for UCLA

Will the third start for Oregon freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister be the charm?

Oregon coach Willie Taggart certainly hopes so. His options at quarterback are limited with sophomore Justin Herbert out again for this week's game at UCLA (3-3, 1-2). It will either Burmeister or redshirt senior Taylor Alie. Despite two losses in which the Ducks scored a combined 17 points, it appears that Taggart will stick with Burmeister as the starter and hope that playing near his hometown of La Jolla, Calif., will inspire him to perform better. Even after two subpar performances by Burmeister, Taggart doesn't believe his first quarterback recruit's confidence has waned. 

"I just think he's got to play better," Taggart said. 

Through two starts, and a quarter of play the night Herbert went down against California, Burmeister has completed 19 of 36 passes (52.8 percent) for 172 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions. He's rushed for gains of 69 yards with a net of 27 after deducting yards mostly lost on sacks. 

While few people, if any, expected Burmeister to match the production of Herbert when he started as a freshman last year, it was reasonable to expect that the four-star recruit would at least perform like a potential future starter. He has not. Yet. Taggart still believes Herbert will improve. 

"Just being sure when you go back and throw," Taggart said. "We've got to make sure from a practice standpoint that we put him in those situations more often than what we do."

Burmeister is not reading defenses well, is making poor decisions and when he does throw the ball, isn't displaying much accuracy aside from the occasional moment here and there. He looks like a quarterback who has very little confidence in what he is doing.

Already down 21-7 in the first quarter, Burmeister had a pass intercepted when he forced a throw to running back Tony Brooks-James who was running a wheel down the left sideline. On the play, running back Kani Benoit can be seen running wide open to the left on a swing route. Also, slot receiver Charles Nelson could be found wide open running a dig route from left to right. 

While finding and hitting Nelson might have been a high-end read, reading wide receiver Brenden Schooler on the post route to Brooks-James and then down to Benoit is relatively routine. But Burmeister failed to recognize the multiple black jerseys that flew deep leaving Benoit uncovered. 

These types of easy plays must be corrected in order for the offense to start clicking again. Burmeister can't turn what should be an easy throw for a first down into a forced interception, especially when he isn't under pressure. 

"We don't need for him to win the football game for us but we definitely can't turn the football over," Taggart said.

The lone bright spot for Burmeister is his running ability, and important skill for Taggart's offense.  

"I thought he did a good job running the football," Taggart said. "That's the one thing he looked really comfortable doing."

Taggart will take that every time. Running after a play breaks down is certainly better than forcing a bad pass. 

"You don't have to make all of the plays, just make the right play for us," Taggart said. 

All of the mistakes Burmeister has made, Taggart said, are correctable. He said the coaches have to do a better job of putting him in easier situations he is capable of executing. Then, it's up to Burmeister to settle down and play good football. 

"Just go out and have fun and don't put too much pressure on yourself," Taggart said. "Then things will workout."