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.