brady hoke

Jim Leavitt Part 2: With big money comes great expectations

Jim Leavitt Part 2: With big money comes great expectations

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt based on an extensive interview conducted for Talkin' Ducks, which first aired on Wednesday and will re-air several times in the coming week. 

Part 1: Enamored with state's beauty, Ducks' program

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EUGENE - After two seasons of horrible Oregon defense the Ducks finally decided to ante up and hire a big-time, proven defensive coordinator. 

Jim Leavitt received a king's ransom of $1.125 million per year to rebuild the defense. That's more than the combined salaries of his two predecessors, Brady Hoke ($700,000) and Don Pellum ($400,000).

Such a high price tag will result in even higher expectations. Maybe unattainable expectations. Leavitt said he isn't phased by the pressure that comes with the hefty paycheck. Oregon, he said, has had great defenses in the past before falling on hard times. Now it's his opportunity to help lift the defense out of the basement and back to where it belongs. 

"All that tells me is there's an opportunity for greatness," he said. "I know if we build a great defense here and we get the ball back to our offense, weʼre going to win a bunch of games. If we donʼt, we wonʼt. And I like that. That fires me up."

Over the past few seasons, the defenses for Oregon and Colorado passed each other along the Pac-12 scoring defenses list as the Ducks plummeted while Colorado went on a dramatic rise. 

Nick Aliotti had mostly great success at the defensive coordinator for more than two decades at Oregon. Pellum took over in 2014 and produced a strong defense that allowed 23.6 points per game to help UO reach the national title game. That same season, Colorado allowed 39 points per game, 11th in the conference.

Oregon's defense fell to 115th in the nation the following year while allowing 37.5 points per game, last in the Pac-12. That same year, Colorado hired Leavitt and jumped to sixth in the conference at 27.5 points allowed per game.

Pellum was demoted back to linebackers coach in 2016 leading to the hiring of Hoke, who had never before been a defensive coordinator at the college level, and paid him well to rebuild the defense. However, the Ducks fell to 128th in the nation in total defense and allowed a whopping 41.4 points per game (11th in the Pac-12).

Over in Boulder, Col., Leavitt had the Buffaloes' defense humming while allowing just 21.7 points per game, third fewest in the conference.

To be fair, Hoke was not entirely to blame for last season's defensive debacle that greatly contributed to the team's 4-8 record and the firing of coach Mark Helfrich. Oregon had an extremely young defense that Hoke didn't recruit. Still, he became the lightning rod for detractors. Now, those same folks are hailing Leavitt as the savior primarily because he had one wildly successful season at Colorado. 

Colorado's 2016 defense was loaded with experienced senior starters, many of which were in their third year as contributors. Leavitt hopes to take the same trek with Oregon's defense. 

"You know, just like at Colorado, there was deficiencies, different places in the defense, and itʼs a little bit different than here," he said. "We might be stronger at some things whereas Colorado may have been stronger in others. But you know, Colorado wasnʼt very good. They were 120th in the country and thatʼs not real strong and even after the first year we got to 70th in the country. Everybody thought we were doing all these great things but 70th isnʼt very good, and I wasnʼt real happy with that."

Oregon fans would probably be over the moon if the Ducks' defense reached the 70s range in Leavitt's first season. But Leavitt said he won't approach this year worrying about statistics. 

"I donʼt really want to put that ceiling on it," he said. "Why canʼt we do great things? I think it comes down to leadership in our defense, you know obviously you want to stay healthy, you know itʼs important. Weʼve got to put them into a position where they can be successful."

For that to happen, the Ducks must improve their overall communication. Player to player. Coach to player. Coach to coach. All areas were deficient last season. 

"Whatever happened last year happened last year," Leavitt said. "I donʼt know if they communicated well or not, I donʼt really care. Bottom line is you have to communicate. In our system it is very, very important and we made a big point about that. We got to have guys who are great communicators, who understand concepts and deliver the right language to get people lined up in the right positions. And Iʼm going to have a hard time playing guys who arenʼt good at doing that, who arenʼt good communicators. Sometimes Iʼll have guys back there playing that might not be as athletic as other guys, but they can line everybody up and they have great passion for what theyʼre doing."

As for staff communication, Leavitt doesn't foresee a problem. New coach Willie Taggart sought to hire a staff devoid of egos. 

"And all of them are pros," Leavitt said. "Everybody on this staff is confident in what they do or they wouldnʼt be here. They understand their position very well, but they also understand we've got to do it together."

All is glorious right now with UO football. Recruiting is going well. The staff is displaying great enthusiasm and energy. The players appear to be responding. But the Ducks are 0-0 under Taggart. The real test for Leavitt and the staff will come when things go south, which they inevitably will to some capacity. 

"Well, donʼt lose. If we donʼt we don't have to worry about it right?" Leavitt said. "Of course you know Iʼve been in a lot of situations from the NFL and every level in college and everybodyʼs going to love you when you win, and if you donʼt win, youʼll hang in there for a bit but not long. You canʼt get distracted about those kind of things. The way to win is you play good football. The way you play good football is you teach fundamentals, you teach people how to play. All those things we talked about discipline, line up right, tackle, play after play after play and do that for a series of plays throughout the game, if you do that enough, youʼll win the game. If you donʼt, you wonʼt."

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Next up: Part 3 - Players respond well to Leavitt, but is there enough talent?
 

Brady Hoke hired by Tennessee to coach defensive line

Brady Hoke hired by Tennessee to coach defensive line

Former Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke has been hired by Tennessee to be its assistant head coach and to coach the defensive line. 

Hoke spent one season as the Ducks' defensive coordinator. He lost his job when former UO coach Mark Helfrich and the entire staff were fired following the team's 4-8 record last season during which the team's defense ranked 128th in the nation.

The former head coach at Michigan and Ball State, has spent 17 years coaching defensive line during his career. 

 

Don't expect any former Oregon assistant coaches to return under Taggart

Don't expect any former Oregon assistant coaches to return under Taggart

It's becoming increasingly unlikely with each passing day that new Oregon football coach Willie Taggart will retain any of the assistant coaches from former coach Mark Helfrich's staff.

In fact, let's just say right now that barring some dramatic twist of fate, none will return.

Taggart has named just one assistant coach since his introduction on Dec. 8, and that's defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, hired away from Colorado in a deft move to help rebuild the defense. Jimmie Dougherty, according to reports, will become the new wide receivers coach. But Oregon has not officially announced his hiring.

Their selection means the end to the Oregon careers of defensive coordinator Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Matt Lubick. Leavitt will also coach linebackers, which means that long-time assistant Don Pellum is also likely out.

According to sources, Taggart has not spoken to any of the former assistant coaches about remaining at UO, and has made it clear to some that he is going in a different direction with his staff. This comes despite Taggart stating during his introductory press conference that he would at least talk to former assistants. Just one assistant coach, according to sources, has had any contact at all with Taggart and that came about because of a chance meeting within the team's complex.

The assistants received termination letters within days after Helfrich was fired on Nov. 29, and were given until Dec. 31 to clear out their offices. Their contracts run out in late January. Some have already started looking for new jobs. Former UO offensive coordinator Matt Lubick has landed at Ole Miss as wide receivers coach. Other support staff members have also been terminated, according to sources.

So what's taking Taggart so long to fill in the coaching vacancies?  For starters, Taggart's former team, South Florida, still has a game to play. The Bulls face South Carolina on Dec. 29 in the Birmingham Bowl (Alabama). By Dec. 30, expect Taggart to start naming new Oregon assistant coaches as he raids the Bulls' staff.

It's also likely that Taggart will hire assistant coaches from other teams involved in bowl games, as well as some coaches from losing teams. However Taggart chooses to fill out his staff, the inclusion of holdovers from Helfrich's crew appears unlikely.  

Taggart appeared on ESPNU earlier this month, stating that he is looking to complete his staff as quickly as he can.

"I don't want to rush it and just do it, but I want to make sure we get the right guys, the right fit to come in here and help me take care of our players," Taggart said.

That, of course, is entirely Taggart's prerogative. An argument could be made that holding over a couple of assistants could help with Taggart's transition and adaptation to coaching in a Power Five conference. On the other hand, a counter argument could also be presented that the controversial firing of Helfrich and his staff after they had achieved so much success with some stretching back more than 30 years almost requires a completely fresh start in order to allow Taggart to fully redirect the program in an entirely different direction of his design.

That said, there certainly could be value found in at least having talks with former assistants, even if only to pick their brains about what went wrong during a 4-8 season, and about returning players that Taggart must win with over the next few seasons. But those talks have not happened.

Instead, Taggart is going full-speed ahead with his plans to retool the entire department in the mold of what he built at USF.

One USF staff member already in the fold at Oregon is David Kelly, who was/is South Florida's director of player personnel. According to sources, Kelly will hold the same, or a similar position with Oregon, and he has already been spotted at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.

Kelly is regarded as a high-end recruiter but has had one run-in with the NCAA over rules violations.

In 2010, Rivals.com named Kelly one of the top 25 recruiters in the country, according to the USF website bio on the coach. Kelly has coached at LSU, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Duke, in addition to a controversial stint at the University of Central Florida. 

Kelly was a successful recruiting coordinator at the UCF before he was fired following a NCAA investigation that determined he had violated recruiting rules. The investigation occurred in 2011 and consisted of great similarities to the Willie Lyles case that got Oregon into hot water with the NCAA, also in 2011. 

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Kelly, who had denied any wrong doing regarding this case, was accused of violating rules during his association with Ken Caldwell, who mentored Chicago high school football and basketball players. According to the article, Kelly, along with then UCF athletics director Keith Tribble and basketball coach Donnie Jones were all accused of allowing Caldwell to steer athletes to UCF, much like Lyles was accused by the NCAA of steering running back Lache Seastrunk to Oregon in 2010. 

Kelly was fired from UCF. According to the Orlando Sentinel article, that led to a decline in the program's recruiting, and that led to a decline in victories. UCF went 12-1 in 2013 and then 9-4 and 0-12 in 2015. UCF then hired former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost to take over the program before the 2016 season.

Kelly resurfaced this year at USF and now will try to work his recruiting magic at Oregon, which needs help. Taggart has brought in two high-end recruits, but the Ducks have lost several decommits. UO's 2017 class currently consists of just 12 commits and is ranked 51st in the nation by Rivals.com.

That ranking will spike quickly after Taggart has his staff in place and they hit the recruiting trail for a final four-week push before National Signing Day on Feb. 1.

Even signing just eight three-star recruits would get Oregon's class ranking back into the low 20s, which is where it was before Oregon fired Helfrich.

 

Mark Helfrich and Oregon's coaches leave Reser uncertain about futures

Mark Helfrich and Oregon's coaches leave Reser uncertain about futures

CORVALLIS - Oregon offensive coordinator Matt Lubick talked about the unlimited potential of freshman quarterback Justin Herbert following the Ducks' 34-24 loss at Oregon State.

UO defensive coordinator Brady Hoke discussed what his young defenders must do during the offseason to improve, and about hitting the recruiting trail on Sunday. 

But both did so while also being unable to definitively answer one simple, yet brutally uncertain question: Will any of them have jobs come Monday?

"We hope so," Lubick said when asked if he felt he would be around to see the development through on UO's young talent. "But it is what it is. All we can control is what we can control and that's wake up tomorrow and do the best we can. I'm very proud of the guys I've been around and I love our coaches. They've accomplished a lot for this university."

The Ducks (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12) finished off a disastrous season by blowing a 24-14 lead in the second half to end an eight-game winning streak over OSU (4-6, 3-6). Ever since the team hit 2-4 with a 70-21 loss to Washington, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff have been faced with the possibility that this could be their last season at UO. The fact Oregon went 2-4 the second half of the season certainly didn't help their cause. However, this was Oregon's first losing season since 2004 and the Ducks were in the national championship game just two seasons ago under Helfrich. 

Helfrich said Saturday that the staff would debrief and hit the recruiting trail starting Sunday. He said he had no meetings scheduled with UO athletic director Rob Mullens.

"We'll have some time to debrief on everything," Helfrich said about the staff's immediate plans. "We do that every year, whether it's a great season or a season like this. Recruit. Heal up mind and body with the players and finish off strong here academically over the next couple of weeks and then move on."

If a coaching change were afoot it would likely mean that the staff would be held back from making such trips. It does the program no good to send coaches out recruiting if they are about to be fired. 

What we know as of tonight is that the coaches don't appear to even know what their status is, which can make for a gut-wrenching situation for them and their families.  Hoke said he is operating under the assumption that he will be back next season until he is told otherwise.

Lubick bluntly summed it all up when asked about what kind of a job he believes Helfrich has done this season:

"I think he has done an amazing job," Lubick said. "Football is what it is. It's what have you done for me lately."

It's likely that Oregon won't make a coaching move unless it has a high-end candidate already on the hook. Houston's Tom Herman was arguably the hottest coaching candidate in the country until Texas snapped him up today a day after the Cougars lost their final regular season game to Memphis on Friday. 

Big names that remain available for UO to explore are Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, former LSU coach Les Miles and former Texas coach Charlie Strong.  

Fleck has been reported to be heading to Purdue, but those reports have been denied

If Oregon does not have a slam dunk candidate in place, chances are that Helfrich and his staff are given a year to turn things around. The biggest mistake UO could make would be to fire Helfrich and his staff and then hire anyone that wants to come to UO. This move must be made with deft precision to make sure that the Ducks land a new coach assured of success. Otherwise, what would be the point?

We know for a fact that this staff can win. It has done so, in some cases, for decades. Should one bad season in 12 years completely derail a 40-year legacy of not firing head football coaches? 

That's up to Mullens to decide. For now, the coaching staff is carrying on as if it's business as usual. 

"I am excited about the future," Lubick said. 

Now everyone waits to find out if this staff still has a future at Oregon. 

Oregon's young defense might have turned the corner at Utah

Oregon's young defense might have turned the corner at Utah

SALT LAKE CITY - Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke might have been the only person in Rice-Eccles Stadium not surprised by his group's strong showing during an improbable 30-28 upset win Saturday at No. 11 Utah. 

Hoke certainly appeared to be a bit elated and a very much relieved following the win, but he said he wasn't surprised by the play of his defense, one of the worst in the nation by every measure imaginable, against a quality Utes offense.

Why? Well, as Hoke puts it, Saturday's performance was something the young defense had been working toward. The months of developing young players, correcting mistakes and evolving was bound to take. Saturday, it did. 

"I don't sleep a lot the night before [games])," Hoke said. "But I just think that there is a lot of improvement across the board."

There should be no illusions that Oregon's defense has completely turned the proverbial corner. The Ducks (4-7, 2-6) gave up 453 yards to Utah, and for the fourth time this season blew a fourth-quarter lead when the Utes scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass to take a 28-24 advantage with 2:16 remaining in the game. 

Still, the fact remains that UO's defense demonstrated dramatic improvement when all signs of sports logic pointed toward Oregon surrendering up 600-plus yards and 50-plus points to the Utes (8-3, 5-3). The Ducks in their previous game allowed Stanford to make them look like blocking dummies while the Cardinal offense, last in the conference in yards per game (359.5) and 11th in scoring (25.1. Entered Oregon game averaging 19.9), pumped out 540 total yards in a 52-27 demolition. 

Against Utah, Oregon allowed 234 yards rushing, 149 to running back Joe Williams, but didn't allow a run of more than 28 yards. Utah quarterback Troy Williams completed 67 percent of his passes (20-of-30) after entering the game completing just 54.9 percent. But he threw just one touchdown pass and Oregon sacked him twice.  

"I don't know what the numbers are but it feels a little better than other games," Hoke said.  

It certainly was. Maybe most importantly, UO made plays at key moments. Utah punted six times. UO linebacker Jimmie Swain forced a fumble deep in the Ducks' red zone in the second quarter (it was Oregon's second recovered fumble of the season). The Ducks tackled well in space (other than the reverse play for Utah's opening touchdown when Utah receiver Cory Butler-Byrd threw out some wicked moves on the Ducks) and routinely were able to get off the field on third down, especially in the first half. 

"Today for the first time in a while we penetrated gaps, we got tackles for losses before they could get going," Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said.

Said Hoke: "It's learning on the job and I think some of the development is showing up."

These realities prevented Utah from building a big lead (like Stanford's 21-0 advantage in the first quarter) while UO's offense stumbled. The Ducks trailed just 7-3 at halftime in a game that could have been 28-3 at intermission had UO's defense played like it did in most every other game this season. 

Oregon's defense gave up more points in the second half, but one of Utah's touchdowns came on a misplayed punt by freshman wide receiver Dillon Mitchell that resulted in a fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Utes that made the score 21-17 early in the fourth quarter. 

UO's improvement, however, must be accepted with a bit of a caveat. Neal said the Ducks benefited from facing an offense similar to Stanford's a week after losing to the Cardinal.

"The things that we did poorly against Stanford, we had another week to correct," Neal said.

Consequently, UO's players were able to learn from mistakes made against Stanford and apply the new knowledge base and skills to handling Utah's offense. 

"They are a really heavy run team," Oregon freshman linebacker Troy Dye said of Utah. "They have a lot of pulling guards just like Stanford did."

Oregon redshirt sophomore defensive end Justin Hollins said a huge key for the defense was not making costly mistakes early that led to easy scores for the opponent. 

"We stopped shooting ourselves in the foot," he said. "Doing that kind of takes away the juice, like last week. This week we got after it and we kept that juice going, and we kept that competitive edge."

Maintaining that "juice" Hollins spoke of, involved not becoming demoralized by an avalanche of mistakes and points. Trailing just 7-3 at halftime helped Oregon's confidence grow. They could see their hard work paying off.  

"Everybody was on their assignments," Hollins said. "We were fundamentally sound and we just got after it." 

Hollins said defensive players pushed one another to improve by helping alert teammates to deficiencies in their game that maybe they didn't notice.

Oregon wide receiver Charles Nelson, who played safety last season, said he's witnessed all of the work the defenders have put in. He said many of the younger players are being forced to do a lot of self-reflection now that they are being relied upon.  

"When it's something you fail at multiple times, you have to take it, learn from it and better yourself," Nelson said. 

So now what?

Oregon will face Oregon State (3-8, 2-6) in the 120th Civil War on Saturday. The Beavers rank 11th in the conference in total offense (361.4 yards per game), but on Saturday won 42-17 at home over Arizona (2-9, 0-8). 

Certainly, the Beavers will at least see an Oregon defense feeling much better about itself.

"It was a confidence booster," Dye said of the win over Utah. 

Maybe more importantly, the outing relieved the defense of some stress. It's a unit that will return 10 starters next season, and about 15 other players who have contributed. Better days likely lie ahead, and now they have something to build upon after a season of seemingly endless negativity having been thrown their way. 

"We pushed back on some momentum that was trying to run us over," Neal said. 

Game prediction: Oregon limps into No. 11 Utah looking for something to cling to

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Game prediction: Oregon limps into No. 11 Utah looking for something to cling to

What does Oregon get for its troubles following a 52-27 loss last week at home against Stanford?: A road game against a better version of the Cardinal. 

The Ducks play at No. 11 Utah Saturday in Salt Lake City, Utah, and on paper have zero chance to win, or even remain close. So much so that the 14-point spread appears to be an insult to Utah by about 10 points. 

Oregon (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12) will roll into Utah (8-2, 5-2) with the second-worst rushing defense in the Pac-12 at 255.4 yards allowed per game to face the hottest rushing attack in the conference. 

"Same thing as last week, really," Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said. "You've got to stop the run. There's no doubt about it."

Uh oh!

Oregon hasn't stopped the run all season. Not even against UC Davis and Virginia in what seems like ions ago. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey ran wild last week, scoring three touchdowns as the Cardinal, owners of the worst offense in the conference, averaging 340 yards per game, put up 540 yards of total offense on the Ducks. 

Utah, averaging 433.7 yards per game is better on offense than Stanford thanks to the amazing performances of running back Joe Williams. He "retired" for four games to start the season only to be talked back into playing. Since his return, Williams has averaged 216 total yards and 156.5 yards rushing per game. He has gained 939 rushing yards on 7.0 yards per carry.  

“He's maybe the most explosive and the fastest of any of the backs we've had here as far as a home run-type back that can go the distance from anywhere on the field,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters this week.

To make matters worse for Oregon, Williams runs behind a veteran offensive line. 

"They are physical upfront," Hoke said. "Very senior-oriented offensive line with three guys up there that have played a lot of football."

The Ducks are the opposite with one senior starting on a young defense that has rotated through 14 defensive linemen this season. 

"We had a good week of practice, same thing we did the week before," Hoke said. "Our guys have come out and fought, and been physical every time we go on the field."

That intensity has not translated into strong performances on game days. Saturday will likely be no different. 

A quick look at Utah:

When: 11 a.m., Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah.

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Utah by 14.

Records: Oregon (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12), Utah (8-2, 5-2). 

Coaches: Oregon's Mark Helfrich (36-15); Utah's Kyle Whittingham (103-48). 

Last week: Oregon lost 52-27 to Stanford (7-3, 5-3). Utah won 49-26 at Arizona State (5-5, 2-5). 

Utes' impact players: Utah's passing game is its weakness.

Quarterback Troy Williams isn't asked to throw much but when he does he has been effective, throwing 13 touchdown passes with five interceptions. Williams' 54.9 completion percentage is something Oregon could take advantage of if the Ducks avoid allowing big plays in the passing game. 

That means stopping senior wide receiver Tim Patrick, who has scored five touchdowns and is averaging 17.1 yards per reception. 

On defense, Utah will get after the quarterback. The Utes lead the conference with 35 sacks. Senior defensive end Hunter Dimick leads the conference with 12. Senior defensive end Pita Taumoepenu has seven. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5-plus. This could get ugly. If Utah, allowing just 23 points per game, puts the clamps on Herbert the Ducks will be dead and buried. 

Nothing we've seen this season should lead anyone to believe Oregon will hold Utah's offense in check. The Ducks could get hot on offense and score enough to make things interesting. But this is a Utes team that has scored 125 points over their last three games, and two weeks ago narrowly lost 31-24 to No. 7 Washington, a team that won 70-21 at Oregon. 

Prediction: Utah 47, Oregon 24. The Ducks appeared demoralized against Stanford. UO is simply too young and too banged up on defense, too young along the offensive line with four redshirt freshmen, have too many off-field distractions (discipline issues) and nothing to play for. 

Ducks must gang up on Christian McCaffrey

Ducks must gang up on Christian McCaffrey

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey is back to his former self just in time to run up against Oregon's poor run defense Saturday at Autzen Stadium. 

The Ducks should be afraid, very afraid. 

"We can't let Christian McCaffrey have easy scores in space," Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said. "He's the best change-of-direction player I've seen in a long time." 

Oregon (3-6, 1-5 Pac-12) hosts Stanford (6-3, 4-3) at 1 p.m. in a game the Ducks must have in order to remain alive for bowl eligibility. Avoiding that dreaded seventh defeat on Saturday will require UO to locate, track and bring down McCaffrey on a regular basis. 

If the Ducks can prevent him from shredding them, they will have chance to win because Stanford is as one-dimensional on offense as its ever beed. The Cardinal ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game (142.8) and has just seven touchdown passes on the season. 

The problem for UO is that McCaffrey (122.5 yards per game) is the best running back in the league and the Ducks have the second-worst rushing defense in the Pac-12, allowing 238.7 yards per game. Oregon allowed USC running back Ronald Jones to rush for 171 yards and four touchdowns during Saturday's 45-20 loss to the Trojans. 

McCaffrey, last year's Heisman Trophy runner-up, has had a down year by his standards (980 yards and six touchdowns). But in the team's last two games, wins over Arizona and Oregon State, he rushed for 169 rushing yard with two touchdowns at the Wildcats and then for 199 yards and a touchdown against the Beavers. 

"They are playing a lot better than they were earlier in the year," UO coach Mark Helfrich said of Stanford, while partially crediting that to a healthier McCaffrey. 

"They are using him very similarly to how they have in the past," Helfrich said. "It's just not as much."

A reduction in touches for McCaffrey can be attributed to injuries (he has missed one game) and the emergence of sophomore Bryce Love, who has gained 428 yards rushing this season. The byproduct has been a fresher McCaffrey. 

Containing him will require the most basic of football disciplines: Tackling. 

However, that discipline has become more complicated nationwide because of rules against full contract during practice, and few teams have struggled to adapted to that situation more so than the Ducks. They missed many tackles on Jones at USC and we should all expect them to whiff on plenty more against Stanford. But if the Ducks can  prevent McCaffrey from breaking off a glut of big plays, they would have a chance to win. 

Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said from watching Stanford game video that disciplined teams that pursue well have avoided allowing McCaffrey, a great cutback player, to run wild. 

"He's not bad," Hoke said with a smile. "What we have to do is play good team defense."

Neal added the team would need a total commitment to getting everyone to him on returns, as well. 

"I love No. 5. I respect the guy in a 1,000 different ways...It's phenomenal to watch him," Neal said.

Neal and Oregon would prefer to not see much from McCaffrey to admire on Saturday. If the Ducks can keep him somewhat in check, they will win. If not, Oregon's bowl chances will go up in flames and everyone can turn their attention to basketball, if they haven't already done so.

Ducks fall short on scoreboard but not in heart at Cal

Ducks fall short on scoreboard but not in heart at Cal

BERKELEY, Calif. - Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, eyes glassy and voice appearing to waiver, appeared to be emotionally drained and a bit choked up Friday night following his team's 52-49 double-overtime loss at California. 

Following two weeks of intense team introspection, talk of his job being in jeopardy, many questioning the Ducks' desire and character, and whether Helfrich had lost their respect, the Ducks put forth a gutsy effort at Memorial Stadium.  

The team showed heart, no quit, and flashed a glimpse of what could be a bright future. Ultimately, however, the Ducks fell short once again, losing their fifth consecutive game and third by three points to fall to 2-5 on the season. 

This defeat, players and Helfrich say, hurt the most because of all the team had gone through in the two weeks after losing 70-21 at home to No. 5 Washington before the bye week. Oregon desperately needed a win Friday. Not just to help its chances of becoming bowl eligible, a seemingly impossible task at this point, but to validate all they had strived to achieve as a team from the neck up since the debacle against the Huskies. But it wasn't meant to be. 

That fact sunk in for Helfrich, who only expressed admiration and pride in how his team played and has grown.  

“Love ‘em," he said. "They competed their butts off. But, at the same time, that makes it that much harder. That result and that near miss. But they competed their butts off. Bunch of times over the last couple of weeks they could have splintered. Could have fallen apart. But they didn’t.”

Oregon trailed Cal 21-0 early in the first quarter and 34-14 early in the third quarter. Given the team's four-game losing streak and apparent team strife, the Ducks could have easily gone into the tank and lost 55-21 to the Golden Bears (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12). 

But they didn't. Instead, UO adjusted at halftime and found a groove in the second half. The defense began making stops and the offense, led by freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, started routinely finding the end zone. Oregon led 35-34 early in the fourth quarter, lost the lead 42-35 then tied the game to force overtime at 42-42. 

The Ducks had a chance to win trailing 52-49 in the second overtime when Herbert, who threw six touchdown passes during his first road start, misread a coverage on a pass over the middle that was intercepted, ending the game.

The loss left the team mentally exhausted but not totally defeated. They found the good in what ended up being a tough night to swallow. 

"I think the biggest thing was that we were down in the beginning, and to come back and fight and brawl to the end no matter what showed that we've got some grittiness to us," wide receiver Jalen Brown said. 

The Ducks need every bit of that trait in order to win four out of their final five games to become bowl eligible. Oregon (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12) has yet to win a conference game and still faces tough outings against Arizona State, USC, Stanford and Utah before ending the season at Oregon State, which defeated Cal two weeks ago. 

"We can get it," Brown said positively of the team's chances of finishing 6-6 to become bowl eligible. 

It certainty appears to be that the team hasn't quit despite some outside perceptions to the contrary. 

“One of the things about this football team, and whatever you want to believe, those son of a guns have stayed together," Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said. "They’ve fought. They’ve fought with each other. They fought hard. That’s what tears your heart out.”

Said running back Tony Brooks-James: “Everyone gave it everything they had. So, from everyone saying we quit, it’s just lies.”

At the heart of the team not quitting is the very man some have claimed the team quit on. Hoke said that the much-maligned Helfrich has done a great job of keeping the team together during trying times. 

“I think it tells you a lot about this football team and also what Mark has done to keep them all going in the same direction," Hoke said.

That effort includes daily communication and encouragement to the team, Hoke said, efforts that Brooks-James said has kept the squad from falling to pieces. 

“I would honestly say that without coach Helf, a lot of players would have just lost it,” Brooks-James said. “He’s one of those coaches that can bring you back into the program and not have you just on the outside because he cares about the little things. Any time something goes wrong, he blames it on himself when in actuality there are little things that we could have done better. He just takes all of the pressure off the players and puts it on himself."

Brown agrees. 

"I think every single day he goes out of his way to show that he cares and that he is going to have our back no matter what," Brown said. "It's not all on us, it's also on the coaches and we're all one unit."

Oregon's season, baring a miracle 4-1 run the rest of the way, will likely end at Oregon State in the 120th Civil War. 

The good news is that the team's fight appears to have returned, a star quarterback has been discovered and most of the key players are young and will return next season. 

That list, and maybe a couple of more victories, might be all Oregon has to cling to the rest of this season. 

Oregon AD Rob Mullens guarded during interview about Mark Helfrich's future

Oregon AD Rob Mullens guarded during interview about Mark Helfrich's future

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is coaching for his job over the final six weeks of the season. 

At least that's one way to interpret what athletic director Rob Mullens didn't say during his Monday interview on the in-house radio program, “Duck Insider.

The show's host, Joey McMurry, didn't directly ask Mullens if Helfrich's job is in jeopardy after a 2-4 start, which includes a 70-21 loss to No. 5 Washington on Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Instead, McMurry asked Mullens what he thought about some fans calling for coaching changes. Mullens, who has declined interview requests from multiple outlets including CSN, responded as such: 

“I understand the frustration, absolutely appreciate the passion,” Mullens said. “We’re six games into the season and not where anyone wants to be. But there still is an opportunity to turn this a little bit and start to see some positive results. As I talked to Mark, they go right back to work and get right back in it. We have a wonderful group of student-athletes, and we need to do everything we can to support the coaches, the student-athletes, especially the seniors as they go this last go-round.”

McMurry attempted in other ways to get his boss to be more direct about Helfrich without coming out and asking, "is Helfrich's job in jeopardy?" Mullens, being very guarded with his words throughout, never provided any clear answers to the only question anyone listening wanted answered. 

Instead, Mullens went on and on about the passion of the fans, the success many sports programs at Oregon have enjoyed, working hard and the disappointment over the football team's rough start. 

“Yes, there’s a lot of frustrations, and no one wants to win more than I do, more than Coach Helfrich, more than the coaches and the student-athletes," Mullens said. "So we’ve got to get back to work and figure out how to turn these results around.”

The bottom line appears to be that if Helfrich doesn't turn things around, his tenure as Oregon's head coach could come to an end shortly after the Civil War. What it would take for Helfrich to lose or keep his job remains a mystery to all outside of Mullens' head. 

There is really no other way to interpret the interview.  At any point Mullens could have said, "Helfrich is our coach moving forward beyond this season."  

That fact that Mullens did not volunteer such support doesn't mean Helfrich is all but done. But it certainly doesn't mean Helfrich's job is safe. Helfrich himself played this game prior to last season's Alamo Bowl when asked if then-defensive coordinator Don Pellum's job was in jeopardy

 "Everybody has to get better," Helfrich said on Jan. 1 in San Antonio, Texas. "Somebody asked me a similar question the other day. I'm never gonna...I could get fired tomorrow. My boss [Mullens] is right over there. He could fire me after this press conference. I don't know....We all have to improve. Every single one of us. We've learned that around the world for a long, long time."

The Ducks lost to TCU in the Alamo Bowl, 47-41 in triple overtime, Pellum got demoted back to linebackers coach, Oregon hired Brady Hoke as the new defensive coordinator and UO's defense is statistically worse than it was last season. 

Now Helfrich finds himself on the other end of ambiguous words from his boss. 

“When you’re a coach in any sport, your results are very transparent,” Mullens said. “People watch it on the field, and in football it’s 12 Saturdays and it’s there for everybody to see. There's a lot of things that happen Monday through Friday or Sunday through Friday that you’re also evaluating. It’s just a continuous process of what can we do today to help support the coaches, support the student-athletes to meet these lofty expectations."

(Insert confused-looking Emoji face here).

Helfrich is 35-12 as a head coach at Oregon. He went 11-2 his first season in 2013 taking over for Chip Kelly. The following season, Helfrich went 13-2 while guiding the Ducks to their greatest season, which included a Pac-12 title, a Rose Bowl win over defending national champion Florida State, a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Marcus Mariota and a loss in the national title game to Ohio State. 

Last year the team dipped to 9-4 in large part due to a horrible defense and lack of a backup quarterback. Those problems persist this season, especially on defense, and the Ducks are getting pounded. 

Some players claim teammates have mentally checked out, and/or aren't giving maximum effort. There are rumors that some players have quit and do not like playing for Helfrich. 

"We're here working every single day to produce the results that we all want," Mullens said. 

For him, working sometimes includes hiring and firing coaches. Mullens faces by far his biggest challenge as athletic director in that regard. 

So what must Helfrich do to keep his job?

If the Ducks go 4-2 over the second half to finish 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game, one could assume that Helfrich's job would be safe. Anything short of that: all bets are off. 

One could surmise based on Mullens' lack of outwardly, steadfast support of Helfrich that if the Ducks continue to play poorly a coaching change will be made. A 4-8 record, or worse, could be difficult for Mullens to overlook if he is already not fully standing behind Helfrich at the moment. 

However, if the Ducks were to finish poorly, but Mullens is convinced the ingredients exist to turn things around next season, maybe that would be enough to earn Helfrich one season to right the ship. 

Other factors Mullens will have to consider involve player support for Helfrich and the staff and if the AD is ready to see the entire coaching staff dismissed. Hiring a new coach would mean going after someone accomplished, and that person would likely want to assemble his own staff. 

Assistant coaches John Neal, Gary Campbell, Pellum, Steve Greatwood and Jim Radcliffe, have been with the Ducks seemingly forever. Do they deserve to lose their jobs after one bad season when they were integral parts of program reaching such lofty heights?

Also, there is not-so-small matter of the $11 million remaining on Helfrich's contract, signed following the 2014 season. Is Oregon willing to eat that money, and pay a new coach a contract that probably would amount to about $15-$25 million over five years? 

Maybe disgruntled boosters would pick up Helfrich's tab? Could Phil Knight pressure Mullens to fire Helfrich and offer to pick up the $11 million check? Or, maybe Knight pressures Mullens to give Helfrich another year. 

Finally, whom is Oregon going to hire to replace Helfrich? What coach more accomplished than Helfrich would be available? And if he is available, is it because he recently got fired? If so, how is he then a better option? If a strong candidate already has a job and is winning, why would he leave his current situation for Oregon? Would the Ducks have to overpay to pry away such a coach?

Could Oregon even upgrade at head coach or would a move simply prove to be costly and lateral?

Would a new coach and his staff be as loyal to Oregon as this staff has been? Helfrich is an Oregonian, born and raised in Coos Bay. This is his dream job. Would a new coach merely view Oregon as stepping stone to the NFL or to a bigger collegiate program? Yes, there are numerous programs bigger than Oregon's.

Mullens job isn't an easy one. He must ponder all of the above and an untold number of other factors. 

But it all starts with Oregon's final six games. All are winnable. Helfrich probably needs at least four wins to remain safe.

Only Mullens knows for sure. That's the scary part for Helfrich. 

Time's up for Ducks' defense, improve or be destroyed

Time's up for Ducks' defense, improve or be destroyed

Oregon's defense had better get its act together in a hurry or the Ducks could be in a world of hurt and will not contend for a Pac-12 championship.

So far, the defense grades out at a D-minus. At best. 

Oregon through three games has not demonstrated marked improvement on defense over last year's dismal showing that led to the demotion of former defensive coordinator Don Pellum and to the hiring of Brady Hoke, who has installed the 4-3 defense after jettisoning the 3-4. 

The Ducks, after blowing a fourth-quarter lead to lose 35-32 at No. 20 Nebraska on Saturday, rank 84th in the nation in scoring defense (29.7 points per game) and 82nd in total defense (402.7 yards per game), and that's after playing arguably the weakest three-game stretch on their schedule. 

Hoke said Thursday that his unit is still working on mastering fundamental elements of playing defense such as being more aggressive against the run. 

"We get guys off blocks," he said. "We've got to be more impactful at the point of impact."

Oregon didn't do that all too well against Nebraska on the Cornhuskers' final drive. The Ducks' offense marched 97 yards to give Oregon a 32-28 lead only to then watch Oregon's defense surrender an 80-yard scoring drive on 11 plays to lose the game. 

No offense to Nebraska, but its offense has nothing on Oregon's next five opponents. The Ducks' next face five of the top 26 scoring offenses in the country starting with Colorado (3-0) at home Saturday afternoon. Here is a look at what lay ahead on Oregon's schedule. 

  • Colorado: 26th in total offense (500 yards per game), 20th in scoring (42.7). 
  • At Washington State: 20th in total offense (514.7), 26th in scoring (42.0).
  • Washington: 61st in total offense (423), eighth in scoring (49.3).
  • At California: No. 3 in total offense (580.3), 10th in scoring (47.0). 
  • Arizona State: 17th in total offense (525.7), ninth in scoring (48.0). 

Oregon's offense is on point, even with a young offensive line and new quarterback. The Ducks rank 19th in scoring (43.0) and 10th in total offense (545.3). The Ducks might need every bit of their offensive prowess in order to win against their next five opponents. 

There have been signs of some improvement on defense over last season. Then again, how could the Ducks not have improved over last year when the defense ranked 115th in scoring defense and 116th in total defense. However, UO played stronger offenses to begin last season starting with Eastern Washington, a far tougher FCS opponent than UC Davis. 

To get a further idea of where Oregon's defense sits, consider that No. 8 Washington has allowed 10 points per game, No. 7 Stanford has allowed 11.5, Utah has given up 12, Oregon State is allowing just18.5 and Colorado had given up 19.7.  Of course, strength of opponents vary by team, but Oregon has played just one strong team, Nebraska. 

Virginia, Oregon's second opponent this season, ranks 118th in scoring offense (18.7), 97th in total offense (357) and 109th in rushing offense (123.7). Yet the Cavaliers put up 26 points, 388 total yards and 193 rushing yards during a 44-26 loss at Oregon.

Not good. 

To be fair, Oregon is very much a defense in transition with six new front-seven starters. Plus, the injury bug has hit. Starting linebackers Troy Dye and A.J. Hotchkins have missed time. Plus, there's already been juggling going on in the secondary, which battled injuries and inconsistency last season. 

Hoke deserves time to rebuild the defense and next year's unit should be stronger with the expected return of as many as 10 starters. 

However, linebackers coach and former defensive coordinator Don Pellum wasn't given the benefit of the doubt when last year's defensive secondary had three new starters who clearly weren't ready for the responsibility and routinely got lit up by opposing quarterbacks. Pellum's demotion came despite his defense performing well in 2014 when the Ducks allowed 23.5 points per game while working their way to the national championship game. 

Pellum took the fall for 2015, but as we're seeing, even an experienced former head coach with a defensive background like Hoke is struggling with having many inexperienced players and dealing with the pressure placed on the defense by Oregon's fast-paced offense. 

All of those issues, and an improved but still developing secondary with as many as eight players in rotation, will be further exposed by Pac-12 opponents. 

Colorado is up first. Its star quarterback, Sefo Liufau is a game-time decision with an ankle injury suffered at Michigan, according to coach Mike MacIntyre. If he plays, the Ducks could be in serious jeopardy of losing. Liufau threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns at Michigan before going down.  

"The've played real well," Hoke said of Colorado. "They've hit a lot of big plays. That's what they do."

So far, what Oregon doesn't do is stop opposing offenses. That had better change or the Ducks' bid for a Pac-12 title could end within the next five weeks.