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.