What a game — far more than I thought it would be! It really highlights some things that I hope that the coaches look at more going into the offseason. But there were three things that are more macro in their trends that I think are big stories, but not really getting much play.
1. Is the state of Oregon in trouble?
The Beavers have had their struggles this year, and while I think those are indicative of the stubbornness that the staff seems to have about their offenses and their defenses, the Beavers seem to be a few good plays or a few bad plays from 5-9 wins every year. In fact, when you look at the last four seasons, outside of 2011, an injury here, a catch there, a penalty here or a slip there — and OSU is anywhere from a BCS bowl to no bowl.
At the same time, the ducks are supposed to be the powerhouse of the conference. They certainly looked the part early, but there were chinks in the armor to those that watched. Their offense had some issues and their defense really had to save the day in order for them to blow out the teams that they should have blown out. But when they got to the though part of their schedule, all the sudden, the ducks struggled to stop the run, struggled to move the ball consistently, and unless a team made mistakes of their own, the ducks struggled to score points. In fact, prior to their game with Stanford, the ducks were averaging 53 points per game. Since then, they scored more than 40 points once.
Many will say it was Chip Kelly, but I don’t buy that. Friday night was the last game for three of ducks’ interior linemen who struggled to stop the run, as well as potentially four or five of their underclassmen stalwarts. On offense, they might lose their best offensive lineman and a few other familiar faces, along with the receiver that won the day for them. These huge shifts are not due to a new coach today, but to recruiting issues the past few years. When you lose more than 10 starters, you tend to have holes in your recruiting. The fact that they have so many underclassmen that could potentially make the NFL jump means that three and four years ago they had a pretty stellar set of classes. Next year, thought, the ducks have a TON of unknowns.
Many people close to the program will attest that Chip Kelly stayed another year because he thought that he had a chance to win it all in 2012. I am not sure that is true, but if it is, the fact that he left for Philly this year might point to the fact that maybe he saw it as well, if winning a National Championship was so important to him.
The state of Oregon was where title hopes went to die during the latter half of the 2000s. It was a gauntlet that decided which team went to the Rose Bowl. From 2008 – 2011 the state of Oregon decided who went to the Rose Bowl. Last season, the Civil War was important for bowl placement, but neither team was going to play in the conference championship game. This year, we could see neither team even get an at large bid for a BCS bowl. Looking toward the future, should the ducks lose their underclassmen, and should OSU lose Cooks and Crichton to the NFL, the state of Oregon could fall down to the middle of the pack.
2. Contrary to the doom and gloom above, OSU has two things it could do that would change their trajectory for the better.
Abandon the huddle and increase the use of extra blockers. Lets start with the latter: extra blockers means better runs. Against the ducks, Mike Riley employed a fullback or an extra tight end more than any other game this season. Extra blockers not only give you an extra hand when the defense brings more rushers than you have linemen, but it also offers a better means of selling play action and a slight wrinkle of misdirection. Watching the ducks defense, when we had a tight end or fullback in, they shifted their defense to that side and tended to blitz the outside linebacker on that side. This created one-on-one blocking battles on the non fullback side, and enabled great boot legs and roll out passes off of play action, or even just outside runs.
The extra blockers were as effective as decoys as they were as blockers and helped free up our players to find holes and isolate defenders.
As far as abandoning the huddle, it is not because I don’t like huddles. It is because the hurry up offense becomes something OSU practices on the side. Outside of their core competency. And when they’ve needed it this year, it has not been as effective as it could have been. Thirty-second delays between plays in hurry up means you might as well have huddled.
So to make this aspect of their game better, the Beavers should just practice it all the time. Getting plays in should be easier and when you need to hurry up, you are already there.
3. Changes take time.
We can want instant changes. I provided two very simple ideas above. I think they would work, but they also would have worked this season. Next year, with new players, new personalities, and new leaders, the team could take a huge step forward or a big step back. I thought this was going to be a Rose Bowl season for the Beavers. I was about five wins off, four of which were in their grasp.
The future is what we look toward now, and as OSU narrows in on some of the bigger fish they want to add to their recruiting class, there is the realization that going two years without a linebacker coach affects your recruitment of linebackers. Or having only two linemen left from the 2010 and 2011 classes leaves a void on your team. OSU will roll out an offensive line that is filled with players from their best line recruiting class ever (2012) or younger. Correcting the issues from past recruiting classes and preparing young talent to be ready to play is hard and will take the same amount of time it has always taken.
Victor Bolden is the perfect example. He has had some interesting moments, but just like James Rodgers and Brandin Cooks before him, he started as a true freshman and really didn’t come into his own until midway through the season. Like his predecessors, Victor is poised to make a big jump next year if he, like them, is dedicated to getting better. You cannot just manufacture depth and experience. You have to recruit it and continue to build it every year. OSU has rolled off three straight years where their recruiting rankings are among the highest since recruiting rankings were first tracked. Next year is the first that they will begin to fully realize the fruit of those labors. So while the Civil War this year was amazing, exciting, and heart breaking, there is potential that the trajectory for OSU is going up and the blowout losses of the past are behind us. At least for a while.
Remember, 14 of the starters in this class joined the team after the 2008 and 2009 seasons when OSU played for the Rose Bowl at the end of the year. So after we celebrate this close loss and look at a team that might have the most talent of any school in the conference coming back, maybe I was pre-mature on my declaration that the State of Oregon is looking at its demise.
I am more excited to find out today than I was at this time last week, that is for sure!