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What went wrong for Oregon?

CORVALLIS, OR - NOVEMBER 26: An Oregon State Beavers fan shows his support during the 120th Civil War NCAA football game between the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers on November 26, 2016, at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, OR.  (Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire)
Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire

How bad a year was it for the Oregon Ducks on the gridiron?

Oregon State fans joyfully raised signs this past Saturday during the latest edition of the Civil War in Corvallis, expressing the hope that Oregon would retain Mark Helfrich.

Yeah, that bad.

The enemy wanting its rival coach to stay on the job is a searing indictment of the health of Oregon football.

The end of an eight-game Civil War winning streak against Oregon State is an equally damning indication of the condition of UO’s pigskin operation.

Just when Oregon’s offense was beginning to offer cause for hope — beating Utah in Week 12, 30-28, with a ballsy, last-minute touchdown drive in Salt Lake City — the Ducks regressed in Week 13, managing only 24 points against the Beavers. There’s no silver lining, no positive spin, when Oregon — the program steadily built by Mike Bellotti, transformed by Chip Kelly, and briefly sustained by Helfrich in a march to the first College Football Playoff National Championship Game two years ago — finishes a season 4-8 with a loss to Oregon State.

The wheels fell off. The areas where Helfrich needed to improve were not sufficiently addressed. The locker room — populated by veteran coaches on a staff marked by a high level of continuity, which is uncommon in major college football — became a miserable place.

Other than that, how was the 2016 season, Mrs. Lincoln… and Mr. Knight?

It’s obvious that Oregon is a mess, but what shows that the mess appears to be deeper than one season? More precisely, what shows that UO’s problems likely won’t be — can’t be? — fully fixed in 2017?

A helpful comparison can be found in the Pac-12 South, where the program which dominated the Pac-10 before Chip Kelly began his reign turned a problem-filled season into an encouraging one.

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USC was a dumpster fire in the middle of September, as hard as it might be to remember that reality — it seems long ago, much longer than 2.5 months. The Trojans scored just 10 points against Stanford, getting thumped by a Cardinal crew which turned out to be relatively ordinary by David Shaw’s standards. Stanford didn’t belong on the same field as Washington or Washington State, and it scored all of three offensive points at home against Colorado (two other points coming on a safety).

USC was casually rubbed off the map by that same Stanford team. All the offensive talent which one could readily identify on that roster simply wasn’t coming together.

Yes, much of the Trojans’ subsequent turnaround came from a simple move: coach Clay Helton inserting Sam Darnold at quarterback and benching Max Browne. Nevertheless, Helton had to coach Darnold and his offense, giving structure and precision to the resources at his disposal. Darnold proved worthy of the change, and as a result, USC will almost certainly make a New Year’s Six bowl.

Recruiting, coaching, player development — Helton failed horribly through the first three weeks, and he made a big mistake by punting late in USC’s loss at Utah, but after that, he checked all three boxes.

Helfrich, at Oregon, didn’t check any of them as the 2016 season moved along.

One could be generous and say that Helfrich checked one of the three boxes — half in coaching, half in player development — by swapping out one quarterback (FCS transfer Dakota Prukop) for another (Justin Herbert) and then guiding Herbert to the win at Utah.

If anyone wants to give Helfrich the benefit of the doubt, fine — checking one out of three boxes is still not anywhere close to Oregon football’s desired standard. Two boxes would mean a 7-5 season which would be tolerated at Cal and welcomed at Oregon State, but Oregon doesn’t do 7-5… not in a post-Chip Kelly world which has transformed expectations of what UO football should be.

Oregon is supposed to be a check-all-the-boxes program. Helfrich didn’t come close. USC’s evolution — while not good enough to win the Pac-12 South — represents something much closer to the way an aspirational FBS program responds to a horrible September start.

It’s up to Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens to see if Helfrich can immediately check every box — the evidence suggests he won’t. If Mullens reaches that conclusion, he has to quickly move to get a quality head coach with an elite defensive coordinator. 

Oregon needs repairs which are not likely to come in 2017. If the Ducks have the right man in place next season, they could be ready to return to the land of the giants in the West in 2018.

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