Few bright spots in disappointing season for Oregon Ducks
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Oregon's run as one of the nation's elite teams came crashing to a halt this season.
Now the question is, was the year just an anomaly?
The Ducks, who just two seasons ago were playing in the first College Football Playoff championship game, wrapped up a season to forget with a 34-24 loss to the Oregon State Beavers in the 120th Civil War. The loss snapped an eight-game winning streak in the series.
It was one of many streaks that would fall this season. Oregon finished 4-8 overall and at the bottom of the Pac-12 North standings at 2-7 – snapping a run of nine straight winning seasons in conference play.
The final loss meant that Oregon wouldn't be making a postseason appearance for the first time since 2004. The Ducks had finished every season ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2007.
It also threw coach Mark Helfrich's future with the team in doubt, as well as the direction of the program. Just moments after the Ducks left the field at Oregon State, Helfrich was asked about his job security.
''Nobody's job is safe in college football,'' he said. ''That's just the nature of the beast.''
Oregon hasn't fired a head coach since 1976 when Don Read was let go after three seasons.
At the final media availability of the season, the morning after the Civil War loss, Helfrich said he had called athletic director Rob Mullens to inquire about his status. The two were going to meet this week.
Helfrich tried to be positive, but conceded it was out of his control.
''We needed to win more games this year and I get that,'' he said. ''There are a lot of factors involved there but all that stuff is up for debate and determination by people that aren't me. I think we've got a great team coming back, a very talented team coming back, and that's exciting.''
The Ducks started the season with promise, ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP poll. For the second straight season, Oregon brought in an experienced graduate transfer at quarterback – this time Dakota Prukop from Montana State.
The Ducks also hired a new defensive coordinator, former Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who installed a 4-3 scheme. Matt Lubick was promoted from within to replace departed offensive coordinator Scott Frost, and David Yost was named quarterbacks coach.
The defense appeared shaky but the Ducks nonetheless won their first two games, against UC Davis and Virginia. A 35-32 loss at Nebraska started a five-game slide – the longest for the Ducks in 20 years – which finally ended at home with a 54-35 victory over Arizona State on Oct. 29.
While mired in the losing streak, the Ducks benched Prukop in favor of freshman Justin Herbert, who in the end was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season.
Herbert's first start was a daunting one, against No. 5 Washington. The Huskies routed the Ducks 70-21 to snap a 12-game losing streak in the series. But Herbert would go on to finish the season ranked fourth on Oregon's all-time list for completion percentage at 63.5 percent. He threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns with four interceptions in nine appearances.
Junior Royce Freeman, mentioned as a Heisman Trophy hopeful at the start of the season, rushed for 945 yards and nine touchdowns but was slowed by injury. A possible NFL draft prospect, Freeman said after the Civil War that he had not made a decision on whether to return for another college season.
Oregon didn't lead the Pac-12 in rushing for the first time in 10 seasons.
''It's been a tough season,'' Freeman said. ''A lot of guys in that locker room deserve better. Four and eight is not where we want to be.''
Freeman also said he believed Helfrich could return the team to national prominence.
Mullens was in Texas with the College Football Playoff selection committee on Monday. He issued a statement regarding the future of the program with no hints as to where it was headed.
''Now that our season is complete, I will evaluate all aspects of our football program, as I do with all of our sports after their seasons have ended,'' the statement read. ''That evaluation includes meeting with Coach Helfrich in the coming days to discuss the future of Oregon football.''
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