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What the hell happened to the Oregon Ducks?

One of the country's true elites over the last seven years looks like nothing special after losing by 42 at home. Can it rebound?

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Of all of the major American sports, college football is the most predictable. It is more staid than even Major League Baseball, which fields teams with drastic money differences.

In college football, great teams usually remain great, and bad teams usually remain bad. There are shifts every year, but the world never tilts off its axis. In pro sports, the Yankees went two straight years without winning more than 85 games despite all the money in the world. The Red Sox are likely to finish under .500 this year for the third time in four seasons. That's not happening to Alabama anytime soon.

Oregon, though? The Ducks' 62-20 home loss to Utah was an exaggeration, an outlier. A game can get away from you when all of your flaws are suddenly presented to you and you don't yet understand them. The game doesn't stop for you while you reassess. And if your opponent has some pent-up aggression to take out, things can get out of hand, a la the nerd beating up the bully in a teen movie.

Oregon had beaten Utah by an average score of 48-24 over the last two seasons. Given an opening for vengeance, the Utes took it. They knocked Oregon starter Vernon Adams out of the game after allowing just 18 net yards in eight pass attempts (including one sack). They sacked his substitute, Jeff Lockie, four times in 24 attempts and picked him off twice. Up 34-13, they scored on a halfback pass. They went up 48-13 in part because of a 33-yard run by punter Tom Hackett. They went up 55-13 on a 69-yard punt return by Boobie Hobbs after an awesome fake by primary return main Britain Covey.

Utah went on a stunning 56-7 run over 31 minutes, turning an upset bid into a road win by a superior team. And while Utah isn't truly 42 points better than Oregon on average, it sounded alarm bells in every city in the Pac-12.

So how did last year's Championship finalists so quickly get to a point where they could lose a home game by six touchdowns?

Defense: you have to play it

Oregon ranks 89th in Def. S&P+. The Ducks have allowed at least 28 points and 5.7 yards per play in each game this year (including one against Georgia State) and gave up a combined 104 points to EWU and Utah.

They're getting gashed by big run plays and efficient passing. They're getting no pressure on the quarterback, and while their run front is sound, if a runner gets past the line of scrimmage, he's probably running for a long time.

Defense has been a growing issue for Oregon in recent years, but ... wow. Under longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, the Ducks could be counted on to play sound defense that forced mistakes. The Ducks' D was rarely elite, but it was almost always good: 19th in Def. S&P+ in 2007, 15th in 2009, 29th in 2010, 23rd in 2012.

Aliotti's last defense was beset by injuries and inexperience. The Ducks dropped to 55th in 2013, and as quarterback Marcus Mariota began to battle injuries, they lost November games to Stanford (26-20) and Arizona (42-16).

In 2014, after Aliotti retired, linebackers coach Don Pellum took over and instituted a more conservative style. Oregon was sketchy against the run and had the tendency of letting opponents off the hook on passing downs but did well in preventing big plays and rose to 29th in Def. S&P+. But following last year's run to the title game, they lost their top two cornerbacks (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill), dynamic free safety Erick Dargan, and maybe their best playmaker in outside linebacker Tony Washington. The experience level wasn't awful, but the Ducks entered 2015 without known playmakers in the front seven and with quite a few sophomores in the back.

Four games in, every potential weakness has become an extreme weakness. The secondary is shipwrecked, asking for quite a bit from sophomores Arrion Springs and Chris Seisay and freshmen Ugo Amadi, Glen Ihenacho and Khalil Oliver. Opponents are completing 64 percent of their passes, and the Ducks rank 113th in passer rating allowed (152.7). Springs, the relative veteran of this bunch, got torched by Covey for two touchdowns.

There is a balance between efficiency and explosiveness, and when that balance is off, you have to choose between unpalatable options. Faced with major inefficiency in pass defense, Pellum has attempted to give his secondary help and attack even less with his front. That has helped a little in big-play prevention -- Michigan State and Utah combined to average only 11.2 yards per completion -- but it has given the Ducks even less of a pass rush. After ranking a meager 75th in Adj. Sack Rate last season, they have fallen to 116th. End DeForest Buckner and OLBs Torrodney Prevot and Christian French combined for 15.5 sacks last year. Through one-third of the regular season, they have three.

The choices don't get any easier. Until the secondary matures and provides more disruption, Pellum will either need to continue his approach or take more chances and risk more big plays. But at least the schedule eases up for now. Oregon's next three opponents rank 98th (Colorado), 89th (Washington State) and 107th (Washington) in Off. S&P+.


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Where'd the big plays go?

Oregon's offense is only struggling by Oregon's standards. The Ducks rank 21st in Off. S&P+ and possess an elite (or close to it) level of efficiency. They rank 11th in success rate, and running backs Royce Freeman, Tony Brooks-James, Taj Griffin and Kani Benoit have combined to average a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. And despite some issues against Utah, quarterbacks Vernon Adams and Jeff Lockie have combined to complete a decent 62 percent of their passes.

But tasked with accounting for a glitchy defense, the Ducks aren't making enough big plays, particularly through the air. They have produced only six passes of 30-plus yards, 46th in the country. And while Oregon still looks like Oregon on first-and-10, bad things have begun to happen when the Ducks fall behind schedule.

On third-and-7 or more last season, Mariota was incredible: 29 of 47 passes for 571 yards, four touchdowns and only one pick. Nearly half of his third-and-long passes resulted in first downs, and Oregon ranked a robust third in Passing Downs S&P+.

This year, the Ducks rank 84th. Lockie and Adams have completed just 7 of 14 passes for 68 yards and four first downs on third-and-long. They're getting sacked more frequently, and despite the return of star receiver Bralon Addison (who missed 2014 with injury), the receiving corps has not stepped up to the level we assumed.

Efficiency is the single most important thing for an offense to possess, and the Ducks are still more efficient than most. But the offense has almost no margin for error, and when you aren't coming up with big plays, you end up having to take more snaps (and more frequently risk mistakes) to score. The Ducks are not elite on offense, and with this D, that's a bad combination.

SB Nation presents: The top 3 fake plays from this week in college football

What next?

Three of the next four games are on the road, but two are against Colorado and Washington, and they sandwich a likely win over Washington State. Tailspins happen, and if I'm a fan of Colorado or Washington, I'm relishing my team's timing. Now's the chance to strike Oregon down. But it's still probable that the Ducks move to 5-2. Start there, then figure out the rest as you go.

Assuming Mark Helfrich's squad avoids a collapse -- a safe, if not guaranteed assumption -- the Ducks should rebound to eight or nine wins. And while the front seven features quite a few seniors, a good portion of the rest of the roster will return in 2016, perhaps to lead another charge into the top 10.

Oregon probably isn't as bad as it looked on Saturday, but there's no quick fix for this defense, and the offense is undergoing enough transition that it can't make up the difference. There likely aren't any more six-touchdown losses in the works, but in the short term, Oregon's stint as the Pac-12's ruler is over.