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Even if Oregon fires Mark Helfrich, it's still got clear problems to fix

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The 2016 Ducks had such a bad defense that they needed an offense with superpowers. That didn’t work out.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Oregon State Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon completed a brutal year by losing Saturday’s Civil War to Oregon State, 34-24 in Corvallis. It was UO’s first loss to OSU in nine years. Oregon had a 24-14 lead in the third quarter, and then the Beavers scored 20 unanswered points.

The Beavs possessed the ball for 40 minutes. They took over and later iced the game by running the ball on 21 consecutive plays across three series, milking the clock until it had no seconds left to give. The Ducks got bullied and submitted, because they didn’t have a choice.

And so they finished 4-8, and USA Today reported Saturday night that the school was already looking for a replacement for head coach Mark Helfrich. Nike founder and Oregon uberbooster Phil Knight spent the afternoon at Michigan-Ohio State, not even bothering to watch “his team” play its state rival. He was probably glad he didn’t.

When Chip Kelly left Oregon for the NFL after the 2012 season, Helfrich replaced him. He went 11-2 his first two years, making a run to the final of the College Football Playoff in the second. Things seemed fine. But then Oregon backslid to 9-4 last season, and then this year’s disaster happened, and suddenly Helfrich’s 13-12 in two years.

But he’s still got three years left on a five-year extension signed two Februarys ago, and most of Helfrich’s money is guaranteed. Oregon is not in a particularly good place.

A bunch went wrong to let Oregon fall this far. The two overarching things:

1. The defense became terrible. That’s the most important thing to know, before you get into any of the nuance about why it’s as bad as it is. As its coordinator, former Michigan coach Brady Hoke tried to make an old-school scheme work on his defensive line. It did not. Oregon got gashed for nearly 6 yards per carry. It fell from 38 sacks last season to 25. Oregon’s points allowed per game crept over 40, after it had spiked the year before from 24 to 38. A bad situation got worse.

2. The offense stopped being superhuman. Oregon used to be a national marvel when it had the ball. Ducks offenses were almost always great with Kelly, and they stayed great in Helfrich’s first two years, when his players were mostly Kelly’s. From 2010 to 2015, Oregon had a top-five scoring offense every year, always over 43 points per game. (Last year’s had been the lowest in that run.) This year, UO went to 35 per game, which currently sits in the mid-20s nationally. In another year, Oregon could’ve given up 34 to Oregon State and expected to easily win. This year, not so much.

Why’d these bad things happen? Hard to say, but here are some ideas.

Oregon didn’t quite have the horses it’s had in the past. That doesn’t just mean no Marcus Mariota or DeForest Buckner or Arik Armstead or Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

The Ducks fell from 17th to 20th on 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite, which isn’t a huge drop, and there aren’t such records from before 2015. But there clearly wasn’t enough depth to push back on defense, especially on the line. It didn’t help that 2015 five-star recruit Canton Kaumatule didn’t pan out and had to medically retire.

Oregon didn’t have anyone as good as an Armstead or a Buckner, and the Ducks’ historically strong player development didn’t create someone like that, either, at least not this season. The same was true in the secondary, where Oregon teams of the recent past recruited or developed players like Ekpre-Olomu, Walter Thurmond and John Boyett. The secondary was bad and didn’t get a big Oregon breakout.

Oregon’s lack of elite QB recruiting caught up with it, even though QB play wasn’t the source of the team’s misery. Mariota was a generational college player, and FCS transfer Vernon Adams turned out to be a terrific one-year stopgap for 2015, after Mariota left. The Ducks tried that route against this year with Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop, but his run as the starter lasted five games.

Three-star freshman Justin Herbert replaced him midseason, the first time Oregon’s started a true frosh QB since 1983. Herbert did well and looks like a building block, but he was young and green. The Ducks have one four-star QB on their roster, redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen, but he hasn’t gotten on the field in a live game since he’s been in Eugene.

The lack of a dominant quarterback (and a thoroughly dominant offense) has hurt on defense, too. Oregon’s breakneck tempo has typically meant it’s rated near the bottom of the country in possession time, and that’s OK if your offense is running the score up and applying bunches of pressure on the opponent. Oregon’s offense is now merely run-of-the-mill “good,” and its defense has a heavier burden without the apparent depth necessary to shoulder it.

Oregon might not be that far away, but it’s got big fixes to make.

Whether Helfrich manages to stay in his job or not, Oregon has to figure out how to stop teams from shredding it on defense. Merely having an okay defense can work if Herbert turns out to be great and Oregon can return to the 45-point-per-game wonderland it used to inhabit. Otherwise, the defense has to be legitimately good.

Oregon has demonstrated before that it can compete with merely good, not elite, recruiting. That theory got tested pretty seriously this year, though. The Ducks’ 2016 class that’ll soon come of age was 27th in the country, and the current 2017 group is 22nd. If Helfrich’s fired, will that get worse? The Ducks haven’t done much of a job recruiting their own backyard. An elite 2017 defensive back whose dad played for UO and works for Nike just committed to Pac-12 North champion Washington.

There are a few ways to be a good college football team. None involves having a bottom-five defense, so it’s probably smart to work on that first and go from there. If the offense can get back to Oregon levels, that’ll be good, too.