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ASU Football: First look at Oregon

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Times are changing in Eugene, and not for the better.

NCAA Football: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona State Sun Devils will travel to Eugene to take on the Oregon Ducks Saturday as both teams will look to prove they can stay competitive in conference play. The game will air on Pac-12 Network at 2:00 p.m. MST.

The Ducks are just two years removed from their National Championship runner-up run, yet that season seems so desperately far away for many who don the green and feathers on game day. Not only are the Ducks not garnering nation-wide respect for their program, they’ve fallen below their foes from Corvallis, who for so long held the title of the worst team in the Pac-12 North.

This is not the same team we are accustomed to seeing from Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens. Here’s what you need to know about the 2016 Oregon Ducks:

Slipping Through the Quacks

Sun Devil fans have surely been frustrated watching Phillip Lindsay slip though the outstretched hands of JoJo Wicker and Koron Crump, Chad Hansen making leaping catches over Kareem Orr and Armand Perry, and opposing quarterbacks having endless time to dismantle the secondary from an undefiled pocket. However, Duck fans have somehow experienced much worse. Saying Oregon has been terrible on defense this year is a tremendous understatement, because in fact, they’ve been the absolute worst. As in 128th out of 128 total Division I-A college football programs. The Ducks are allowing 539 yards of total offense per game, ranking in the bottom 10 of both passing and rushing yards per game.

Understanding the severity of the Ducks’ defensive inefficiencies is one thing, but finding a solution to them is another.

One explanation for the Oregon defense struggling as much as it has could be the lack of defensive recruiting prowess. After Chip Kelly’s final recruiting class in 2012, which included Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, the Ducks have been incapable of signing a player who has gone on to earn a spot on the first or second all Pac-12 defensive team. The Ducks have also failed to bring in a recruiting class on defense that has an average rating of higher than 3.25 stars, something that Chip Kelly accomplished in both 2012 and 2013.

Mark Helfrich hasn’t been able to bring in elite-level recruiting classes, but the defensive coaching staff’s issues can’t be overlooked.

The Ducks currently have 29 players on their roster who are in at least their third season, so the “youth inexperience” excuse can’t be applied here. Some may blame newly-appointed defensive coordinator Brady Hoke, yet it often takes a season or two for a new defensive scheme to be adequately implemented. If you look closer at the field than the coordinator’s box, you could surely place some blame on interior defensive line coach Ron Aiken and linebackers coach Don Pellum. They’ve had decent talent come through the system, yet they’ve been unable to help them adapt to defending collegiate offenses. The Ducks defensive linemen have struggled to get off their blocks and put pressure on the quarterback, and their linebacking core has been unable to wrap up on tackles and take the run game away from their opponents.

The Ducks have many issues to address on the defensive side of the ball, and are just beginning down the same path the Devils are currently on, as both programs look to repair inefficient systems and give their talented offenses a chance to shine.

At Least One Duck in a Row

Unfortunately for Matt Lubick’s offense, the Ducks were unable to have success two years in a row with an FCS-transfer quarterback, as former Montana State quarterback Dakota Prukop has not been the spark Ducks fans were hoping could ignite Royce Freeman and the talented offense. However, in its game Saturday night in Berkley, Oregon may have found just the right player to lead the Ducks under center.

True freshman Justin Hebert, who stands at 6-foot-6, threw for 258 yards and six touchdowns against California, adding 56 yards on the ground. The Eugene native made quick decisions and sharp throws from the pocket, and showcased his ability to escape from the pocket and downfield speed. The Ducks have many injuries on the offensive side of the ball and endless problems to address on defense, but they may have found a solution at quarterback at just the right time, as they will face (once again) the worst secondary in college football Saturday afternoon.