Entering week 12 of the college football season, the Oregon Ducks are reeling.
Injuries are beginning to take its toll for a team that began the year low on depth — particularly at the linebacker position.
Senior Kaulana Apelu was lost for the season when he suffered a fractured leg two weeks ago. Backups Adrian Jackson and Sampson Niu are now injured, with their statuses for this weekend in doubt, meaning former walk-ons will be backing up traditional starters Troy Dye, Lamar Winston Jr. and Justin Hollins.
“If the linebacker position goes another step, now you look at guys like MJ Cunningham, the redshirt potentially coming off, Nate Heaukulani, whose been with us, (Nick) Wiebe,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “We've got a couple guys that we've been prepping in case it does get to that point — but as of right now those are the guys we're prepping with and going with.”
For a season that started so good — 5-1 and No. 12 in the country through seven weeks — with so much hope for the future, Oregon must now win its final two games of the season to guarantee a better record than last year’s turmoil-filled season.
The two-game stretch begins Saturday night when the Ducks host Arizona State in a Pac-12 after dark special. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on the Pac-12 Network.
The Sun Devils, who are the front-runners for the Pac-12 South division title, control their own destiny in the road to the conference championship game.
“I think as an athlete you better believe you have a chance to win, that's part of it and I think the more you win the more confident you become,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards said.
Oregon’s season appeared to be on the same track as Arizona State’s but a 1-3 showing over the previous four weeks has sent the Ducks’ season off the rails.
The running game that was so dominant in the beginning of the season has been non-existent during the slide. Cristobal’s “power” approach to running the ball has struggled, putting pressure on quarterback Justin Herbert and wide receiver Dillon Mitchell to lead the way.
For the most part, the two have delivered.
Mitchell is arguably the top receiver in the Pac-12, leading the conference in receptions (64), yards (1,002) and yards per game (100.2). In Pac-12 play alone he’s been unstoppable, averaging 129.1 receiving yards per game (40+ more yards than the No. 2 receiver) with seven touchdowns.
Herbert has done his part, ranking in the Pac-12’s top-3 of every major passing category.
Where’s he drawn criticism is for not spreading the ball around, as Mitchell alone accounts for over one-third of the passing offense. But Herbert isn’t all to blame.
The rest of the pass-catchers have really struggled this season. They have consistently dropped balls and failed to create separation from man coverage. Although they’ve combined for 17 touchdown catches on the year, most of that has been Herbert’s doing. But when he has had to rely on the rest of the wide receivers and tight ends, they’ve constantly let him down.
The defensive line was arguably Oregon’s strongest unit entering the season. Led by first-team all-Pac-12 performer Jalen Jelks and freshman all-American Jordon Scott, this unit dominated the first fourth on the season. They had the nation’s eighth best rush defense, giving up 1.96 yards per carry on 77 yards per game.
Since conference play started, the Ducks have the country’s 91st ranked rush defense, giving up 184.29 yards per game on an average 4.78 yards per carry.
Jelks, who began the season as a potential first-round pick, has largely underwhelmed. He has seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks on the year, ranking outside the Pac-12’s top-13 in both categories. By comparison, Jelks finished in the top-3 of both last season.
Scott has been good this year and taken the next step forward in his progression. But because of the vital position of the nose tackle in Oregon’s defense, he must be perfect on every possession otherwise the unit falls apart.
“The way that we play defense the nose tackle really is a critical piece, it controls the A gaps,” Cristobal said of Scott. “He's going to be tough on himself, he's going to be very critical of himself because he has a lot of pride, not only on what he is but in performance as well.”
Somehow, Oregon must find a way to put the injuries and letdowns behind and move forward. Progress from last year to this year, particularly with a healthy Herbert, is a must but with the state of the program right now, that progress is unknown.