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Oregon Ducks Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

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Oregon football plummeted from national championship runner-up to last place in its division in just two years, a staggering decline that moved about as fast as the quick-strike offense for which the Ducks had long been synonymous.

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Rebuilding Oregon back to title contention will take a presumably longer course, but first-year Ducks head coach Willie Taggart is moving up-tempo on the process. Oregon reached the Top 25 briefly in the first half of its 2017 season, starting 3-0 with a series of impressive non-conference wins.

Since moving into Pac-12 play, the Ducks have found sledding more difficult, losing two of their first three. Quarterback Justin Herbert's collarbone injury, sustained Sept. 30 vs. Cal, complicates the latter half of the season. But with defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's side showing improvement, and a multifaceted run game, Oregon still has plenty of potential in the back-half of 2017.

Offensive MVP: RB Royce Freeman

His production was slowed somewhat by a shoulder injury; nevertheless, Freeman returned to the top tier of running backs around college football with a stellar first half.

Freeman's rushed for 654 yards in what is essentially five games. His 10 rushing touchdowns are more than noteworthy Heisman Trophy contenders like Bryce Love, Rashaad Penny and Saquon Barkley. Freeman should set the Oregon career rushing record by season's end, too, to go along with his 2015 record of most rushing yards by a Duck in one season.

Defensive MVP: LB Troy Dye

A revelation of the 2016 season was the performance of then-freshman Dye. No signs of a sophomore slump to be found, as Dye's 52 tackles lead the team. Dye also has seven tackles for a loss, three sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Best Moment of the First Half: Justin Herbert's first half vs. Nebraska

Flashes of the old Oregon have surfaced through the 2017 season's first half, but perhaps never more so than the first half against Nebraska. Herbert bombarded the Cornhuskers with three first-half touchdown passes, en route to a 365-yard performance.

Three years after Marcus Mariota brought the Heisman to Eugene, and 16 after some would argue Joey Harrington should have, Herbert played the kind of half that suggests he might have one in his future.

Best Newcomer: CB Thomas Graham

At this summer's Pac-12 media days, Troy Dye said Graham would be a freshman to remember. Graham enrolled early and turned heads during Oregon spring practices, and he's now doing the same on fall Saturdays.

Graham is second among all Ducks with 32 tackles, and with two interceptions, has helped restore some of the turnover creation for which the Oregon defense was known in its heyday.

Biggest Surprise: RB Kani Benoit

When Royce Freeman came out of the Sept. 30 game vs. Cal, the stage belonged entirely to Benoit. He made the most of his opportunity, 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The Cal game was Benoit's first chance to really shine as a No. 1 back, but with two previous multiple-touchdown performances, had already shown his ability as a supplementary back. Benoit is a rising NFL draft sleeper as a result of his 2017 breakout.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. Herbert's timetable for return

Even with multiple rushing options in Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, Justin Herbert's absence behind center badly hurts Oregon's offense. Herbert's accurate and effective passing provides the perfect balance to the ground attack.

Oregon Ducks QB Justin Herbert

2. Defensive consistency

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Jim Leavitt's immediate influence on the performance of the Oregon defense is undeniable, but this unit still has much work to do. In losses to Arizona State and Washington State, the Ducks surrendered a combined 70 points. Some of the best offenses they'll see this season, including the nation's leading pass offense at UCLA; Heisman candidate Bryce Love at Stanford; and the nation's No. 4 rushing offense from Arizona, all fall on the back half of the schedule.

3. Freeman's pursuit of history

Freeman's successful return after a disappointing 2016 is one of the better stories in the Pac-12 this season. Should he continue along at his current pace, Freeman will be the program's all-time leading rusher by the time Halloween arrives.

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1. Nov. 4 at Washington

The "W" alongside the Huskies on an Oregon football schedule in years past didn't signify Washington. Rather, it was the penciled-in win the Ducks could expect against their most bitter rival. The Huskies putting up 70 points in a rout last season proved emphatically that those days are over.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

2. Oct. 14 at Stanford

Oregon and Stanford grew into a highly anticipated, hotly contested rivalry commensurate with the two programs ascending to the top of the conference. The Ducks' last trip to The Farm produced one of the most memorable games in the series, an Oregon upset that came down to the wire, and that effectively denied the Cardinal a spot in the College Football Playoff.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

3. Oct. 28 Utah

The first real visible cracks in Oregon's foundation became evident in a 2015 encounter between these two teams in Autzen Stadium. Devontae Booker led the Utes in a thorough deconstruction of the Ducks. However, Oregon returned the receipt last year with a final-minute scoring drive that eliminated Utah from the Pac-12 South divisional race.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

The receiver who caught the game-winning pass? Darren Carrington, who is now a Utah Ute.

4. Oct. 21 at UCLA
Oregon's undefeated against UCLA, beginning a streak in 2008. The two teams have not faced since 2014, however, when Marcus Mariota played the first of two outstanding games that season in the Rose Bowl.

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The Ducks are back in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the College Football Playoff semifinal romp over Florida State, this time to contend with the nation's leading passer, Josh Rosen.

5. Nov. 18 Arizona

Arizona boasted a very brief winning streak in the series, blowing out Oregon in Tucson late in the 2013 season, then scoring one of the biggest upsets of the '14 season with a win at Autzen Stadium. It was Oregon's last on the way to the College Football Playoff Championship Game, a road that included the Ducks winning a lopsided Pac-12 title game.

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The Wildcats are much improved from a season ago, but like Oregon, still have some question marks to address. The two teams could put up a basketball score — fitting, since the two universities' basketball teams split the Pac-12 basketball championship a season ago.

6. Nov. 25 Oregon State

The final straw for the Mark Helfrich era was pulled when Oregon State ran all over Oregon last November in Corvallis. With Gary Andersen bowing out unexpectedly amid a 1-5 start, things are not going well for the Beavers. Look for Oregon to repay last season's loss in kind this time around.

College football rankings: Oregon State

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.