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Oregon Shows Flaws in Loss to Arizona; Playoff Hopes Significantly Diminished

Mark Helfrich

Mark Helfrich

Oregon’s playoff and national title hopes suffered a significant setback in Thursday’s night’s surprise 31-24 loss to Arizona. The Ducks were unable to slow the Wildcats rushing attack in critical moments, and the offensive line once again showed major protection issues.

The win in Eugene is another huge moment in coach Rich Rodriguez’s rebuilding effort at Arizona. Dating back to last season, the Wildcats have won six in a row and followed up last year’s 42-16 thumping of Oregon with a win on the road this year.

Make no mistake: Arizona’s win on Thursday night was no fluke. The Wildcats were more efficient on third down (9 of 17, 4 of 14 for the Ducks), had more total yards (505 to 445) and held Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota to one rushing yard on nine attempts.


With the loss to Arizona, Oregon drops to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play. Losing is never ideal in the national title picture, but the Ducks lost early enough to climb back into the playoff race.

What’s Wrong at Oregon?

The primary culprit in Thursday night’s loss is the offensive line. The Ducks suffered a couple of critical injuries at tackle this season, including Jake Fisher, Andre Yruretagoyena and Tyler Johnstone. With its top three tackles sidelined, Oregon has been forced to start Tyrell Crosby (a true freshman) and Matt Pierson (a walk-on) at tackle. Crosby and Pierson have struggled to protect Mariota from the edge rushers, but the line as a whole has not played up to its preseason expectation. Washington State recorded seven sacks on Sept. 20, and Arizona sacked Mariota five times – with two resulting in forced fumbles – and generated consistent pressure throughout Thursday night’s game. In addition to the pass rush allowed by the offensive line, this unit failed to open many holes for the ground attack. Oregon averaged just 3.4 yards per carry against the Wildcats. That’s the lowest mark by the Ducks’ rushing attack since a 2.6 mark against Stanford last season.

Oregon’s defense gave up 5.9 yards per play and allowed Arizona to score 31 points, but the Wildcats had plenty of success at the point of attack. Terris Jones-Grigsby rushed for 115 yards on 27 attempts, while Nick Wilson added 92 yards on 13 carries. The Ducks were unable to stop Arizona’s ground attack late in the fourth quarter, which would have allowed Mariota to have one more shot at getting a game-tying touchdown. The defensive front was shorthanded due to an injury to end Arik Armstead, but the Wildcats attacked the middle and had success.

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Since replacing Chip Kelly, Mark Helfrich is 15-3 as Oregon’s head coach. Following a coach like Kelly isn’t easy, and Helfrich had to deal with an injury to quarterback Marcus Mariota last year that prevented the Ducks from contending for the national championship. But Thursday’s loss feels like the program has reached a critical juncture under Helfrich. The program has a huge win over Michigan State this season, and injuries are once again taking a toll on the offense. However, can Helfrich and this staff make the necessary adjustments to get Oregon back in the Pac-12 title picture? There’s no question the Ducks are a flawed team after five games. With matchups upcoming against UCLA, Stanford and Washington, Helfrich and his staff need to quickly regroup and find answers on both sides of the ball.

Depth of the Pac-12

Arizona’s win on Thursday night showcased the Pac-12’s depth. The Wildcats should be ranked after this victory, and their emergence adds to a brutal South Division, featuring UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Utah.

Simply, the top teams like Oregon, UCLA and Stanford have to show up with its “A” effort each week. The league’s depth has improved, and as a result, the Pac-12 may have too many good teams, which hurts the chances of getting a team into the playoffs.

Oregon’s Playoff Hopes 

While Thursday night’s loss is a huge blow to Oregon, the Ducks aren’t totally out of the playoff race just yet. Certainly, Oregon’s playoff outlook is significantly less promising than it was on Wednesday. However, with remaining games against UCLA, Washington and Stanford in the regular season, if the Ducks can run the table the rest of the year and win the conference title game, Helfrich’s team will have strength of schedule on its side. Winning the rest of the way largely depends on an offensive line that has struggled mightily over the last two weeks and may be without tackle Jake Fisher for a couple more games.

It’s not going to be easy with the schedule and personnel concerns, but don’t write off Oregon out of the playoff picture just yet. If the Ducks lose at UCLA next week, then their hopes of making the playoffs will be finished. Again, it’s not over in Eugene. But it’s also not going to be easy to get back into the top four.

The Big Ten’s Playoff Hopes

Oregon’s loss indirectly hurts the Big Ten’s playoff hopes. Michigan State lost at Oregon in Week 2 and needed the Ducks to remain unbeaten and in the top four to have a shot at the playoffs. With Oregon slipping in the polls, it’s a setback to the Spartans’ strength of schedule and opportunity to claim a loss against one of the top teams in the nation. Even if the Ducks slip in the standings with another loss, Michigan State or the Big Ten champion isn’t completely out of the picture. However, the Spartans desperately needed Oregon to keep winning to improve its own playoff outlook.