Neel: Oregon’s shortcomings sting now, but could lead to positives down the road

A week ago, I wrote a 1,200 word column about the Oregon Ducks’ playoff chances, and what I really thought about the prospect of Dan Lanning finding himself in the elite invitational at the end of his first season in Eugene.

By the end of the night, that column found its way into the trash.

It’s not that it was poorly written, but rather I remarked that with Oregon’s outside chance of getting a playoff nod — teams like Tennessee, Alabama, and maybe Clemson all needed to lose ahead of the Ducks — it could be a better end result if the Ducks were left on the outside looking in, going instead to a Rose Bowl game with a chip on their shoulder rather than facing another potential blowout loss to Georgia or Ohio State.

As luck would have it, those three teams did end up losing, and Oregon’s “long-shot chances” of making the CFP didn’t seem so far-fetched.

While I still agreed with the premise of the article, I wasn’t going to be the one writer in Eugene to stand up and say “Hold on guys, maybe it would be better if we don’t go to the playoff. I don’t think we’re good enough to compete at that level just yet.”

Call me a coward, but in the end, I think we ended up at the same place. After Oregon’s 37-34 loss at the hands of the Washington Huskies, the Ducks are no longer in contention for the playoff.

I think that may be a positive thing in the end.

This Oregon team has some real flaws if you care to look past the explosive offense, Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, and dominating rushing attack. A few minutes of focused attention on the other side of the ball will make that very apparent.

We’ve grown pretty good at making excuses for the Ducks’ at times porous defense. While they rank near the bottom of the nation in both passing defense and third-down defense, many people — myself included — tried to pass that off as garbage time production and backups allowing late scores that made the numbers look worse than they really were.

I don’t think anyone will be making those excuses anymore. Not after what we saw Michael Penix Jr. and the Huskies do to Oregon’s secondary on Saturday night.

 

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Penix threw for 408 yards and 2 touchdowns. Washington had a total of 522 yards and converted 5-of-9 third down attempts. In their 9 defensive drives on the night, Oregon forced just one punt and happened to come away with an interception in the end zone. The other 7 drives all ended in Washington scores, with the Huskies averaging 9.6 yards per play.

Do you think this defense could slow down Tennessee, or put the clamps on Michigan? I’m not even going to ask what it would be capable of against Georgia because we’ve already seen that song and dance.

The Ducks have talent on that side of the ball, to be clear, but they’ve fallen short of putting it all together just yet. The offense may be capable of scoring with the best teams in the nation, but if you were to put Oregon’s defense on a national stage against a top-10 offense, I’m afraid of what the results might be.

I understand that losing sucks, and getting upset by your rival is a miserable thing to have happen. I’m not sitting here saying that I’m glad Oregon lost this game. As a former UO alumnus and someone who grew up in Eugene, I’m aware of the vitriol that is present when purple and green meet on the field. Duck fans should be hurt, angry, and frustrated about what happened on Saturday night. I’m just here to encourage you to look at the silver lining of that dark cloud when you’re ready.

Everything we projected for the Ducks before this season is still very attainable. They are two wins away from making it to the Pac-12 Championship, and should they win that game, they will appear in the Rose Bowl during Lanning’s first season in Eugene.

The College Football Playoff is now out of the picture, but it stands to reason that it could be a good thing for the Ducks to avoid that this season. If my two options are going to a Rose Bowl and facing a competitive game against Michigan, or going to the CFP and potentially falling victim to the “Oregon can’t win a big game” narrative against a national power once again, then I know what I’m choosing. You may be arguing that there’s a third option in there where the Ducks made it to the CFP and were able to beat one of the big dogs, but I would push back on that front, offering a wide array of game-tape from defensive drives this season.

There’s also the Bo Nix of it all, as well. The veteran QB has one more year of eligibility remaining if he wants to use it. I don’t pretend to know his thinking, but I can’t say it would completely shock me to see him come back to Eugene for one last season, knowing that when he’s playing at his best, and this team is operating within itself, there are few in the nation better. He would be a Heisman front-runner entering the season, and the Ducks would likely hold top-10 consideration in the preseason, at the very least.

Does coming up short in 2022 further drive him to want to return for one last hoorah?

I may get hate for this opinion. That’s okay, I’m choosing not to send this column to the bottom of the waste basket. In life, there are glass-half-empty people and glass-half-full people. I’ve always found myself as part of the latter.

Losing to Washington was tough. Seeing the ultimate goal of winning a national championship fade away is never easy to come to terms with. If you can accept those two things as a reality and move on from the hurt, there’s still a bright side for the Ducks. In a perfect world, the Oregon will see how close they got this season, and vow to come back next year stronger because of it. Lanning and his squad won’t be able to reach that pinnacle of success in his first year in Eugene, but that doesn’t mean that the success is far off. Oregon can let this one hurt, and be better for it in the end. There’s still a ton to play for over the next couple of weeks in Eugene.

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Story originally appeared on Ducks Wire