Upset win sails just out of Ducks’ reach. What now?

during their game at Spartan Stadium on September 12, 2015 in East Lansing, Michigan.during their game at Spartan Stadium on September 12, 2015 in East Lansing, Michigan.

The Spartan defense stops Royce Freeman short of the goal line in the second quarter despite a Walter Payton-like dive. Freeman had tough going all night but did earn 92 hard yards on 24 carries, including the Ducks first touchdown (Photo by Steven Lecka, Getty Images.)

As a fan the impulse is strong to look for someone to blame after a loss, particularly during a long glorious period when your team doesn’t lose very often.

Certainly there were breakdowns and things to assess honestly in Oregon’s 31-28 road loss to #5 Michigan State, and part of being an informed fan is to discuss those.

However frustrating and occasionally maddening the result, it was exactly as it should have been. MSU is a tough, disciplined football team with a 5th-year senior quarterback who has started in three bowl games. Their defense proved to be a blitzing, swarming unit that hits hard and plays with a lot of passion.

Oregon lost by a field goal on the road to the #5 team in the country, a team that’s very likely to be in the national championship picture all season, a team that will play Ohio State in November in one of the biggest games of the year.

The Ducks will continue to grow as a team, and they displayed a lot of heart in this game. Charles Nelson, Bralon Addison and Byron Marshall turned in superb efforts and made some spectacular plays, and they’ll find the end zone two dozen times as a group this year. Addison’s 81-yard punt return was scintillating, especially  in the disciplined team effort it represented: Bralon made one guy miss at the catch, then his teammates blocked beautifully with no flags, Christian French blocking the punter all the way through the sideline. It was a brilliant play and a huge momentum shift in the game. So too was Marshall’s tip-toe touchdown catch in the left corner of the end zone, Addison and Nelson’s catch and runs throughout the game.

Nelson is the absolute best receiver to scoot and zoom with a little flat pass or a quick screen; he’s probably the worst target for the Ducks on a contested ball downfield. The little man has great acceleration and heart. He’d run a fearless crossing pattern. But a deep jump ball to a 5-7, 170-pound receiver is a disaster. Soon the Ducks will have 6-2 Darren Carrington back for those, and Dwayne Stanford didn’t get many targets after being a star performer last week.

Oregon’s inability to run the football against top defenses continues to be a frustration. All five of Mark Helfrich’s career losses occurred in games the Ducks failed to rush for 200 yards. At times this game looked like a frustrating repeat of Ohio State, Stanford, Auburn and LSU, complete with a failed drive that reached the one-yard line. Adams was under pressure all game long, and the team missed an opportunity on their last possession, swarmed under by a jailbreak blitz.

In the first half  fans had to be cursing the Don Pellum defense, which was consistently late to the hole and the ball and missed a frightening number of tackles. But the defense played a great fourth quarter with two crucial stops. They raised their intensity. You could see the pride growing in the unit, the sense of corps, the improved recognition. They were winning, competing and hitting at the end. After giving up a long run at the beginning of the game and despite a 38-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the run defense shows steady improvement.

Michigan State deserved to win. They made fewer mistakes, controlled the line of scrimmage and played a much more consistent game.  Yet the Ducks had a chance to steal it in the end. Addison made another terrific punt return to set them up inside the 50 with just over two minutes to play, and inside a minute and half Vernon Adams missed a wide-open Marshall down the left sideline. Marshall was at the five four strides past his man. A little more loft on the ball and he can score an easy touchdown.

Reports are that Adams has a broken knuckle on the index finger of his passing hand, and we can’t know how much that affected his timing and accuracy. The game showed how much the Ducks miss a healthy Marcus Mariota, the best player in school history over his three seasons. Mariota rarely made mistakes and seldom repeated them. As fans we always felt he’d find a way to win it when things were going bad or looked like they could be.

Adams made some miraculous plays last night and showed tenacity, escapability and pluck. His left-handed toss to Bralon Addison was remarkable, good for 25 yards and a first down. But Brett Favre-like, he threw an ill-advised interception on the very next play. He’s not Mariota. He’s 5-11, can’t be the same kind of running threat, and has just four weeks of practice time with the team.

He’ll get better, and so will the Ducks. Scott Frost has to continue to learn what he does best and keep him out of negative situations. The way the Ducks use the zone-read has to change. The pass protection has to improve. He’s taking too many hits.

The Oregon offensive line doesn’t have the drive or physicality to push a top defense into the end zone at the goal line. Frost’s going to have to adjust the play-calling, and in close, the Ducks will have to use speed at the perimeter, run-pass options and targets like Addison, Stanford, Marshall and Carrington to finesse the ball into the end zone.

Oregon will win a lot of games this season and the return game will continue to be a great strength. Marshall and Addison created great field position with their balance, vision and acceleration on kickoffs and punts, a spark that was missing last year. Matt Wogan is healthy now and gives the Webfoots a big edge by consistently putting kicks deep in the end zone: the Ducks are setting up at the 40 and keeping the opponent inside the 25. At punter, oh do the Ducks miss Jackson Rice from a few years ago, four years of laser-sharp punting. The two anemic 25-yard kicks in the first half were disastrous.

The schedule aids the team in recovering their momentum and gearing up for an opportunity to defend their PAC-12 Championship. Games with Georgia State, at home versus Utah, at Colorado, hosting Washington State,  and October 17 in Seattle will allow them to find their rhythm, rebuild their confidence and improve their communication. They can rest injured players and find their identity as a team.

If this team continues to improve and believe in one another, it can still be a very good season. We knew Michigan State would be a tough test going in. There’s no reason to panic or call for anyone’s job.

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