Analysis: Ducks win, but squander another big opportunity

EUGENE — Oregon just squandered a great opportunity.

For the second week in a row against an inferior opponent, the No. 23 Ducks failed to put the game away and give backup quarterback Justin Herbert meaningful snaps in a live game, this time with a 44-26 victory against Virginia.

BOX SCORE: Oregon 44, Virginia 26

Why does it matter?

At some point, if you’re the Ducks, you have to start looking toward the future.

This is the second season in a row that Oregon has turned to a graduate transfer to start at quarterback. That means Dakota Prukop, just like Vernon Adams, only has one shot to make a run with the Ducks.

In recent seasons, when Oregon was at its best, it had stability at quarterback.

Darron Thomas was a two-year starter for the Ducks, leading them to a national championship game in the 2010 season, and then to a Rose Bowl victory the next season.

Marcus Mariota took over the job in 2012 and started for three seasons.

With Mariota at the helm, the Ducks captured Fiesta Bowl, Alamo Bowl and Rose Bowl victories. They also won a Pac-12 championship and advanced to another national championship game, with Mariota taking home the program’s only Heisman Trophy.

You must have stability and consistency at quarterback. Not just game to game, but season to season.

Getting Herbert out there with the offense, with live opponents, in front of 50,000-plus screaming fans would have been beneficial not only to him, but the program moving forward.

But with the score so close the past two weeks, all we’ve seen from Herbert so far is a short cameo at the end of Oregon’s season-opening win against UC Davis.

After the first half Saturday against Virginia, it looked as if Herbert would get the opportunity, as the Ducks held a 30-6 lead.

But Oregon’s offense stalled in the second half, and the Ducks’ porous defense allowed too many yards, too many points.

When asked if Prukop was running the offense the way he envisioned through two games, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said: “If it would have been 60-12, then yes, just in terms of finishing better. Again, that’s not a one-person operation either. But that’s our team just realizing when to just seize it, end the deal. We need to do that across the board.”

That’s exactly it, the Ducks couldn’t finish the deal early enough.

Prukop finished with 331 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Oregon running back Royce Freeman, who rushed for 207 yards and two touchdowns, said he saw improvement out of Prukop.

“I saw him more comfortable and maneuvering in the pocket, especially making plays when he moves outside the pocket,” Freeman said. “He had a lot of scrambling throws. So more comfort, and I guess as the weeks progress, hopefully he can just build off of that.”

Prukop played well, but not great. He isn’t putting up the same rushing numbers he did at Montana State. Also, the tempo was better, but still not at a consistent enough level for Oregon to compete for a Pac-12 title.

“We have a lot of room to grow,” Prukop said. “And I’m really excited to see the growth between week two and week three.”

It’s too bad that we didn’t see that growth during the first two weeks.

It was important to put UC Davis and Virginia away early and give Herbert live reps, especially now that redshirting him is off the table.

Herbert is a true freshman from Sheldon High School, and historically, the Ducks have redshirted quarterbacks unless a disaster happens and the redshirt is burned out of necessity.

In fact, both Mariota and Joey Harrington redshirted as freshmen. They turned out pretty well.

But the coaching staff was so impressed with Herbert during fall camp that they chose to make him Prukop’s primary backup.

What if every game from here on out is close, and Prukop stays healthy? Then an entire season of Herbert’s eligibility would be wasted.

It was a risk to play Herbert in the season opener without a plan to use him more in the first two weeks against lesser opponents.

It’s too bad that the coaching staff didn’t have a plan.

UP NEXT: The Ducks go on the road to close out their nonconference schedule at Nebraska (2-0) next Saturday (12:30 p.m. PT, ABC).

KGW


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