By Andrew Greif
Oregon's game tape from its 35-32 loss to Nebraska did not make for appealing in-flight entertainment on the ride back from Lincoln. The Ducks (2-1) dropped from No. 22 to out of the AP Top 25 on Sunday morning, one day after their short-handed performance against the Cornhuskers (3-0) was marred by unnecessary penalties, decisions to go for two after each touchdown that coach Mark Helfrich is still explaining, and breakdowns in key moments that could have turned the game in Oregon's favor. Before UO officially began its on-field preparation for a home game Saturday against Colorado (2-1), Helfrich spoke with reporters Sunday evening about how he will address Oregon's 13 penalties, injury updates to key starters, honoring a late Nebraska punter and much more:
On Oregon's five new starters defensively — and how UO is going about setting a lineup:
Helfrich: "Trying to find the ideal personnel and part of it was who was available for the game. Definitely trying to still find the ideal combination everywhere. Secondary played harder, fit a little bit better. Obviously had a bunch of penalties that were due to mainly hand placement and hand placement at the initial alignment, which put them in a hole with position and that again is on me, on us as coaches."
On whether any of the five new starters stood out:
"At times, I thought both (OLB Jonah Moi and DT Drayton Carlberg) played hard. Weren't perfect. Dray is still there trying to feel his way through things and played a little high, got out of his gap a few times but he wasn't alone in that. Jonah did some, had a big play, obviously and then created a bunch of other situations that set the edge defensively and overall a step in the right direction for him."
On Oregon's final play, and whether Dakota Prukop is too quick to pull the ball and run:
"That's kind of the first thing and the last thing we talked about in that situation, you've got to give the play a chance, whatever that its, whether they bring six, seven, whatever, you've got to just get the ball out of your hand and give the play a chance. That last-play scenario is a tough one and guys kind of flashed in front of him and that was his first reaction. Again we'll coach that up and continue to coach those situations that come up."
On how Oregon handled the road environment playing in front of 90,414 at sold-out Memorial Stadium:
"Good and bad and again, this is me, first as far as we had guys who lost their composure. Four instances of personal fouls that really hurt us and a couple other decision-making things that went down. Just as far as the atmosphere I thought they handled the crowd noise better than you might expect and did a lot of good things despite the outcome, but that's obviously something we're heavily focused on and the million things we could have done, we all could have done differently to change it."
On whether Oregon can curb excessive penalties through practice this week:
"Just that, demand it and we're going to have a little discussion about that tomorrow and we're going to have a team deal and just continue to hammer away at it. The obviously we had one guy who's had an issue with it repeatedly, a couple of those came out of left field. Part of that is just composure. One was a situation where he was the second guy to react and you know how that always plays out. Again, can't do that, especially in that situation, giving them a free first down and a total swing of field position."
On OLB Johnny Ragin III and DT Austin Maloata's play:
"Defensively, again, we played a lot harder despite when we got kick catch interference, a couple guys let up, we covered better. We also covered better and kind of pulled up and the ball is on the ground, so just all those little six inches more play and there's two game-impacting, game-changing plays. Just seeing that in the wake of a loss makes it that much tougher but hopefully almost that much more durable and everlasting as far as the lessons learned."
On the process for determining when to go for two points after a touchdown:
"Anything that's bad in this program is my responsibility so any element of that that's bad is my fault. We've done it for many years, a lot of teams do what we do in terms of trying to get an ideal look and if it's there, run it and if it's not, shift back in and kick it. We need to, I need to coach that better and get a total understanding of what we want done and we will get that done."
On the timing between Dakota Prukop and his receivers and whether it's behind where Vernon Adams Jr. was a year ago:
"I don't know that it's necessarily a chemistry issue. I think there's just things again we need to coach the execution, coach the rhythm, coach the timing, the route tops, there's stuff on both ends of the throw and the connection that are involved in that. A lot of the times when it's a throw that misses by six inches there's some other thing in play but I think the overall chemistry there is good."
On Oregon's three-and-out drive late in the second quarter, and the swing of energy Nebraska received after scoring on its ensuing drive to end the half:
"Well that was certainly a huge swing. Anytime going for it on fourth down we convert, that's a big deal but the 20-7 and getting the big punt return, that's a huge play. Again, we had it perfectly fit and we just need to stop, literally stop and make a guy fair catch it and tackle him. Again we've got to coach that and execute it."
On whether it was hard to hear the officials' whistle amid the crowd noise:
"Sometimes. I don't think that was the instance yesterday. I think the officials do have a tendency to not blow the whistle because they're worried about a fumble, which I understand, let replay take its course. Which is tough. But this is 100 percent on us and on me."
On whether teams are more focused in the week after a loss:
"I sure hope so. that will say a lot about how we respond and there are guys that don't really, whether it's punt coverage for instance we can talk until we're blue in the face that hey, this guy is going to drop it, this guy is going to drop it — and he does and you're four feet away from it instead of a foot away from it. That's a big deal in the wake of a loss. All the little things we do as coaches, all the details of communication, everything that everybody talks about is amplified. So yeah I do think it takes to that point for some guys in this generation to really get slapped in the face, that you try to reinforce after a victory…..
On how much youth is to blame for penalties:
"I don't think it necessarily was youth. You look at some of our most experienced guys had penalties. That's again where those guys need to rise up above all that and play sounds and disciplined, particularly when you have other guys out at those positions. Again, that's on me, that's on all of us."
On whether this loss can bring UO closer as a team like after Michigan State in 2015:
"Certainly you want to respond, rebound, play better, come together, galvanize, all those things we'll talk about. There were some similarities. This was a little bit different, got up more, had a couple chances to make plays. Even when that ball was up in the air to Charles (Nelson) at the end I'm laughing to myself, 'After everything that just happened?' You know. That gets knocked down. Frustrating. Great environment, both places were great environments and gotta turn the page."
On the struggles of Oregon's run defense:
"That's one aspect that we need to improve a ton. I don't think that's any secret. That's not always the defensive line. It's kind of like the quarterback overthrows and it's automatically the quarterback's fault. It's route-involved, protection-involved, there's run fits by the linebackers, there's run fits by the secondary, all those things that kind of go together. Certainly that will be a different challenge in terms of how they probably deploy themselves playing Colorado, but some very similar plays and actions, so there will be a little bit of carry over."
On the running backs' overall performance without Royce Freeman:
"Pretty well protection-wise, situationally pretty good. We talked about this morning — 300 yards rushing, no turnovers and lose. That's, again, the two-point aspect, the penalties, just kind of highlights those again. By in large, first big time when he was out, they did well."
On whether OG Cameron Hunt, with a personal foul in each game this season, will have a shot to start again this week or if he'll be held out:
"We'll see. We're going to kind of manage some of that stuff in-house. We've got a couple things that a few people are going to get done, not necessarily just him. A personal foul a week is too many."
On how Oregon punishes players who rack up too many penalties, such as personal fouls:
"Yeah, we do some stuff daily and we do some stuff as a team. That's going to change this week. We handle that in-house, yeah."
On whether receivers Tristen Wallace and Dillon Mitchell could have their redshirt seasons burned:
"We'll see. That's one spot, those guys are very dynamic, they're kind of in various stages in terms of just knowledge of the system. We'll see. They're very talented guys and one and/or the other hasn't been totally available. We'll see where that goes from here."
On the aspects where Oregon is either farther ahead or behind schedule from what Helfrich expected after the nonconference schedule:
"We're so much in the day to day of trying to make everything better. Obviously defensively have to stop the run better and we'll continue to be tested as we roll along here. Our DBs played better but now we need to clean up all the penalties and some of those self-inflicted wounds. Not happy with the penalties in the last two games, came out very well in that first game. Nothing is where it needs to be or totally beyond where it should be. We're just in improvement-mode across the board."