Willie Taggart, Oregon begin climb back after Ducks' quick descent

EUGENE, Ore. — Months now since the paint dried, it is still jarring. All over the Oregon football facility — and correspondingly, within adjacent Autzen Stadium — the formerly ubiquitous “Win the Day” slogan has been erased. In its place: “Do Something.”

If that feels somehow incomplete, it is. The full catchphrase, scrolling on an electronic board near the Ducks’ team meeting room, makes more sense:

Blame No One

Make No Excuses

Do Something

For the first time in a long time, the Ducks are doing something else. Come Saturday, when Oregon plays host to Southern Utah, they’ll be led out of the tunnel by the Duck riding that motorcycle. They’ll wear the latest new uniform and play fast. Just like always.

SATURDAY'S GAME
Southern Utah at Oregon Ducks
TV:
5:15 p.m., Pac-12 Network

But everyone around here hopes the Ducks do something different than last season’s 4-8, which led to the ouster of Mark Helfrich — and by extension, the end of the culture created by Chip Kelly.

Oregon’s rise to upper echelon of college football was fast and furiously fun. Its fall — less than two years after playing for a national championship — was equally precipitous. Which is why the old tagline is conspicuously absent. It’s clear new coach Willie Taggart has not done any marketing surveys or checked with the creatives. What should Oregon’s brand be?

“Get it back to a winning brand,” Taggart says. “Tough. Fun to watch. A disciplined football team.”

It’s the kind of thing all coaches say, especially newcomers to a difficult situation. What’s still wild, Taggart says, is how that describes what he found at Oregon. He was like most others; from afar, he saw Oregon as a model of how to rapidly build a winner.

“You heard ‘Oregon,’ ” he says, “you knew new uniforms, you knew the style of offense, you knew they won a lot.”

And he knew they were suddenly losing a lot. In any failure, there are multiple factors. Competitors adapt to — sometimes by adopting — the innovations. Sometimes recruits don’t pan out, or coaching staffs go stale. Sometimes guys get injured, while other guys grow complacent. Sometimes the ball just bounces funny. Sometimes it’s some combination of all of the above, and more.

“I found a fractured football team,” Taggart says, and then explains: “I didn’t think our football team liked each other. … You talk to some of the guys, they’d tell you they weren’t close, there was a lot of division from within, which kind of tells in how the season went. We had to get that repaired.”

Players say a creeping sense of entitlement had enveloped the program. The Hatfield-Dowlin Complex is perhaps the best facility in college football, but last season, many of the Ducks spent very little time there.

“Guys definitely took it a little bit for granted,” sophomore linebacker Troy Dye says. “Guys weren’t going to (medical) treatment. Guys weren’t using the right nutrition. It was just guys trying to do their own things.”

By contrast, Taggart describes himself as “old school in this new building.” A protégé of Jim Harbaugh, he says the program will take on a “blue collar mentality.” The uptempo offense will be “lethal simplicity.” And Taggart won’t quite say it, but a big part of his emphasis has been in getting back to the basics, on and especially off the field.

“There were a lot of people who worked their tails off to get us where we’re at and to get these things,” Taggart says. “We owe it to work our tails off to get it back.”

Even the approach to uniforms will change, if only a bit. Taggart says the Ducks won’t sport a new look for every game.

“I don’t think that’s the reason we got to where we got,” Taggart says. “We won’t have 12 weeks worth of uniforms. We could. We’re just gonna get back to what’s important. That’s playing football and winning games. Those uniforms don’t look well when you don’t play well.”

After an uneven start last winter when three players were hospitalized after a conditioning workout and an assistant coach was fired after he was arrested for driving under the influence, Taggart’s makeover has apparently gone well.

“You wanted everything to just go smooth,” Taggart says, “but that’s not the world we live in. … I always think you can take some good out of a lot of things that happen. I felt we did as a program. I thought it brought us closer.”

He instituted team dinners three times a week, and mandatory breakfasts — all part of an effort to mend those fractures and fissures, to build teamwork and togetherness.

“I think everyone is really excited to play,” says sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. “Guys wake up and they’re excited to practice and they’re excited to go lift weights and there are people around here watching film. Everyone’s just real excited to be here.”

Those are all good signs, of course, if not unexpected when a team buys in to a new coach’s pitch. But what ails Oregon is more than entitlement. As Taggart tries to rebuild “quick, fast and in a hurry,” he’ll do it with a depth chart for Game 1 that includes 33 freshmen or sophomores.

“Every year our goal is to win the Pac-12 championship,” Taggart says. “We’re not going to waver from that. But we also know there’s a lot of work to be done to get there. We’re just gonna try to be better than we were last year and move toward that goal of winning that championship and knowing anything is possible.”

He pauses, then adds: “Got to stay healthy, though. We don’t have a lot of depth.”

Oregon might have a rising star in Herbert, who emerged at midseason and became one of the few bright spots in 2016. Taggart says the return of senior running back Royce Freeman and senior offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby, who both contemplated leaving for the NFL, was important.

The biggest immediate issue is defense. Even during their rise, the Ducks were known for scoring touchdowns, not for stopping them. But in the best seasons, Oregon’s defense was better than decent. Last season, though, Oregon allowed opponents an average of 41.4 points and 518.4 yards, ranking 126th of 128 FBS programs in both stats.

Lowlights included giving up 70 points to rival Washington at Autzen. And that wasn’t the first such embarrassment, either. A year earlier, Utah had blown out Oregon 62-20 in Eugene. And in the Alamo Bowl to finish that 2015 season, Oregon blew a 31-0 halftime lead and lost to TCU.

“It was well-deserved,” Dye says of the criticism. “We were the worst defense in the Pac-12.”

Taggart’s hire of veteran defensive coach Jim Leavitt, along with an overhaul of the scheme from the 4-3 to a 3-4, promises improvement.

“He’s turned around a lot of places,” Dye says, “brought the defense from the bottom to the top.”

Beyond that, fans are abuzz over current recruiting rankings that have Oregon tucked nicely into the top 10 (though Taggart notes remaining there until signing day, even with the new December date, is the trick). But the general expectations at Oregon haven’t decreased.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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