Monday, November 11, 2013

November 11, 2013
"Practice? We're talking about practice?"

Yes, Allen Iverson, we are going to talk about practice.

Iverson was famously quoted after missing some practice time and, while some diminish the importance of practice, I am not wont to do so.

Coaches often bark out that they want to see you practice like you're going play. They want the same kind of focus, energy and attention to detail as they are going to expect in a game. The best players can rarely practice half assed and "turn it on" for a game.

While speed and aggression may be turned up just a notch on game day with the emotions of the competition, focus, attention to detail and discipline do not magically appear on game day; they must be part of your preparation.

Football is a unique sport because it involves 11 players who all depend on each other to be in the right spot, at the right time in order to be successful. If less than 10 percent of a unit makes a mistake, the play will likely fail.

At the beginning of a season, there are often kinks to be worked out. Teams need time to get the feel of a game going and start firing on all cylinders. The NFL has pre-season partially for this very reason (the other reason, of course, is player evaluation to make roster cuts) while college football has non-conference games to help with this rhythm. While no one wants to necessarily see the slaughter of an inferior team, those games help make teams better.

At teh beginning of the 2013 season, the Oregon Duck football team was not only breaking in several new players, as all college football teams do every year, they were also breaking in a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator. Though things looked good on the surface through the fist several games; but there were cracks that did not show much until the Ducks played Stanford.

I don't think the Stanford game was lost because the "Ducks aren't big enough." Utah does not have anywhere near the talent or depth along either the offensive or defensive line, but they handed the Cardinal their lone loss of the season.

This story is not about the Stanford loss; but about the bigger problem that leads to the losses.

While coaches say that you play how you practice, that means there can be a lot of inference about a team's practice habits based on their game performance.

The 2013 Ducks, simply put, lack discipline on offense; specifically the offensive line. Watching the UCLA game on tape, there were plenty of mistakes that went unnoticed because other players overcame those mistakes; that can happen when a team has the superior offensive players and a speed and depth advantage.

What happens, though, when a team that lacks discipline comes across a team that has the same talent level, but more discipline? Well, the team without discipline tends to lose that match-up.

I have heard from more than one person who has been inside a practice session this season that this team does not practice with the same kind of discipline this year as in years past. It shows.

Jake Fisher has had more 15 yard penalties than I care to count; most of them are discipline issues and not effort penalties. He has seemingly committed at least one such penalty in every game he has played this season.

The Duck football team is 115th in the nation in penalites; only seven teams have more yards per game in penalties than Oregon. That is a lack of discipline.

Other areas where Oregon is markedly less effective this season include red zone efficiency where the Ducks scored over 90% of the time last season with a TD ratio of 80.8 percent. This season those numbers have dropped to 75.9 and 68.5 % respectively.

The difference is even more striking on fourth down conversions where Oregon converted 64.5 % of the time in 2012 and are converting just 45.8 percent this season. The list could go on, including what the defense allows in those situations. Suffice it to say, though, that the 2012 team was better in just about every manner.

More troubling, though, is that it was not the players who were the problem last Thursday. The coaches asked us to blame them after the game. They should be blamed. The lack of discipline on this team is striking and is at the core of the teams problems this season. Many of those problems were masked by margins of victory so lopsided that the signs were missed by many.

Marcus Mariota, at 100%, can overcome so many problems. His ability overshadowed those deficiencies. His inability to do so Thursday was magnified by significantly better competition.

No, Thursday's debacle lay squarely on the shoulders of the coaches as it should.

The Ducks were moving the ball effectively during the first two drives. It seemed as if, once the team fell behind 14-0, the coaches pressed some sort of panic button; and the players responded to that panic.

Teams play how they practice; teams mimic their coaches emotions.

On Thursday, much of the cracks in teh armour came to light.

Fear not, though, as the head coach and offensive coordinator are VERY young and will learn from this game.

I do not get the impression that we are back to "Bellotti Ball" with this staff. Mike Bellotti was "old-school" in his approach to football. He punted on fourth down, kicked field goals from 42 yards in, unless he was "forced" into fourth down conversion attempts.

Mark Helfrich has a little too much Dan Hawkins and not enough Nick Saban in him. I expect that to change.

You can be sure that Helfrich is smart enough to recognize the lack of discipline now. It's easy to overlook when your closest game is a 21 point victory on the road. It is impossible to ignore when you get dominated for three plus quarters.

If he ignores it now, then there are bigger problems ahead than the size of any lineman. Let us all hope that the size and physicality of the Oregon offensive and defensive linemen are our biggest concern.


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