When Dennis Dixon tore his knee against Arizona last year, ending his front-runner status for the Heisman Trophy and Oregon's reign as the 2nd ranked team in the nation, I thought it couldn't get any worse as a Duck fan. And while that remains true, how could anyone predict that the team would, in the last four games of 2007 following Dixon's loss and first four of 2008, go through eight different quarterbacks?
Quarterback is usually the one position that doesn't change out very much. But for Oregon, it's a once-in-a-century rash of injuries has cursed a team otherwise as talented as any in college football.
After Dixon was lost last year, the Ducks turned to Brady Leaf at quarterback, who also quickly got injured. By the time of Oregon's season ended with the Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve, Cade Cooper, Cody Kempt and Justin Roper had all seen action as well.
This season, Nate Costa was slated to be the starter, but was lost for the season to a knee injury in practice (for the second year in a row) a few days before the 2008 campaign began. Roper then became the starter, but partially tore his knee in the third game against Purdue. Last week against an inarguably inferior Boise State team, the new Ducks starter at quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, left the game with a concussion. He was replaced by freshman Chris Harper, who can run well but can't yet pass very well at all. So with Oregon trailing 37-13 after a succession of self-inflicted mistakes, coach Mike Bellotti replaced Harper with another freshman, Darron Thomas. Playing his first minutes of college action, Thomas led Oregon to three fourth-quarter touchdowns as the team nearly pulled off an astonishing comeback before losing 37-32.
The silver lining in all of this may be that in Darron Thomas the Ducks have found, along with Justin Roper, a talent who can fulfill the dream that Dixon began. "It's one loss. Not the whole season," my friend and Ducks blogger Bob Rickert told me. "They found a QB. Thomas is the man. Play him." But in both the Thomas and Roper cases, the coaches turned to these kids only after trying out several others. Is it that impossible to tell the difference between who looks good in practice and who will perform in a real game?
Granted, it can be ambiguous or counter-intuitive. When I interviewed former Oregon coach Rich Brooks for my history of Ducks football, Tales from the Oregon Ducks Sideline, he recalled how in the late '80s, quarterback Bill Musgrave had always looked less talented in practice than Pete Nelson. But he had a gut feeling Musgrave was still the right choice, and Brooks was proven right. However lanky and assuming he may have appeared, Musgrave was magical as an Oregon starting quarterback. The times he was injured and Nelson played in relief, calling Nelson's performance mediocre would have been charitable.
Brooks was no soothsayer, and in making Musgrave starter he went against the recommendations of his assistant coaches. But the head coach was able to discern in practices from how Musgrave played in scrimmages versus how he looked in isolated drills, and made what he described to me as a "gut decision". Mike Bellotti is Oregon's all-time winningest coach, despite having been at Oregon fewer seasons than Brooks. But if Roper and Thomas were his fourth or fifth options, does he lack Brooks's ability to make the right gut decision?
Far be it for me to say definitively. And certainly one can't blame Mike Bellotti for a rash of injuries that even the most hackneyed fiction writers would shy away from as a plot complication. Even so, when a team is as talented as Oregon, with all the resources the program now enjoys, it sure is frustrating to see the Ducks continually tripped up season after season.
The lower-tier bowls Oregon now attends on a more or less yearly basis would have been a wonderful success to those of us who sat in half-empty Autzen watching the team lose during the 1970s and 80s. But no sports team enjoys great talent and resources forever. I just hope Oregon can take advantage of this window of opportunity before it's gone.
In the past, the opposite problem was often true. The Ducks had excellent quarterbacks like Musgrave, Chris Miller or Dan Fouts, but not enough of a supporting cast to be a great team. Today, Oregon is as deep and talented as any point in the program's history. Can we just keep a decent quarterback healthy? The hard part was supposed to be over.
When the Ducks made it to the Fiesta Bowl in 2001 as Pac-10 Conference champion, it was seven years after the team had played on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl. Now that same period of time has transpired between 2001 and this season. The injuries and the Boise State loss have me in no mood to optimistically dream of a return to glory, but now still has to be the time.