EUGENE - Welcome to the new normal for Oregon. It involves close games against once-middling teams that come down to the wire. Matchups that require greater attention to detail to win. Contests that these Ducks have yet to prove they can emerge from victorious.
The Ducks, after losing 41-38 at home to Colorado on Saturday, are 3-5 in games decided by seven points or less dating back to last season, and have lost three such games in a row dating back to the Alamo Bowl debacle. Since the Ducks became national title contenders in 2010, Oregon is 7-10 in close contests with just 14 losses in seven seasons.
Essentially, when opponents keep games close they have had a better than 50 percent chance of winning. That's bad news for Oregon given that the Ducks (2-2) are likely to play in many more close games this season in what looks to be a balanced Pac-12 Conference led by No. 7 Stanford and No. 10 Washington. The question for Oregon is if it has enough talent and discipline to win the vast majority of such games in order to contend in the North Division. So far, the answer is no.
That reality led to a players-only meeting following Monday's practice held for the team to yell, point fingers, clear the air and redirect this sinking ship in the right direction.
"I think maybe that's what the team needed, is to get called out at certain positions," senior guard Cameron Hunt said.
The result was a spirited, fast and physical practice on Tuesday that coaches and players called one of the team's best, especially for the defense, which has woefully under-performed and blown fourth-quarter leads in losses at No. 15 Nebraska and to Colorado.
Too often Oregon blames itself for losses rather than give much credit to the opposition. However, there is no denying that in their last three defeats the Ducks committed gross unforced errors late in the games that contributed greatly to them losing.
From 2010 through 2014, Oregon found itself in only nine close games out of 68 contests (13.2 percent). Mistakes made in other games were covered up with blowout victories. However, the post-Marcus Mariota (2012-2014) coupled with the dramatic improvement of offenses within the conference have led to the Ducks finding themselves in eight close games out of 17 played (47.1 percent) dating back to the start of last season.
So what's to blame for the failure in close games?
Some outside of the program blame coach Mark Helrich and his staff. The players, however blame themselves.
"I think our effort was terrible, both sides of the ball, special teams," Hunt said. "I think we can do a lot better and that's something that shouldn't be questioned. Or effort should be full-go. There shouldn't be anything left in the tank when the game is over."
Part of the problem liess with younger players who arrive at Oregon with a grandiose sense of self worth without ever having accomplished anything at the college level.
"That entitlement, that cannot exist," Helfrich said.
It did a bit in 2013, leading to veteran leaders such as Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu working to eliminate bad attitudes among players. The result was a run to the national title game during the 2014 season. Now today's veterans are out to perform the same type of eradication project.
"We have a lot of young players on the team who really don't understand the culture and how we do stuff here," Hunt said. "That's something that is non-negotiable, 100 percent effort on every play, best you've got."
All that said, the veterans also share heavily in the blame, according to senior wide receiver Dwayne Stanford.
"It's not just the younger guys making mistakes," he said.
Stanford also added veterans must share in the mistakes made by younger players within their position groups.
"If a receiver messes up, that's on me," Stanford said.
One young player who certainly gets it is linebacker Troy Dye, who had a lot to say about the defense's lackluster performance.
"There's too many missed tackles, lack of effort," Dye said. "It's the effort and the fight and the hunger. We have to want it more."
In Helfrich's experience, sometimes it takes failure for players to realize the importance of executing the little things within a game plan. He said that often times failure on a second down in the second quarter is as important as a poorly thrown pass that's intercepted in the fourth quarter.
Plus, nothing screams undisciplined like frequent penalties. Oregon ranks last in the conference in total penalties (41) and penalty yards per game (97.2). Stanford, in three games, has committed just 13 penalties for 32 yards per game.
If the players-only meeting helps reaffirm the understanding that they must play with more discipline and effort, the Ducks could turn the corner.
"I think those kinds of things are almost always positive in the end," Helfrich said of the team meeting held on the field following practice. "Like a lot of things there's words and then there's actions and commitments that come out of things."
Oregon next plays at 1-2 Washington State on Saturday. The Ducks are the superior team. Both teams are in desperation mode. Oregon could win going away. Or, if the players-only meeting doesn't pay off, the Ducks could find themselves in another close game they could easily lose.
Oregon's discipline, or lack thereof, could determine its fate.
"I hate losing," Hunt said. "I bet you a lot of guys on our team hate losing, as well. So, I mean, you hate it, but what are you going to do now to fix it? That's the big question. It's up to some of these guys on the team whether they want to grow up fast and fix it or if not, we're going to continue to lose."