Posted on December 29, 2020
And just like that, the end of the 2020 college football season is upon us.
Roughly eight weeks ago, the Pac-12 kicked off its conference-only schedule, with Oregon being tabbed as the favorite to lift the league crown for a second-straight year under third-year head coach Mario Cristobal.
And while the route to the Pac-12 Championship Game was wrought with frustrating inconsistency and a dose of controversy, Cristobal and the Ducks ultimately fulfilled the promise that was bestowed upon them in the preseason.
However, as the end of the season and Oregon’s Fiesta Bowl date with No. 10-ranked Iowa State draws near, a major question surrounding the immediate future of who starts and stars at quarterback in Eugene has emerged.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Shough, who entered the fall with a strong grip on QB1 atop the Oregon depth chart, has seen his grasp loosen and slip of late, as a string of poor performances over the last month or so have raised considerable doubt as it relates to his long-term viability as the Ducks’ starting quarterback.
Below and over at WFOD, I examine the case for (and against) Tyler Shough remaining as Oregon’s starter at quarterback both heading into Saturday’s New Year’s Six tilt vs. the Cyclones, and beyond.
The case for Tyler Shough remaining as Oregon’s starting quarterback
For some, the rush to supplant Tyler Shough as Oregon’s starting quarterback feels, well…rushed. Tabbed as the Ducks’ clear cut starter even after a truncated spring due to COVID-19, Shough steadfastly held that title through the offseason and through an abnormal fall camp that began in October.
This, despite the April addition of Boston College grad transfer Anthony Brown, a former three-year starter who amassed over 4,700 yards through the air to go along with 40 touchdowns and 20 interceptions during his stint in Chestnut Hill.
In the lead up to the Ducks’ season opener vs. Stanford, Cristobal stated that his decision as to who would start at quarterback between Shough and Brown would be revealed when the Oregon offense took the field for their first possession of the season, though there was never any real doubt (publicly, at least) that Shough would actually be the one who took the first snaps behind center.
And through the first three games of the year, it appeared to be the correct choice.
Against Stanford, Washington State, and UCLA, Shough demonstrated better-than-advertised running ability and athleticism, while also flashing moments of big-play potential through the air, as the Oregon offense under first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead averaged 38.7 points and nearly 500 yards of total offense per game over those first three contests with Shough at the helm.
In fact, one could argue that Shough’s play was one of the more encouraging developments over the first half of the season. In those first three games, Shough rushed for over 80 yards twice, while also passing for over 300 yards twice, as the redshirt sophomore averaged 356.7 yards of total offense during that stretch.
It’s worth noting, too, that Shough is currently ranked as the Pac-12’s highest-rated passer (162.16), while also ranking third in total offense (290.5 yards/game).
Sure, there were moments that clearly revealed Shough’s inexperience and areas of improvement moving forward, but wasn’t that to be expected?
Especially considering the addition of Moorhead and the installation of a new philosophical approach on offense, which had to be executed during an insanely disjointed COVID offseason that didn’t exactly allow for normal hands-on instruction, let alone guarantee that a season would even be played.
Couple that with a completely rebuilt offensive line from the season before, and it makes perfect sense why Shough has endured some ups and downs in his first season as the Ducks’ starter.
Oregon fans have been treated to (if not spoiled by) exceptional quarterback play over the past several decades, but is it really fair to hold the uneven and exhausting nature of 2020 against a player like Shough, who has shown capability and is still developing?
The case against Tyler Shough remaining as Oregon’s starting quarterback
For others, the rush to replace Tyler Shough as Oregon’s starting quarterback feels like a long time coming. Heck, even in this space we have discussed both the critical nature of Shough’s development, as well as opined whether the Pac-12 Championship Game was a make or break moment for the Chandler, Ariz., native.
These sorts of questions weren’t served up simply as in-season fodder for fans and those who follow the program. These were the sorts of questions that were based on fair observations of Shough’s play from Week 1 until now; play that has steadily regressed, regardless of the metric or assessment you prefer to use to analyze his play.
Turnovers and a litany of near-turnovers have been a constant for Shough all season, though he was seemingly able to overcome his mistakes with big plays over the first half of the year.
In recent weeks, however, Shough has not only been turnover-prone, but his confidence and comfort level whilst operating from the pocket has also taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
In addition to throwing five touchdowns against three interceptions in the last three games, Shough’s passer rating has taken a dive, slipping from 150.14 at Oregon State, to 141.17 at Cal, to a season-low 134.96 in the Pac-12 Championship Game vs. USC.
Against the Trojans, Shough looked his most rattled, as his inability to make progressions and deliver confident throws downfield was emphatically reflected in the play-calling, as Shough attempted just three passes total in the second half.
Even for a player enduring some recent struggles, this came off as a stinging indictment as it relates to the coaching staff’s confidence in Shough.
Adding even more intrigue to Shough’s status as the Ducks’ starting quarterback was the comparatively competent (though limited) play of Brown, who received his first in-game action of the season against the Trojans.
Versus USC, Brown was a mainstay in short yardage and red zone situations, tossing two touchdowns en route to completing 3-of-4 passes for 17 yards.
It should be noted that Brown nearly committed two turnovers of his own, with a red zone interception and a fumble in the waning moments of the Pac-12 title game, but generally appeared to be much more composed and capable of running the offense compared to Shough.
Some may argue that benching Shough in favor of Brown would send the wrong message to a player who already seems to be in a fragile place mentally.
The counter to that is, does playing Shough do more harm than good for a team that is seeking its second straight victory in a New Year’s Six bowl game to go along with a second straight conference title?
Brown wasn’t a player who necessarily set the world on fire at Boston College, but his experience and increased role on offense of late might provide the Oregon offense with the shot of momentum it needs in preparing to face a very good Iowa State defense.
At the very least, Duck fans should expect Anthony Brown’s role to expand even more in the Fiesta Bowl, which only serves to widen the door for a truly open quarterback competition in Eugene in 2021.
And regardless of whether Brown takes advantage of the opportunity to return to Oregon for his final season as a grad transfer, the questions surrounding Shough’s starting quarterback status heading into next season only figure to become more pointed, barring an undeniably great (if not unexpected) performance.
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