A bye week is exactly what the doctor ordered for the now second-ranked Oregon Ducks, who are coming off of a brutal conference road victory over the Utah Utes.
While the Ducks (9-1, 6-1) came away with a 24-point win against the former No. 17-ranked team in the country, they paid a high price for the victory.
Oregon lost tight end Pharaoh Brown to a season-ending knee injury, All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu to a knee injury and All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a toe injury.
The Ducks have two weeks to prepare for a lowly Colorado team that is 2-8 on the season and 4-30 against Pac-12 opponents since it joined the conference in 2011.
Oregon shouldn’t completely overlook the Buffaloes. However, the Ducks will essentially have a bye week and a preseason game to get the injury replacements up to speed and ready for Oregon State and the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5.
Oregon left the field at Rice-Eccles stadium battered, bruised and in need of a break in the schedule. Thankfully, the schedule broke in its favor this season. The program needs to take full advantage of its second hiatus of the season and get all its ducks in a row, so to speak.
Here’s what the Ducks need to accomplish during their second bye week of the season.
It stands to reason that center Doug Brenner will be starting for the Ducks come Nov. 22 against Colorado.
While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Grasu could return, it seems unlikely considering the opponent and the condition Grasu left the field in on Nov. 8—though the program does not release injury updates.
Though Brenner struggled a bit with low snaps against Utah, he generally played well in relief of Grasu. Head coach Mark Helfrich told Andrew Greif of The Oregonian that he and the team have a ton of confidence in Brenner:
Doug played really well. He had a couple low snaps. That one snap that got away from Marcus, Marcus just kind of -- that's one of the hardest things about our offense. You're thinking about seven different things and oh by the way you have to see the ball into my hands just like a receiver and it just went right through his hands. He was trying to get the ball out quickly and just missed it. Again, a ton of confidence in Doug. He played really well with the exception of the low snaps against a very, very good front.
Any time a program loses a center, it can be devastating to an offensive line. When that center is a fifth-year senior who had started 50 consecutive games dating back to 2011, it’s a whole different beast.
However, the Ducks have survived a ton of injuries along the offensive line and the reserves have done an admirable job so far—even though they’ve allowed quarter Marcus Mariota to be sacked a career-high 23 times so far this season.
The only center Mariota has ever known is Grasu, so bringing in Brenner on a full-time basis—even if it’s only for one or two games—will be an adjustment and it’s likely there will be growing pains.
Fortunately for the Ducks, their remaining opponents on the regular-season schedule aren’t exactly the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Colorado and Oregon State are ranked No. 74 and No. 50, respectively, in the country in sacks this season. Moreover, the Buffaloes are ranked No. 120 in the country in scoring defense, while the Beavers are ranked No. 87 in the same category.
The Ducks should be able to score at will on both Colorado and Oregon State. The hope is that Oregon will have Grasu back by the time it plays in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium.
If that doesn’t happen, at least Brenner will have two games under his belt at center and a minimum of four weeks of practice time with Mariota before that championship game.
While the Grasu injury is troublesome, there is speculation within the program that starting tackle Andre Yruretagoyena is making progress and may be able to play at some point before the end of the regular season.
Yruretagoyena is practicing with the team and recently told Ryan Thorburn of The Register-Guard, “I'm doing really well, just a little bit of this, a little bit of that in practice."
The most important thing the Oregon coaches and players can do during the next two weeks is get reserve players up to speed and ready to start against Colorado.
Let’s start with the cornerback position. While senior corner Ekpre-Olomu says he will “definitely” be ready to go against Colorado, according to The Oregonian's Greif, Ducks coaches should be preparing redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Seisay just in case.
According to Ekpre-Olumu, he injured his big toe on his left foot but says he’s not too concerned about it.
"I'm not really too concerned, especially having an extra week off, but I think I'll be all right," said Ekpre-Olomu. "I've been dealing with a lot of different foot injuries on this same foot but I'm all right. I just tweaked my toe, my big toe.”
The Ducks are going to need Ekpre-Olomu’s presence—if healthy—because Colorado features one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the entire country in Nelson Spruce.
Spruce, a junior, is averaging 109.1 yards per game this season and has caught 11 touchdowns, which ranks second in the country. Spruce also leads the nation in catches with 99 through 10 games this season.
If Oregon is without the services of its leading cornerback, it'll have to depend on a combination of Dior Mathis, Troy Hill and Seisay. All three have played a significant amount this season, but it’s clear that Seisay will be the one who will have to step up if Ekpre-Olomu is not ready to go.
On the season, Seisay has played in eight games and has 16 tackles and two passes defended. He has also forced a fumble.
Going from a reserve role to facing one of the best wide receivers in college football is a daunting task, but it’s one the 6’1”, 187-pound corner should be ready for by Nov. 22.
Even without Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks' secondary should play well against Colorado and Oregon State.
The position the Oregon coaches quickly need to find a fix for is tight end.
Greif reported that Brown is out for the season. Here is part of Helfrich's statement regarding Brown’s injury:
Due to the nature and significance of his situation definitely going to comment on that. Pharoah didn't travel with the team, he wasn't allowed to travel just due to the nature of the injury. He's in Salt Lake City still, we don't know exactly how long that's gonna take. He needs to go through a couple of procedures here in the next, again in it's a generalized three-to-seven days approximately to get as best a foundation as can be had going forward for his long-term prognosis which we don't know at this point at all. He's out for the season.
It’s a huge blow to the program and devastating news for a young man who was really coming along as a student-athlete. Injuries happen in sports and the Ducks know they must move on and try to find a suitable replacement for a player who ranked second in the nation in touchdowns by a tight end.
The obvious candidate to replace Brown is sophomore tight end Johnny Mundt. As a true freshman in 2013, Mundt burst onto the scene against Tennessee with five catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
However, Brown has clearly overshadowed him since then and Mundt has only caught two passes for 29 yards so far this season.
Oregon has two other options at tight end with Evan Baylis and Koa Ka’ai. Baylis, a redshirt sophomore, has caught one pass this season for eight yards. Ka’ai, a redshirt junior, has yet to make a reception.
When asked about the options at tight end, Helfrich told Greif he will evaluate who should be the guy going forward over the next two weeks:
Whoever is next will be ready to roll and obviously over the next two weeks we'll kind of evaluate what the best deal is going forward, whether it's one or two tight ends, one or two receivers here and there. But we have a ton of confidence in those guys. They've played, between those two and Koa Ka'ai, they've played a lot and we'll be ready to rock come Colorado.
Whoever it is at tight end—whether it be Mundt, Baylis or Ka’ai—is going to be very involved in the offense going forward and will be expected to pick up right where Brown left off.
While the Ducks will certainly expect their new tight end to be a downfield threat, their most important duties will be as a blocker for running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, as well as Mariota when he decides to scramble.
If the new tight end can come in and be a competent blocker, the Ducks will feel much better about their chances at succeeding offensively without the presence of Brown.
It’s imperative that the Ducks are ready to go against Colorado on Nov. 22. If the Ducks' season were a Broadway play, they would be entering the third act. The first act ended in a loss, the second act ended with injuries. The Ducks are hoping the third act ends in a celebration on the field at Levi’s Stadium.
The Oregon program is three wins shy of a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. It must be rested, healthy and focused in order to get there.
This precious bye week affords the team the opportunity to do all three. The Ducks must take advantage of it.
Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.
Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.