Virginia trip a step up for Oregon
September, 4, 2013
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com
Mark Helfrich had a simple goal in his first game as Oregon's head coach: self-preservation.
Said the longtime offensive coordinator, "I hadn't been on the sideline for a game since 1996, so that in and of itself was a new experience, trying to not get killed when someone was running on the sidelines."
Of course, against woeful Nicholls State, Helfrich might have won the one-on-one battle. Oregon piled up 772 yards of offense -- 500 rushing -- without really trying that hard in a 66-3 victory.
The contest operated pretty much as a preseason game for Helfrich and his staff, eight of whom remained behind when Chip Kelly bolted for the Philadelphia Eagles. There were some minor logistical issues to get used to -- "Mark, do we want to accept or decline this penalty?" -- but otherwise it was business as usual, Helfrich said.
Expect the intensity to ratchet up a bit for the Ducks' visit to Virginia. For one, Charlottesvile is 2,400 miles and three times zones away. That type of cross-country travel is never easy on a team. Second, Virginia is a solid ACC squad, one that opened with a defensive-minded win over BYU.
The Ducks are a three-touchdown-plus favorite, but the Cavaliers have the size and athleticism to -- at least -- keep things interesting.
"They're very good," Helfrich said. "It's a completely different test."
Virginia is an interesting team. While Mike London's seat isn't necessarily hot after going 16-21 his first three seasons -- his 2014 recruiting class currently ranks 21st in the nation -- he did massively overhaul his 2012 staff, adding a ton of college coaching experience. He hired former NC State coach Tom O'Brien as associate head coach, former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild as offensive coordinator and former Georgia Tech and Notre Dame defensive coordinator John Tenuta to lead his defense.
That's a lot of experience going against a first-time head coach. Of course, Helfrich has other things going for him, such as three offensive players who rushed for more than 100 yards last week in QB Marcus Mariota, RB De'Anthony Thomas and RB Byron Marshall, and perhaps the best secondary in college football.
Further, the Pac-12 does pretty well when going east, and Oregon leads the way. Since 2000, the Pac-12 is 26-23 when playing in the Eastern time zone. The Ducks are 3-0 during that span, beating Michigan (2007), Purdue (2008) and Tennessee (2010).
As the Ducks' former offensive coordinator, Helfrich is not like most new head coaches. He knows his school's travel routines. The Ducks will do everything in preparation for this road trip just as they did under Kelly. And, for that matter, under Mike Bellotti.
Still, there are some concerns. The Ducks' opener against Nicholls State didn't produce only bouquets and rainbows during film study. For one, the team's most questionable position -- linebacker -- flashed some ability as well as vulnerability. Helfrich noted too many missed tackles, which means the starting spots are presently written in pencil.
"We're still going to have a competitive situation there," Helfrich said.
Although the Ducks are big favorites, a trip to Virginia will offer a far more substantial test for Helfrich's team than last weekend's walkover. Don't expect Oregon to average 11.1 yards per carry this weekend.
It's so far, so good for Helfrich, but there is so much more up ahead. Or as he volunteered, "I think we'll be tested a little bit differently in future games, but I think we're off to a good start."