Week 11: A wasted Duck dynasty
November, 12, 2013
By Ryan McGee | ESPN.com
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsThe Ducks' Josh Huff hobbled off the field with an injury in the fourth quarter Thursday.For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our "Story of the Season" double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
JOSH HUFF WON'T apologize for getting emotional.
"For those of you makin jokes of me cryin idc," the wide receiver tweeted (@Huff_Era_1) Friday morning after Oregon's loss to Stanford. "It hurt like hell seeing everything we worked so hard for be tossed out the window."
No image better illustrated the gravity of Week 11 -- the biggest regular-season Thursday night in college football history -- than the seemingly endless shots of the senior leader agonizing on the Ducks sideline. As Pac-12 rival Stanford had their way with the nation's third-ranked team, television cameras showed Huff fighting back tears as he talked to quarterback Marcus Mariota. They showed him sitting alone on the bench, repeatedly pounding his head in agony. He screamed. He wept. He refused to retreat to the locker room to be examined by athletic trainers for what might be a concussion, choosing to stand with his teammates.
And the fourth quarter had barely started.
The reality is that Huff's tears were about more than just Thursday night, a crushing 26-20 loss that likely jerked Pac-12 and BCS title game destiny from the Ducks' stylishly gloved hands. His emotions were certainly about more than just his personal performance, a season-low three catches for 42 yards before a third-quarter hit to the neck that left him looking dizzy and disoriented.
This was about the hard truth of another lost Oregon season beginning to settle in. As the BCS era winds down these last few weeks and we begin to focus on the 16-year big picture, Oregon stands among the elite. They have five BCS bowl appearances, two each in the Fiesta and Rose and one in the 2010 championship game. That's more than Miami, Notre Dame and Texas. They have made more appearances in the weekly BCS standings than all but five schools, ranked ahead of the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and USC. All of this from a program that spent decades as an afterthought.
To think: The Ducks have appeared in four consecutive BCS bowls after earning just six bowl bids from 1894-1988. Their Nike-fueled uniform changes and breakneck style of play have become the embodiment of new-school football, the flag-carriers for the ever-growing sentiment of "Won't someone finally knock off the SEC?!" Even with the loss, should Oregon win out, they will likely still be in a BCS bowl, perhaps a must-see, batten-down-the-hatches shootout with Clemson.
It should all feel so satisfying. But it does not. The days of finding personal pride in being the new kid on the BCS block are long gone. Instead, as Oregon's place on the top shelf has become solidified, the sting of the long string of what-could-have-beens has become more acute: playing flat in Palo Alto on Thursday night, a loss perhaps made more painful by an inspired late rally; the 17-14 overtime loss at home to Stanford one year ago; the three-point loss to USC at home in 2011; and Auburn running back Michael Dyer's knee-defying physics (and the referees' defying their reflexes to correctly not blow whistles) in the fourth quarter of the 2010 BCS title game. And that weird 10-point loss at unranked Arizona in 2007 that sent their season spiraling to the Sun Bowl.
It's all of that added up that makes Thursday night's marquee loss -- during a week noted for the $20 green-and-gold "We Want Bama" T-shirts for sale outside Autzen Stadium -- so painful for both Huff and his fellow Ducks. To so many fans, his was supposed to be the senior class that finally exorcised the old image. Indeed, it was his classmates that first-year head coach Mark Helfrich credited with taking over the visitor's locker room immediately following the loss and "already talking in the right way."
"I got too much PASSION for this game," Huff continued via Twitter, moments after calling out his critics, "and would absolutely KILL behind anyone of my teammates. It ain't over believe it. #DucksFOREVER"
You could hear in Helfrich's voice that he was conflicted (over or not?) as he chatted with the media Sunday afternoon. When asked about the emotional state of his team, specifically his seniors and Huff, he had this to say: "Those guys more than anybody know that there’s still so much to play for. The national championship … I don't know, I don't know where that fits. Obviously it's different than it was last week. There is so much more to play for than just the external. So many of those guys are intrinsically motivated, and their teammates are motivators. We expect him and those other guys to bounce back."
Most seem to agree that the BCS formula needs to be put out to pasture. But those in the Pacific Northwest shouldn't dance on its grave. That system, no matter how convoluted, has been good to the Ducks. Math doesn't factor in a perception of "they always lose one big game per year." A room full of College Football Playoff selection committee members might not find it so easy to ignore.
Immediately following Oregon's Week 9 42-14 win over UCLA (the game before The Game), when the Ducks were still No. 3 and still undefeated, running back De'Anthony Thomas was downright defiant about watching the BCS standings and sizing up his team against Alabama and Florida State. “We can’t worry about polls," he said.
Now they don't have that luxury.
"talking to my moms/pops made that loss (sic) a little bit easier to swallow," Huff tweeted Sunday evening before walking away from his keyboard for the night. "back to the drawing boards tomorrow."