- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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From a public relations standpoint, Oregon lost too many days in 2013.
From former tight end Colt Lyerla leaving the team and his subsequent drug-related arrest to high-profile players making verbal miscues -- and of course the world’s most watched snowball fight -- the Ducks had more drama than their first-year coach probably would have preferred. A bad November on the field didn’t help, either.
So it was no surprise that after a disappointing bowl placement -- disappointing in the fact that it’s not a BCS bowl game -- Oregon had two of its most respected and well-spoken ambassadors handle the talking.
In the first five minutes of chatting with the media following Sunday’s bowl selection, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu -- both who have decided to pass up the NFL for one more season -- couldn’t work in the words “honor” and “blessed” enough when talking about their spot in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Texas.
Maybe that’s how they really feel. Maybe it’s not. But from here on out, as the Ducks look to rehab their image, the message has to be one of sheer elation and excitement to be playing in a bowl game. Any bowl game.
“This season has been a blessing and an honor to be able to play for such a great team,” Grasu said. “It’s been a lot of fun. A couple of things didn’t go our way but there is no one to blame for that but ourselves. We wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. But it happened. You have to move on. Now we have to worry about what we can control and that’s getting better. Going through finals and then preparing to play Texas in the Alamo Bowl, which is a big honor to play in. That’s all we can control right now.”
Another word they both used a lot was “opportunity.” That’s the key.
This is a big opportunity for Oregon. It’s an opportunity to get coach Mark Helfrich his first bowl victory and reach the 11-win mark, something Chip Kelly didn’t do in his first year. It’s an opportunity to show the recruits that the month of November was simply a hiccup and Oregon football isn’t going anywhere. It’s an opportunity to show the rest of college football that Oregon has neither been exposed nor is on a downward trend.
“It was tough and it is unfortunate,” Mariota said. “But we put ourselves in this predicament. We didn’t give ourselves a lot of room. We had the opportunity. But we’re blessed and it’s a great opportunity and we’re looking forward to it … I think for the most part guys are going to be exited. We have a lot of guys from Texas. A lot of guys that haven’t been to Texas. It’s going to be an awesome, awesome venue. We’re playing one of the most traditional programs in the country.”
Almost every college football fan in the country -- yes, even a few in Oklahoma -- wanted to see Alabama-Oregon in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Even if it weren’t for a national championship, it’s still a dream matchup that has been speculated on for years. But geography, travel and the fact that the SEC and Big 12 have a schedule alliance coming were all contributing factors to the Ducks being on the outside -- despite only losing to Pac-12 champion Stanford and the nation’s best running back in Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. That those losses came in November magnifies their impact.
If there is disappointment in the ranks, and there has to be, now isn’t the time to let it show. Now is the time to exude confidence and humility at the opportunity placed before them. Now is the time for Mariota, who said he hopes to be 100 percent for the bowl game, to go out and show why he deserved to be in New York as a Heisman finalist. He could also start off his 2014 campaign with a bang.
“I don’t think anyone is disappointed,” Grasu said. “It’s an honor to play in this bowl game against Texas. Getting a bowl win in the Alamo Bowl against Texas would a big momentum boost in the offseason and getting ready for next season. It’s really exciting. We have a lot of guys coming back, but we can’t look to next season because we’re preparing to play Texas.”
Oregon’s reputation as an elite program, combined with a bowl win, likely gets them into single digits in the final rankings. Mariota’s return makes them a preseason top-10 team in 2014. There will be many, many more days to win. And it has to start on Dec. 30.