EUGENE, Ore. -- Mark Helfrich has been the head coach at Oregon for only one full season, but in that season he led his squad to an 11-win year, which has only happened four times in school history.
At many programs, that kind of accomplishment would be celebrated. But for a team that entered into the 2013 season with national title hopes and exited with a win over an unranked Texas squad in the Valero Alamo Bowl it all felt a bit sour.
Now, the weight of a program and its restless fan base and the non-accomplishments of his predecessors sit on Helfrich’s shoulders. Fair or not, that's what it is.
The Ducks have never won a national title. But based off the new playoff system and this season’s roster -- headlined by a Heisman candidate at quarterback and an All-American in the defensive backfield -- if there’s a year for Oregon, this is it. But they face an opponent in Week 2 that could seriously derail their hopes.
In many ways, Oregon's game against Michigan State is a must-win if the Ducks want to consider 2014 a success. Most coaches hesitate to label any game that way but this is about as close as it gets.
The Ducks’ margin for error in the Pac-12 season narrows greatly with a loss to Michigan State and in the first year of the playoff -- with no precedent for how the selection committee truly makes its decisions -- it’s best to leave nothing to chance. An undefeated regular season plus a Pac-12 championship is the best way to do that.
And for Helfrich, this win could be huge. He doesn’t have a marquee, career-defining victory to hang his hat yet. He has faced one top-10 opponent in his 14 games as head coach and he went 0-1 (No. 6 Stanford). This could be that win.
For the Ducks to reach those goals, Oregon -- and Helfrich -- must prove that they’ve learned from their losses. They must show that they've grown. There’s no better opponent to prove that against than the reigning Rose Bowl champions.
Michigan State is disciplined. Helfrich complimented them for being plain on Tuesday. They’re plain, maybe, but they’re one of the best in the country at it. They’ve made a living out of execution. Everyone knows what they’re going to do; they simply do it better than their opponents. They’re one step faster. How frustrating that must be.
It’s similar to the Stanford loss from last season. Even Helfrich admits that his group lost because of that fact.
“We were out-executed,” he said Tuesday. “[The Cardinal] milked the clock down and out-executed us -- plain and simple.”
Except that it’s not plain and simple. The result, yes. But the root of the problem, no.
Oregon fell behind early against Stanford, not scoring in the first three quarters.
“You fall behind, but that can’t be anything that really dwells on you,” cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu said. “You have to just move onto the next play, the next drive, just continue to keep moving up really. In the Stanford game, we just kept falling down.”
“I’m not making any excuses,” Ekpre-Olomu added. “I just try to learn and think about the things that we did wrong and what I can learn from it.”
The Ducks need to start fast -- and they did against Week 1 opponent South Dakota -- but they also need to execute on every down, not just the “crucial” ones. The players need to be there for all four quarters, every single down. It sounds so basic because these are some of the best college athletes in the country, but they’ve made this mistake before.
They can't allow themselves to be snake-bitten twice.
In their matchup with the Spartans, the game will come down to discipline, something they didn’t have against the Cardinal last season. If they've learned, we'll see something different. If not, it could be something similar.
After that loss, Helfrich said in the postgame press conference, “We don't hold the cards anymore.”
And guess what, if the Ducks lose to Michigan State this weekend, the same will be true. Helfrich can’t allow himself and his team to be make the same mistakes twice. Not when the results are so costly.
The only other blemish on Helfrich’s record is the loss to Arizona last season, which shed light on another weakness of that squad -- preparation and overconfidence. The Wildcats came into that game with four conference losses to their name. The Ducks only had one.
“We walked on the field and just thinking because we’re Oregon we’re going to win a game, but Arizona played one hell of a game,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “Credit to them. I give them a lot of respect but we could’ve done a much better job.”
“It’s always on the line,” wide receiver Dwayne Stanford said. “And you’ve got to prepare that way. … The O doesn’t just win you games.”
“They came in and they did things that we didn’t change or we didn’t, I don’t really know,” Ekpre-Olomu added. “We didn’t make any changes when it was going on in the game. That’s something we have to do this year. We can’t let the same thing happen.”
No, they can’t let the same things happen.They’ve walked into a game and allowed themselves to be out-executed. They lost. They’ve walked into a game and allowed themselves to think it was basically over before it began. They lost that one too.
From the sounds of out Oregon’s camp, neither one of those seem to be a problem heading into this matchup on Saturday, but time will tell.
The Ducks need a signature win and so does Helfrich -- for the playoff, for the program, for themselves. They just need to make sure they get it for them and not hand it over to the Spartans and Mark Dantonio.