Pac-12: Marcus Mariota
What's notable about this season's contest is it is not a battle of highly ranked teams. Well, No. 5 Oregon remains so, but Stanford, loser of three games, has been relegated to the "other's receiving votes" category. Ten years ago, that would have been a nice thing on The Farm. Now, folks in Palo Alto, California, have intermingling fretful thoughts about their football team with their next tech start-up idea -- "What about an app that makes every offensive lineman play like David DeCastro?!"
Only two relevant FBS teams remain undefeated, No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State, and the odds are against both (either?) getting home unscathed. That means, as we'll get our first look at the rankings of the College Football Playoff selection committee on Tuesday, there will be plenty of jockeying among one- and even perhaps two-loss teams over the next month. Ergo, the Pac-12 is weltering with potential intrigue, and Stanford-Oregon is far from exempted from this.
While Oregon remains atop the Pac-12 pecking order, that standing is tenuous. That, in and of itself, is not terribly shocking. The Ducks' defense and offensive line are suspect. What is surprising is the ultimate usurper is now most likely to come from the South Division in the Pac-12 title game. Did anyone in the entire universe speculate in the preseason that Oregon at Utah on Nov. 8 could have more big-picture meaning than Stanford at Oregon? Answer: No.
Yet Oregon-Stanford is not easily dismissed for four reasons of national import: (1) It could decide the Heisman Trophy, (2) it could decide whether Oregon will remain a candidate for one of four spots in the playoff, (3) it could show whether the Ducks' offense has solved its "Oh, no, a big physical defense!" syndrome and (4) it could get folks off coach Mark Helfrich's back for, well, a week or two.
No. 1 is obvious. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best college football player in the nation. Everyone knows this. If every FBS team disbanded today and we held a draft, every single coach in the nation would select him first. Yes, that includes Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.
But we also know the Heisman isn't always about being the best player. If Mariota ends his career 0-3 against Stanford, that will be held against him by voters, and not without justification. Winning matters. If Mariota can't elevate his game against his nemesis, his candidacy will lack the requisite magic voters want. In fact, considering Stanford's status drop, almost exclusively because of a sagging offense, the national audience will tune in to watch Mariota battle a rugged, yes, SEC-ish defense -- with the scoreboard being a secondary concern, at least initially.
As for the potential result, here's a guess that more than a few of you watching Stanford dismantle Oregon State 38-14 on Saturday thought the team in red looked awfully familiar. Not only was Stanford predictably dominant on defense, despite a couple of key injuries, it also broke out of its offensive malaise despite some boneheaded moments from quarterback Kevin Hogan, who, by the way, is 2-0 versus Oregon. It's entirely possible the Ducks' fair-to-middling defense will encounter an offense ready to play its best football of the season, and that is a plot-thickener.
Yet if Oregon hangs up, say, 35 points -- a total no team has approached this season -- in a victory over the Cardinal, we could get a momentous sweep of our four reasons of national import. With a Heisman-like performance from Mariota, the Ducks could polish their CFP bona fides, pending, of course, a clean slate through Dec. 5. National critics would have to tip their caps to the Ducks taking care of business against an A-list defense, and Helfrich could stand before a mirror at his home and -- privately, of course -- unleash his barbaric yawp over the roofs of Eugene, Oregon.
A defining Oregon win, some might be smirking, has been predicted by many (cough) the previous two seasons but not come to fruition. While this version of the Cardinal doesn't appear as complete as the 2012 and 2013 vintages, hindsight has tended to hold sway in this rivalry. Hogan winning as a first-year starter in Autzen Stadium in 2012? Not a chance. Mariota and the Ducks' offense -- averaging 55.6 points per game -- getting slowed down last fall? Please.
So, yeah, when so-called pundits throw out predictions this week, the wise ones won't hold too much confidence this game is going to be predictable -- or lack ramifications, both regional and national.
If you are pursuing enlightenment, then go here.
To the notes.
Bryce from San Francisco writes: It's already been established that many SEC teams are a bunch of cowards, afraid to visit another conference powerhouse (no, LSU fans, Cowboys Stadium doesn't count as a road game). My question is if the playoff committee will see all these SEC teams backing out of tough games to schedule patsies and reward the Pac-12 while punishing the SEC for their scheduling. The SEC deserves to be docked for softening their schedule. And the Pac-12 should be rewarded for trying to play the best, even when other conferences are too scared to.
Ted Miller: Well, hold on now. LSU has done home-and-homes with Arizona, Arizona State and Washington in the not too distant past, and let's just say that Tigers fans have room to crow about the results, particularly those who continue to smart about finishing ranked second in 2003 behind consensus national champion USC.
In general, the SEC has significantly upgraded its nonconference schedules over the past several years and there's been a concerted effort to continue that trend going forward. LSU has led the way, but Alabama also deserves credit, while Auburn earns kudos for its series with Kansas State. Though Georgia chickened out of a series with Oregon knowing it would go 0-2, the Bulldogs did do a home-and-home with Arizona State and have scheduled one with Notre Dame while continuing their rivalry series with Georgia Tech. In 2017, Florida plays Florida State and Michigan, and Texas A&M, after dropping Oregon and USC, has added Arizona State and UCLA.
I believe it will, perhaps as soon as this season, and when the selection committee confirms my belief and enrages an SEC fan base, the next SEC commissioner will push his conference to make the change.
Ah, but nonconference scheduling will be an issue this year, and I believe the committee will make it clear that cowardly scheduling has its own risks.
That brings us to the Mississippi schools as well as Baylor. While Ole Miss did take a minor step forward with a game with Boise State, even that doesn't hold the credibility it did a few years ago. Meanwhile, Mississippi State's and Baylor's nonconference schedules are a joke. They are offensive to the ideas of courage, honor, masculinity and all that is right and good. Hemingway and Maximus Decimus Meridius and Dirty Harry have personally communicated outrage to the Pac-12 blog. I may overstate things but only by a little.
What that means is pretty simple. Ole Miss, Mississippi State and/or Baylor should be significantly burdened when it comes to eclipsing a team from, say, the Pac-12 with the same record, particularly if they don't win their conference title.
So my answer is I expect the committee to provide the Pac-12 champion a positive click automatically, one that won't be available to any other conference, based on the tough nonconference schedules, nine-game conference schedules and conference title game.
Ted Miller: You are welcome.
I understand your frustration. It's not illegitimate. It's difficult to see your team struggle while your rival thrives. And I know that many who have long supported Mike Riley are starting to wonder about the direction of the program.
I have two initial thoughts. First, let's see how things play out. Plenty of season left. Second, man, I'd be more optimistic about the rest of the season if I didn't just peruse your injury list, which features a few substantial hits to the offensive (Isaac Seumalo, Gavin Andrews) and defensive lines (Jalen Grimble), not to mention a big hit at receiver (Richard Mullaney).
Hey, injuries are part of the game. Get it. Still, ask Oregon fans what might have been if it had both starting offensive tackles all season. Of course, just about every Pac-12 team has an injury sob story.
My simple suggestion is not unlike what I once told California fans about Jeff Tedford and Utah fans about Kyle Whittingham: Tread lightly. Don't be emotional. Consider the big picture. I think things had run their course with Tedford at Cal, and I think the Bears decision to cut ties after the 2012 season was entirely justifiable. I also think Utes fans might be seeing the benefits of staying the course with Whittingham this season.
You will be hard-pressed to find too many football folks who don't believe Riley is a good coach. While the Beavers were unquestionably down in 2010 and 2011, they've still posted winning records in four of the past six seasons, twice winning nine games. On the other hand, if Oregon State finishes with a losing record, the Riley critics out there can say the Beavers have posted losing records in three of their last five seasons. They will insist that the program shouldn't settle for mediocrity and that the right coach can win in Corvallis.
(I'd recommend then asking who that coach would be.)
If the Beavers do finish with a losing record, it would be justifiable to consider a change. That wouldn't be my recommendation, but it would not be unjustifiable.
Ted Miller: The Huskies rank last in the Pac-12 in passing and 10th in pass efficiency. So, yeah, the QB play hasn't been great and that is a problem for a team trying to move up in the conference and North Division pecking order. That stands out even more when you see so many young QBs over the past few years, including Arizona redshirt freshman Anu Solomon this year, doing well.
If things continue to muddle around with the offense -- it's also last in the conference in total yards and yards per play -- I'd rate the touted Browning's chances to start next year pretty good, though I'm typically skeptical of incoming players until they prove what they can do against college competition.
I'd also rate the middling play of the offensive line as an equal disappointment as the production behind center, though obviously the two are tightly knotted together.
Ted Miller: It's easy to be disgruntled when we speak in non-specific generalities, but which season bothers your most?
The only recent Heisman winner I'd rate as controversial would be Alabama RB Mark Ingram over Stanford RB Toby Gerhart in 2009, though plenty of folks wanted to invoke a character clause with Cam Newton vs. Andrew Luck in 2010. Otherwise, the winners put up such great numbers, often for teams that significantly exceeded expectations, I have no problem with how the voting went.
If Mariota maintains his present numbers and the Ducks win the Pac-12, he's going to win the Heisman Trophy.
With Petersen now fronting the Huskies, that's an item of interest that a journalist can wrap a lead around. He or she doesn't have to immediately recycle the droning, "Is this the year Washington breaks through?" One can observe that Petersen not only was once a Ducks assistant -- from 1995-2000 under Mike Bellotti -- when he started a longstanding friendship with second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, but he also was 2-0 against Oregon while heading Boise State, where he was 92-12 and was universally esteemed for his Huge Football Brain.
With Huskies fans duly distracted by their invocations, we'll note to the tittering Oregon fans that the Ducks will be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of an obscure moment in their team's history on Saturday. While video of Kenny Wheaton's pick-six interception against Washington in 1994 is as difficult to find as a white peacock, it does exist, and there's a quiet minority of Ducks fans who believe it was a meaningful moment in the transformation of the program.
Those Oregon fans obsessed with such esoterica will be glad to know the Duck will don throwback uniforms to honor the occasion, of which at least one Oregon administrative Twitter feed observed this week: "Prior to 'The Pick' Oregon all-time had a .495 Win% (359-366-34). Since that game, Oregon is .731 (177-65)."
So, yes, call us a wee bit sarcastic when we poke fun by minimizing the impact of "The Pick," unquestionably the Ur-moment in Oregon football history, a highlight that plays immediately before every Ducks home game.
And the reason it is the definitive before-after line for the program's rise to West Coast and national prominence is not only that it was the key play in a run to the program's first Rose Bowl since 1958, it was that it happened so dramatically against the Huskies, the established Northwest power that Ducks fans most hated.
Which brings us back the rivalry and the two head coaches. Both know the rivalry well. That means they will at least acknowledge its biliousness, unlike Kelly, who seemed to enjoy telling reporters how much he liked former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, knowing it would inspire forehead slaps among the Ducks faithful.
"Do I understand the rivalry as a native Oregonian? Absolutely," Helfrich said. "I know the history of that very well and what it means to our fans."
And yet, it's all about an established winning process with the Ducks, and that centers on preparing the same every week for a "nameless faceless opponent."
Echoed Petersen, "I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff, but that’s not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."
That carries over to Helfrich's and Petersen's friendship. Both insisted in the preseason it would overcome them being at professional loggerheads in the Pac-12's North Division, though they admitted this week they hadn't talked thus far this season. Both also insisted this week that it has no impact on their emotions or preparation for the game. Which, you know, is as it should be.
Petersen, while at Boise State, handed the Ducks their last nonconference loss at home in 2008, and then spoiled Kelly's head coaching debut in 2009. While that's an interesting factoid, it's also far less relevant than how well the Ducks offensive line, which recovered nicely in a win at UCLA with offensive tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, will play against the Huskies stout front-7, led by nose guard Danny Shelton, defensive endHau'oli Kikaha and linebacker Shaq Thompson.
What Oregon showed last week while redeeming itself after flubbing around in a home loss to Arizona is that when the offensive line is playing well, the offense hums along like in days of old. Petersen knows his team can't allow QB Marcus Mariota to feel comfortable.
"He might be the best player in college football, so that’s a problem right there," he said.
Another interesting factoid: Neither QB has thrown an interception this year. Because Cyler Miles isn't the playmaker that Mariota is, it's probably more critical for him to maintain his clean sheet Saturday.
So here we are, back at the redundancy: Is this the Huskies year? Maybe. Stranger things have happened this season. A lot stranger. But all the history and emotions don't hold a lot of weight with either coach. Whether the Huskies break through or the Ducks make like Spinal Tap's amplifiers and go up to 11, the coaches just view the game as X's and O's either doing what they want them to do or not.
Noted Petersen dryly, "So it doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything in the past. It comes down to playing good football."
If Oregon wins the rest of its games, it's going to be in the College Football Playoff. You can take that to the bank. If UCLA wins the rest of its games, it's going to be in the College Football Playoff. You can take that to the bank.
So, really, little has changed for Oregon and UCLA as they prepare to square off Saturday in the Rose Bowl, despite both suffering upset losses at home last weekend. They are still within shouting distance of the top 10, and a victory over the other will be the sort of marquee win that should carry plenty of weight with the selection committee when it publishes its first rankings on Oct. 28.
But the stakes, in fact, might be a little higher. A second loss -- while perhaps not catastrophic, based on how the season has gone in the Pac-12 and nationally -- would leave no margin for error as the No. 12 Ducks and No. 18 Bruins try to win their respective divisions in the conference.
The big picture, with teams such as Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas A&M also losing last weekend, offers something tangible a coach can sell to his players -- no potential season endgame has been taken off the table. The only conference that might win a final record tie against the Pac-12 is the SEC, and that might be limited only to SEC West teams. Even then, if Oregon or UCLA end up with the same record as, say, Mississippi State, both would have a strong case based on having a far more ambitious nonconference schedules and the Pac-12's nine-game conference slate.
We don't yet know if the selection committee will bow to the SEC orthodoxy of "just because." It might not, if "just because" is the foundation of the SEC argument, as opposed to what happened during an entire season.
There's already a lot of blood in the water and there's likely to be much more carnage. In other words, things likely will only get more muddled and confusing.
"There are not many teams out there that don't have a wound," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "It's how you recover. It's how you respond."
That said, prolonged consideration of the big picture is not what any coach wants. They want laser-like focus: on the immediate present, on Saturday's opponent, this practice, this play at practice.
"I think it's really important that we don't think about that or talk about [the playoff]," Mora said. "It's counterproductive to what you are trying to accomplish. It's great for college football. It stirs up interest and it keep your fans involved and gives commentators something to talk about that's exciting. But for the teams, at least for our team, it's just so important that we work the process."
That process is about correcting issues and moving on and not looking back in mourning over what transpired last week. Both the Ducks and Bruins are desperately trying to solve problems on their offensive lines and improve communication on defense after both broke down several times while losing to Arizona and Utah, respectively.
While both coaches are aware that their fans are wringing their hands over last week's surprising results, they also note that this fits in with one of the major preseason themes: The Pac-12 is as deep in quality teams this season as it has ever been, and there are no easy weeks.
"The reality of what coaches were saying in the preseasons media stuff is coming to fruition," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is a ton of parity in this conference."
Oregon or UCLA still could rise above that parity and reenter the national dialogue. But that process starts only with a win on Saturday.
Oregon and UCLA might or might not need or want a chorus of uplifting quotes ("Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records!"), but both are facing unexpected adversity. They started the season as the Pac-12's top two contenders for a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Each was led by a quarterback who was expected to contend for the Heisman Trophy before becoming an NFL first-round draft pick. Yet both were upset at home Saturday by substantial underdogs, and both QBs saw their Heisman stock plummet.
But it's more than that. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley are celebrated three-year starters, class guys respected on and off the field and fantastic athletes who are trying to establish their longterm legacy before turning pro. Yet neither has won a Pac-12 title. Both figure to view the season as a failure without it. In football, the ultimate team game, it's rare for a college player to be canonized as an individual without his team achieving a high degree of success -- or at the very least dramatically exceeding preseason expectations.
The loser of this game is unlikely to dramatically exceed preseason expectations. The quarterback of the loser might only be remembered by his program as a fine but not special player. The winner still has a chance to have a plaque hanging in a prominent place in his team's Hall of Fame, a guy who might be recalled in 50 years by today's college students to their grandchildren -- "Sonny, did I ever tell you about the time Hundley/Mariota threw a touchdown pass and kicked a field goal on the same play?!"
Sure, making draw-a-line-in-the-sand judgments at midseason, particularly this year in the Pac-12, when the eventual champion seems more likely to have three losses than just one, is potentially overkill. The winner Saturday could still implode, and the loser might still find misfortune to be but a stepping stone to fortune. But it's difficult not to see Mariota-Hundley head-to-head as not being a major chapter in the Pac-12 season. At the very least, it figures to set a strong narrative as the leaves start to change and Halloween approaches.
This is after all, the Year of the Quarterback in the Conference of Quarterbacks, and these two are the bell cows, the leaders of perhaps the most talented collection of signal-callers one conference has ever had in a single season. What has become evident as both aspire toward an individual and team legacy, is that erratic offensive line play is taking its toll on their performance.
In the preseason, Oregon was touted as owning one of the nation's best offensive lines, while UCLA's was viewed as a candidate for most improved, considering it started three true freshmen in 2013 and had quasi-respectable results. Injuries have hit both, particularly the Ducks, who are currently without their top three offensive tackles. But even allowing for that, the resulting play as been underwhelming, and that has burdened both QBs.
UCLA yielded an astounding 10 sacks in the loss to Utah on Saturday, and it was clear that Hundley was too often eschewing his downfield options to try to preserve his health against the relentless Utes rush. Mariota has been sacked 12 times in the past two games, the final one against Arizona causing a game-ending lost fumble.
The Bruins are surrendering 4.6 sacks per game, which ranks 123rd in the nation. The Ducks are giving up 3.0 sacks per game, which ranks 110th. Those are not numbers you'd expect from national-title contenders, and it's impossible to imagine that a QB hitting the turf that many times per game is going to win the Heisman, or survive the season for that matter.
Last year, Arizona State ranked last in the conference, yielding 2.93 sacks per game. The Bruins' young and much-maligned unit surrendered 2.77 per game, while Oregon gave up just 1.38, which ranked third in the conference and 29th in the nation.
Hundley and Mariota, in fact, are just the biggest-name victims in a conference-wide problem. Thus far, Colorado is yielding the fewest sacks per game -- 1.3 -- and that only ranks 30th in the nation. Nine teams rank 54th or worse in sacks given up per game.
Common sense dictates that a QB functions less effectively when he's getting buried in the turf.
Mariota probably would be glad to know that UCLA ranks last in the Pac-12 and 100th in the nation with 1.4 sacks per game, while Hundley will be less thrilled with the Ducks' 3.2 sacks per game, which ranks third in the conference and 19th in the nation. Both defenses will try to exploit struggling offensive lines, and that means both quarterbacks will be called upon to meet that challenge, to use their athleticism and instincts to buy time or break away and improvise.
As Ovid observed, "There is no excellence uncoupled with difficulties."
The more excellent quarterback likely carries the day in the Rose Bowl Saturday. It could be a season-defining moment for his team, and a legacy-defining performance for the individual.
The story entering the game was the Ducks seeking revenge for last year's embarrassing blowout loss in Tucson. It also was a good opportunity for QB Marcus Mariota to look all Heisman-y in front of a national audience on ESPN, even if kickoff was at 10:30 p.m. ET. While the Ducks' injury-riddled offensive line and inconsistent defense had been thoroughly picked over by analysts, the general feeling was the Wildcats were a good but not good enough squad to take advantage. What's more, as poised as redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon had looked during a 4-0 run, he couldn't be expected to win his first Pac-12 road start in fearsome Autzen Stadium, right?
Yet in our unexplored new age of the inaugural College Football Playoff, the question every game between ranked or unbeaten or contending teams inspires is "What does it mean?"
The best answer is horribly lame: We don't know. Really. There's already been lots of typing, tweeting and chatter about this game, but we have no idea what this Week 6 contest means in the big picture going forward and, most notably, how it might resonate with the 13-person selection committee.
Those first rankings won't come out until Oct. 28. The best we can say at this moment is that Oregon is probably no longer a candidate for a coveted top-four spot. And Arizona, at least at this moment, is.
Oregon entered this game owning the best win in college football this season: 46-27 over Michigan State, a team that presently is ranked 10th, despite that defeat. Now the Wildcats own the best win this season. Ole Miss is going to try to steal that title on Saturday against Alabama, but there's no way the Rebels outsmart and outman Nick Saban's boys, right?
Arizona will be greeted with some degree of skepticism by pollsters in advance of the selection committee's "Hello, World" moment. The Wildcats 15 days before needed a Hail Mary pass to beat California, which didn't win a Pac-12 game last year, and had not been able to put away UTSA and Nevada until late in the fourth quarter. Yet with USC coming to town on Oct. 11, and road trips to Washington State and UCLA ahead, the Wildcats can quickly prove they are not one-hit wonders and establish legitimacy that would quash any skepticism.
As for Oregon, as dismal as this all seems -- The House that Chip Kelly Built is A-Crumbling! -- there is an immediate opportunity for redemption: a visit to No. 8 UCLA on Oct. 11.
What if OT Jake Fisher gets healthy, DE Arik Armstead's ankle turns out to be a mere flesh wound and Mariota decisively outplays Bruins QB star Brett Hundley? An impressive road win against the Bruins would certainly push the Ducks back into the national picture, particularly with the mighty SEC West also poised to start cannibalizing itself.
While Oregon seemed like the best bet to do the unlikely and negotiate the Pac-12 schedule unbeaten, the reality is that few expected the Pac-12 champion to be all shiny and 13-0 and dressed in an immaculate tuxedo for the selection committee. This conference is too hard for that. One quarter of the way in, the most notable indication was that the bottom and middle had risen up to meet a slightly stooped top third. The putative leaders -- Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, USC, Arizona State -- were each flawed teams, while bottom-feeders Cal and Colorado were suddenly good enough to scare anyone.
And Arizona, a midlander, was good enough to whip the Ducks.
There is a pessimistic side to all this for the Pac-12, starting with Oregon. If the Ducks' offensive line doesn't get a guy or two back, it won't be able to block many of the remaining teams on its schedule. While the Arizona defense is extremely well-coordinated by Jeff Casteel and plays well as a conglomerative unit, its front-seven talent doesn't match UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Utah and Oregon State. Mariota, as good as he is, can't continue to take this sort of beating -- 12 sacks in the past two games.
This defeat could be merely a sign of things to come for Oregon. What we saw Thursday night suggests two or three more losses wouldn't be shocking, and that would definitely make things difficult for second-year coach Mark Helfrich.
This, in fact, might be the state of the conference. The North and South Division champions might meet with two losses apiece. That would testify to the depth and quality of the conference, but it also might only get a respectful tip of the cap from the CFP selection committee.
Of course, we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Seemingly every time we try to script the Pac-12 season, we are forced to do a rewrite.
The seat belts and helmets, though, do feel like sound advice.
The Wildcats handed Oregon its first defeat to an unranked team since 2009. The 26-point margin was the program's biggest since losing 44-10 to USC in 2008. The defeat ended a run of four consecutive BCS bowl berths, and included an added dose of negative publicity when receivers De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff turned up their noses during the preceding week at the prospect of playing in another Rose Bowl.
Helfrich, clearly aware of this, didn't bob and weave with the media after the game. He didn't snarl, either. Or pass the buck.
"Very sluggish in every phase. That's 100 percent my fault," he said. "I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and buttons to push."
While Kelly repeated his "forward-looking" mantra ad infinitum, Helfrich admitted at the time the Ducks were due some "inward-looking." Ten months later, No. 2 Oregon prepares for the Wildcats to visit Autzen Stadium on Thursday night. Helfrich completely embraces the Ducks' "win the day" philosophy -- he helped establish it, as Kelly's offensive coordinator -- including only looking forward to playing "nameless, faceless opponents." But, he said this week, he doesn't write off the idea that some of his players might find some additional motivation from the events of Nov. 23, 2013, in Tucson.
“Anytime you don’t give somebody your best shot, that should leave a bad taste in your mouth," Helfrich said. "There were some guys that felt that way. It certainly looked that way on film. Hopefully that contributes to fuel the engine of your process.”
It was a strange game. Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota threw his first two interceptions of the season, ending a Pac-12 record streak of 353 passes without a pick. It was the first of three Oregon turnovers. The Ducks also turned the ball over on downs twice and were flagged eight times for 66 yards.
Mariota looked as stunned as Oregon fans after the game. "I have never been blown out like this before in my life," he said at the time.
Yet, as bad as the Ducks looked, Arizona deserved plenty of credit. It played a near-flawless game in all three phases. The Wildcats had no turnovers, just two penalties, converted 11 of 16 third downs and were 6-for-6 with six touchdowns in the red zone. Critically, the Wildcats tackled well in space. They yielded some big plays but not any huge plays, as the Ducks had six plays of more than 20 yards but none longer than 30 and none reached the end zone.
That's pretty much the formula for beating anyone, but tackling in space is particularly noteworthy against the Ducks.
“That’s what’s going to be the key again," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
The biggest new variable in this year's game is Wildcats quarterback Anu Solomon making his first road start in Pac-12 play. While Solomon made his first career road start in the Alamodome against UTSA, Autzen Stadium is a far more challenging venue. Further, Solomon had his worst game of the season against the Roadrunners in terms of traditional pass efficiency rating and Total QBR.
“He’s kept his poise pretty well," Rodriguez said of Solomon. "This will be a test for him. He’s shown a lot of maturity. I’m sure there will be a few mistakes but I think he’s got the kind of mentality that if he does make a mistake or two to shake it off and keep playing.”
Helfrich was asked this week if he'd figured out "which levers to pull and buttons to push" to avoid another lackluster performance. Not surprisingly, he didn't divulge a eureka moment.
That's because there's no magic. A team like Oregon, a national title contender for the past five seasons, has no margin for error. Every bad weekend is judged harshly and analyzed endlessly. There's no "oh, well," any more for Oregon. Wins are expected, and any loss is a cause for panic.
Helfrich has posted a historically good start to his career, but coaching the Ducks after Kelly has left him with a fan base that owns a "national title or bust" mentality. Ultimately, the loss at Arizona a year ago only serves as an Exhibit A for an unsurprising truism for all teams aspiring to be champions.
Said Helfrich: “It doesn’t just happen. Winning is really hard. You have to earn every single bit of it.”
Entering Week 6 of the college football season, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Georgia running back Todd Gurley have separated themselves as the front-runners for the Heisman. This week, Pac-12 reporter Chantel Jennings and SEC reporter Edward Aschoff engage in a friendly (-ish) debate regarding the two players:
Aschoff: Listen, Mariota is a heck of a player. I think he's hands down the best quarterback in the country and should be the first quarterback taken in next year's NFL draft. With that said, he's no Gurley. He's a machine, yes, but he's more of a Prius compared to the Cadillac Escalade with a V-8 that Gurley is. The scary thing about Georgia's junior running back is that he's slimmed down yet he looks bigger. He's faster and more agile yet he's stronger. Gurley can bowl his opponents over, sprint to the outside and take a run to the house, or he can leave defenders dizzy with his elusiveness. Gurley has 610 rushing yards, but he should have even more. His coaches limited him to just six carries against Troy (73 yards), and the argument could be made that his 28 carries (career-high 208 yards) against Tennessee on Saturday weren't enough. Oh, and did I mention that this tank of a human being is averaging a gaudy 8.8 yards per carry and that out of his 69 carries this season he has just 11 lost yards? Take Gurley off Georgia's team and the Bulldogs aren't 1-1 in SEC play. You really think Mariota is better than that? He's flashier than that? Come on.
Anyway, back to the nitty-gritty, which is yes, when it comes to the facts, Mariota is better than that. His pass attempt-to-touchdown ratio is the best in the country: every 7.4 times the ball leaves his hands, it's ending up in the end zone. OK, fine. Gurley doesn't pass the ball. Let's talk about running again. Every 11.5 carries, Gurley ends up in the end zone. Guess what? Every 11 carries, Mariota finds his way there. He has the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the country. And he has already led his team to a victory over a top-10 team this season. Everyone can agree a Prius is more efficient than an Escalade, and in football, it's good to be efficient. That's exactly what Mariota is.
Aschoff: I see what you did there with the Prius and the Escalade. But if I need someone to bust through a brick wall and grind out that extra yard -- or three -- I'm handing it off to that environment-destroying driving machine. While we're talking about rushing, which is Gurley's specialty, he's already had 19 runs of 10 or more yards in just four games. If you're keeping score at home, that's 4.8 of those runs per game. Two of those runs went for 51 yards. What has Mariota done? He has 11 of those runs and hasn't even touched a 50-yard scamper yet. And it should be noted that Gurley is excellent when he takes contact. It seems to make him better. He drags defenders with him like Linus drags his blanket. Heading into last week, he was the only player in the country to average more than 100 yards after contact in multiple games (102 vs. Clemson and South Carolina). In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, Gurley was incredible against an improved Tennessee team. He ran for a career-high 208 yards (and now he has 16 career 100-yard rushing games), had two touchdowns, registered 30 receiving yards and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. How good was he? Well, Tennessee had so little confidence in its defense stopping him late in the game that it attempted an onside kick with two minutes left and three timeouts remaining in order to try to keep the ball away from him. All Gurley did after that was run the clock out with 26 rushing yards on six carries.
But hey, that Mariota performance over Washington State was cool and all ...
Jennings: You're right. I'll give you that. Washington State might not be better than a 2-2 Tennessee team that has already given up 4.4 yards per rush this season (cough, cough, No. 81 in the nation in that category). But it's not fair to look at the most recent performance since the slates are so different. Let's look at both players' best wins so far. Gurley's was against Clemson in the season opener, no? He carried the ball 15 times, scored thrice and accounted for 198 rushing yards and minus-5 receiving yards. That's cool. Mariota's best win was Week 2 against Michigan State, a game in which he threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns and added nine rushes for 42 yards. Michigan State is one of the best defenses in the country. Clemson isn't even one of the top three in the ACC. Now, I know I was an English major and all, but 360 yards of total offense plus three touchdowns is still bigger than 193 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, right?
Aschoff: That Michigan State (still the Big Ten, though) win was huge, and Mariota was great. I'll give that to you. And Clemson, well, #Clemsoning took over a couple of weeks ago. But don't sleep on what Gurley did against Tennessee and South Carolina. The numbers aren't exactly helping the Gamecocks, but that was a great game, and Gurley did everything he could have ... when his coach wasn't throwing the ball on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Gurley averaged 6.6 yards per carry in that game, on the road. Before Gurley faced Tennessee, the Vols were allowing 3.9 yards per carry. Then Gurley went all Gurley on the Vols.
Both of these players are great, and you have a chance to win any game with either. I want the bulldozer in the backfield who can grind out yards or take it to the house. The good thing is that this debate should rage on because they'll have plenty of opportunities to make us both look good going forward.
The Socratic smugness that enveloped me in the wee hours of Sunday morning was a revelation of sorts, though a recognition of futility isn't terribly comforting.
After the tumult of another thrilling weekend, Twitter spun and spun with ostensible wisdom, with Pac-12 and college football philosophers insisting this or that was true based on this or that result. As for me, all I knew is that I knew nothing. Therefore, I am wiser than Twitter, for neither Twitter nor I appears to know anything great and good; but Twitter fancies it knows something, although it knows nothing. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than Twitter, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.
Dominant teams? There may not be any. Florida State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon etc. Each seems to be surviving rather than asserting itself. Same holds true in the Pac-12.
The good news is Socrates also believed an unexamined college football season is not worth following. Further, after four confounding weeks, both nationally and within the Pac-12, we figure to scrape and claw toward more substantial revelations this week, at least on the West Coast. Probably. Maybe.
First, just the facts.
Seven Pac-12 teams remain unbeaten, though hardly unblemished. Three in the North Division: Oregon, Washington and Oregon State. And four in the South: Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah.
At least one of those will go down before next weekend, as UCLA visits Arizona State in a critical South clash on Thursday. Both teams have looked vulnerable. Both teams have QB questions, with Taylor Kelly definitely out for the Sun Devils, and Brett Hundley trying to come back from a hyper-extended elbow that knocked him out of the nail-biting win over Texas.
Oregon, the putative top Pac-12 team and favorite to represent the conference in the College Football Playoff, is off this week. The Ducks might be good enough to win the national championship or they might lose three games due to an injury-riddled offensive line or a leaky defense. We've seen Oregon dispatch mighty Michigan State with a dominant second half on both sides of the ball and then cling for dear life at Washington State, the only conference team presently owning a losing record.
Just as UCLA-Arizona State is a separation game in the South, so is Stanford’s visit to Washington on Saturday in the North. We have little feeling on the potency of either. Both have flashed potential on both sides of the ball. Yet both also have looked feckless and discombobulated, which is surprising when you consider the reputations of their respective head coaches. The winner becomes the top potential foil for Oregon in the North.
Or might that actually be Oregon State? We don’t really know what to make of the Beavers, who visit USC on Saturday, because they haven't played anyone. For that matter, we don’t really know what to make of USC either because it was good enough to beat Stanford and bad enough to be humiliated at Boston College.
Things are perhaps just as intriguing -- read: hard to figure -- among the hoi polloi, among the teams not widely viewed as serious threats to win the conference. And by "widely viewed" keep in mind the chattering classes tend to talk themselves into general agreement based their need to wheeze carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, yours truly not exempted by any means.
Colorado's trip to California is a game that matches teams that both said, “We can win this one!” in the preseason. The loser’s long shot bowl hopes will take a huge hit. You could probably say the same about Washington State’s trip to Utah, though a Utes victory might propel them into the Top 25 and transform them into a popular new dark horse in the South.
In fact, our limited intelligence after four weeks might merely be a confirmation of what most suspected in the preseason: There will be no easy outs this fall, which might be as much a function of the top slipping as the bottom rising. Sure, Washington State is 1-3, but the Cougs pushed Oregon to the brink. A little less brilliance from Marcus Mariota and a little more help from the officials and things might have been different. Colorado is 2-2 but it gave Arizona State trouble, the Buffs rushing for 232 yards against the Sun Devils' rebuilt defense. California was a Hail Mary pass away from winning at Arizona and improving to 3-0. Utah won convincingly at Michigan, which might not mean much but it's still a happy ending in the Big House against a team wearing cool winged helmets.
So expect to muddle forward toward clarity, even if we encounter a few false summits along the way. No Pac-12 team appears unbeatable. And no team appears incapable of playing competently. Each fan base should remain hopeful while not ruling out the possibility of eventual despondency.
The good news, as Socrates noted via Plato, is there are two ruling and directing principles in a college football season. It always at least teases our innate desire for pleasure. And, at its end, we acquire grounds to judge excellence.
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To the notes!
Ben from Los Angeles writes: I think just about every person watching the USC-BC game last Saturday was wondering why Sark was running the ball. My mom even called to ask me what he was thinking. BC sold out to stop the run, but SC just ran straight into it anyway. How can a squadron of highly paid football coaches not see what the rest of us see? Sark admitted he was stubborn, but doesn't he pay these guys to tell him when he's off the mark?
Ted Miller: USC rushed 29 times for 20 yards against Boston College. That is awful, even when you consider the 36 yards yielded on five sacks. Meanwhile, the Trojans and QB Cody Kessler complete 31 of 41 passes for 317 yards -- 7.7 yards per attempt -- with four TDs and no interceptions.
So obviously the passing game was working better than the running game against Boston College, a team that isn't known for its athleticism in the secondary, particularly compared to what the Trojans offer at receiver.
In other words: I hear you.
Steve Sarkisian's desire to maintain balance didn't work. While the defense was more of a disaster -- 452 yards rushing surrendered, 8.4 yards per rush, a complete breakdown of scheme and fundamentals -- scoring just seven points in the second and third quarters against a weak defense is pretty baffling.
Yet the bigger picture was most troubling. USC jumped to a 10-0 lead and then seemed to lose its focus and intensity, and BC took advantage. The performance fit in with typical stuff from Sarkisian's critics, most notably his teams' tendency to struggle on the road, even against outmanned teams.
Many jumped the gun on celebrating USC, including the Pac-12 blog, without really looking at the victory over Stanford and being more cautious about its potential ramifications and meaning. Many aspects of that game suggested the Cardinal were the better team; they just couldn't get out of their own way. Or kick a field goal. (In our defense, the lauding of USC as a South Division contender was more about the schedule than the Trojans looking like an elite team.)
USC and Sarkisian do have a ready-made excuse: The thinness of the roster because of scholarship limitations. While that is legitimate, that still doesn't cover for losing to a team that will be lucky to become bowl-eligible in the ACC.
Still, just as it was premature to rank USC in the top 10 after it beat Stanford, is it premature to fit Sark for his Lane Kiffin undergarments.
Ted Miller: Oregon played for the national title after the 2010 season. The Ducks finished No. 2 in 2012, one of five consecutive final rankings in the top 11, with three in the top five during that span.
Reaching the playoff would be a solid achievement, but the Ducks already have accomplished a similar feat by reaching the BCS title game against Auburn. The only thing the program hasn't accomplished -- the only box that hasn't been checked -- is winning a national title.
To earn legitimacy as "great" or to be considered one of "those" programs, the Ducks must win a national title. Doing so also, by the way, would eliminate the only remaining substantive tweak Washington fans have when going back and forth with Ducks fans.
Success is a harsh mistress, eh? Consider that finishing 11-2 and ranked No. 9 last year was treated as a significant disappointment by many Oregon fans.
Ted Miller: Wait, I'll go get my crystal ball out of the closet.
Crystal ball, who wins the Heisman and national title?
Well, that's not very nice. I what? There's no proof of that! You have pictures? Do you want to go back into the closet? You wouldn't!
[Sounds of smashing crystal].
Er, Florida State wins the national title and Oregon QB Marcus Mariota wins the Heisman Trophy.
Ted Miller: Adding Frank Caliendo makes just about everything better.
I like your idea. I particularly think it would be fun to have cameras trailing the spurned coaches as they exit in tears and then climb into their limos of shame.
"It just hurts so much," LSU coach Les Miles might say. "It's like reading a book and it's sad ... I don't read books, but if I read books, it would be like reading a book. A sad one. It's not a hammer-and-a nail relationship, though. I'm proud of our men, anyway. Spectacular group of men. You got to find them, you throw your arms around them and give them a big kiss on the mouth, if you're a girl. Anyway. I'm the head coach at LSU. I will be the head coach at LSU. I have no interest in talking to anybody else, including you, camera guy. I got a Sugar Bowl to play, and I'm excited for the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play in it. Please ask me after. I'm busy. Thank you very much. Have a great day!"
With 52 percent of the vote, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's diving touchdown was named this week's Pac-12 Blog Play of the Week.
It was certainly a play that made more than a few Duck fans nervous as he launched himself headfirst over five players and soared, upside-down, toward the end zone. But, he bounced up and Mariota gave a Heisman-highlight reel play in a game in which those kinds of plays typically don't happen.
As with every week, we're going to reach out to readers to get some of your reactions as well as some reactions from our team of Pac-12 writers.
Kyle Bonagura: By the time Marcus Mariota gets to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony later this year, most the country will have forgotten Oregon even played Wyoming this season. If that makes you sad for some strange, illogical reason, don't worry because Mariota's Chip-Kelly-Dive-Into-The-Pool impression against the Cowboys is a lock to be featured prominently in his Heisman highlight reel.
It was also one of those plays that can play with the collective emotions of a fan base, which I can imagine went something like this:
"Go, go, go ... he's in! ... Wait, is he in? ... Wait, never mind, is he OK? Get up. ... Yeah, he's ok ... Are we sure he got in? ... [watches replay] Oh, he is definitely in, what a play! ... SHOW IT TO ME AGAIN!”
Kevin Gemmell: The best part about that play was that it didn't have to happen. I get that the Ducks were only ahead 13-7 at the time. But come on, was Oregon really in any danger of losing that game? Of course not. But Mariota doesn't care. He could have stepped out of bounds at the 3.5-yard line instead of going all Evel Knievel. I'll wager dollars to donuts the Ducks would have scored a touchdown one or two plays later. But Mariota was laser focused on delivering a knockout blow. He plays with one speed. And it's pretty fun to watch a guy with no off switch.
Chantel Jennings: The move itself was a bit McKayla Maroney-esque, launching himself up and over a pile of teammates and players, before twisting, turning and landing on his rear end. The feel in the stadium the entire time was "OMG!" but it swayed from a "Oh my gosh, that's so awesome" to "Oh my gosh, is he OK? IS HE OK? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HE'S OK!" to a "OK, sweet, he's OK, great. Good score. Wooooo." The only thing Maroney did better was the unimpressed face. Now, if someone can get Mariota to do that, that would certainly win the day.
The best of Twitter:
@ESPN_Pac12blog Go, go, go! He's gonna score! He's in...HOLY CRAP, BE CAREFUL, MARIOTA.— Peter Mertens (@psMertens) September 15, 2014
Dear Marcus, please don't fall on your head.— Cora (@Cora_Bee) September 13, 2014
@ESPN_Pac12blog the sort of play where Gurley stops polishing his Heisman case, swears under his breath, and goes to hit the weight room— Ryder Cochrane (@RyderCochrane) September 15, 2014
Follow me on Twitter here.
To the notes!
Trojan1981 from Office writes: Hey Ted, If USC keeps playing as well as they have ( I know there have only been two games) Where do you see them at the end of the season?
Ted Miller: Trojan1981! Where the heck have you been! Didn't someone tell you the good times are back?
Compared to most top-10 teams, it's more difficult to project USC forward. With fewer than 60 healthy players on scholarship, a fairly typical slate of injuries to starters over the next few weeks could derail the Trojans. It's not just about losing quality players, it's also a winnowing of rotations. When the Trojans line up against all the up-tempo teams in the Pac-12, you might start to see some struggles in the second half of games as fatigue becomes a factor. USC's own up-tempo offense won't help that, by the way.
I know USC won last year with a slim depth chart -- just 13 players seeing action on defense, for example -- but if you're talking about Pac-12 championships, that's the primary concern.
Call that my caveat in advance of calling USC now a co-favorite in the Pac-12's South Division, which means the Trojans have a legitimate shot at playing themselves into the College Football Playoff as the Pac-12 champions, though I'm still picking that honor for Oregon.
USC, after winning at Stanford, has one of the most forgiving schedules in the Pac-12, as it doesn't play Oregon or Washington. The Trojans will be favored in their next eight games before they visit UCLA, which still has to play Stanford and Oregon and visit Washington. They get Notre Dame at home to conclude the season.
If USC stays healthy and continues to progress, they've got as good a shot as anyone at going undefeated over the remainder of the regular season. I'm not predicting that. There figures to be at least one bump along the way. But I am typing that there is a chance.
Quackhead from Norfolk, Va., writes: Hypothetically someone other than Mariota puts up monster numbers, will Marcus' 3 years of consistent stats, living up the hype and good character give the nod to him winning the Heisman? Will that factor into the judges' minds or winning it is based purely on stats?
Miller: Stats are a big part of it, but Marcus Mariota's overall résumé will be a factor in many Heisman Trophy voters minds, even though the award is supposed to be purely about this season. It could operate, for example, as a tiebreaker.
Winning, however, is the key. Mariota fronting a 13-0 or 12-1 Oregon team with similar stats to last season will beat out another QB who has slightly better numbers but has lost two or three games. Most voters also will compare schedule difficulty and how Mariota compared to other candidates in big games. Already, Mariota has a shiny line on his résumé: Outstanding performance in win over good Michigan State team.
After dealing with controversial winners three of the past four years, many voters also probably will look kindly upon Mariota's squeaky-clean image.
My gist: Mariota is in great position to win the Heisman, but we've got lots of football ahead.
Peter from Denver writes: The best season in Oregon State football history (2000) started with a close home win against a FCS team then an 8 point win on the road against a bad team from the Mountain west. Then they had a bye week and played San Diego State at home, after that the Beavers played a highly ranked USC team. Let me know if this sounds familiar. Is this a crazy coincidence or could this be a good year for the Beavers?
Miller: Boy, that 2000 Oregon State team was something. Perhaps the most underrated and unknown great team in recent memory, despite a final top-five ranking in both polls.
I've long contended that crew the most talented team in the Pac-10 in 2000, in large part because of the NFL success of its former players -- WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, LB Nick Barnett, DE DeLawrence Grant, etc. A couple of Pac-12 assistant coaches -- QB Jonathan Smith at Washington and DB Keith Heyward at USC -- probably agree.
Are the 2014 Beavers as talented? Probably not. Certainly not at receiver or on either line (at least until stud O-lineman Isaac Seumalo returns to health).
At this point, Peter, you are dabbling in wishful thinking and coincidence.
But if the Beavers win at USC on Sept. 27, well, then maybe you will be carried through the streets of Corvallis and hailed as a genius.
Mariota completed 17 of 28 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns in the Ducks' impressive 46-27 win against then-No. 7 Michigan State Spartans. The Hawaii native also ran for 42 yards on nine carries.
Williams was limited by a sprained ankle, but still finished with a game-high 11 tackles in USC's 13-10 win against Stanford that vaulted the Trojans to No. 9 in this week's AP poll. After Williams looked shaky testing the ankle in warmups, it wasn't clear how much of a factor he would be. However, as the game progressed those concerns died down.
"He obviously wasn't 100 percent," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "In the end, Leonard at 70, 80, 85 percent is better than a lot of people. And his presence just helps us.”
Heidari hit a pair of field goal for the Trojans, including a career-long 53-yard attempt -- tied for third-longest in USC history -- with 2:30 left that was the eventual game winner. The senior also kicked a field goal to beat Stanford last year.
Full list of nominees:
Offense: Nick Wilson, QB, Arizona; D.J. Foster, RB, ASU; Jared Goff, QB, Cal; Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado; Terron Ward, RB, Oregon State; Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA; Javorius Allen, RB, USC; Travis Wilson, QB, Utah.
Defense: Jared Tevis, S, Arizona; Laiu Moeakiola, LB, Arizona State; Joe Walker, LB, Oregon; Michael Doctor, LB, Oregon State; Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA; Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah, Danny Shelton, NT, Washington
Special Teams: Casey Skowron, PK, Arizona; Bryce McGovern, ST, Cal; Will Oliver, PK, Colorado, Ishmael Adams, DB, UCLA; Tom Hackett, P, Utah
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: The freshman was a workhorse on the road in Arizona's 26-23 win over UTSA, carrying 30 times for 174 yards and a touchdown.
Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado: The Pac-12 blog thought Sefo Liufau had a strong game. And Spruce was a big reason he did. Spruce hauled in 10 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns, including a 70-yarder that put Colorado ahead of UMass on its way to a 41-38 win.
D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State: Foster was on fire against New Mexico, carrying 19 times for 216 yards and a touchdown in ASU's 58-23 win.
Leonard Williams, DE, USC: Beast. He tied for the team lead in tackles with 11 (eight solo) and also recorded a sack and a tackle for a loss in the 13-10 win over Stanford. Now, imagine him without a sprained ankle.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon: Five tackles and an epic pick in the 46-27 win over Michigan State. Of his eight career interceptions, six have come in the red zone. A true gamer.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Beat a top-10 team, get two helmet stickers. Mariota was 17-of-28 for 318 yards and three touchdown passes. He also rushed for 42 yards on nine carries.
Travis Wilson, QB, Utah: He was just 11-of-20 for 181 yards, but those five passing touchdowns looked awful nice during a 59-27 win over Fresno State. The Utes are a different team when they have consistent, quality quarterback play. They're, ya know, better.
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington: We said last week, you have to do something special to get a helmet sticker against an FCS team. How about 14 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, and three carries for 66 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run in a 59-52 win over Eastern Washington? Good enough for us.
EUGENE, Ore. -- When Michigan State scored 20 consecutive points and took a nine-point lead over Oregon in the third quarter, the collective head nod of the college football nation was palpable from coast to coast. Everyone had seen this storyline before. Oregon was a fun team, a good team even. Interesting uniforms. But when the Ducks go nose-to-nose with a highly rated program that makes its money on the line of scrimmage, their ludicrous speed offense sputters to a stop.
Auburn in the national title game after the 2010 season. LSU in 2011 and Stanford the past two seasons. The Ducks, according to the skeptics, wilted against physical teams, and bruising Michigan State was taking it to the Ducks on Saturday. It wasn't difficult to imagine the I-told-you-so's and knowing smirks breaking out across the country.
The familiar script was on the table, and the Ducks tore it up. They matched and overcame the Spartans' physicality. Then they turned on the showmanship, just to remind everyone they were still fancy-pants Oregon and they like to win cool.
It was a big win for the program. It was a big win for second-year coach Mark Helfrich, who is trying to emerge from the considerable shadow cast by Chip Kelly.
"Our team was good tonight," Helfrich said. "[Michigan State] was an exceptional team."
The Spartans, ranked seventh, looked exceptional while taking a 27-18 lead early in the third quarter. To that point, they had stymied the Ducks' offense and moved doggedly down the field with a balanced attack. The Spartans looked a lot like the Stanford team that kept Oregon from playing for the national title the previous two seasons. Yet one quick-thinking play from Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota seemingly changed everything.
On third-and-10 from the Oregon 41-yard line with just over six minutes left in the third, Mariota was chased from the pocket. He probably could have run for a first down, but he flipped the ball to true freshman running back Royce Freeman for a 17-yard gain. It was vintage Mariota improvisation, the sort of creative, off-script playmaking that has distinguished the Ducks during their rise as a national power.
Mariota would finish the drive with a 24-yard touchdown pass. After the Ducks' resurgent defense forced a three-and-out, Mariota gave the Ducks the lead for good with a 37-yard TD toss to Keanon Lowe. And just like that, the rout was on. It was stunning but also familiar. Oregon was doing its thing, imposing its will, wearing a foe down, only it was doing it against a team that was supposed to be unyielding.
"Things started to snowball and we couldn't stop it from snowballing," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
Speaking of snowballs, Mariota's Heisman Trophy campaign should make like one. He was the linchpin of the Ducks' turnaround. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 318 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and rushed for 42 yards, but his contribution was more than pure numbers. On the go-ahead drive, he rushed for 11 yards on third-and-9. On the Ducks' final possession, which killed 6:31 off the clock and ended all Michigan State hope, he rushed for 40 yards on second-and-17.
Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. That's what Mariota did. That's what Heisman winners do.
"I should have to pay him to watch him play," Helfrich quipped.
Yet Oregon isn't a one-star constellation. It produced a long catalog of clutch in the overwhelming second half. Physical? The defense produced a critical stop on fourth-and-2 from the Ducks 24-yard line in the fourth quarter. It allowed just three second-half points. While Oregon averaged a stout 7.2 yards per play, the Spartans went for just 5.6. Physically impressive? Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had a diving interception off a deflection that might end up being the most athletic play of the season.
The Ducks' offensive line, struggling in the first half and suffering an injury to right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena early in the third quarter, asserted itself in the second half. It first pushed the pile for a key third-and-1 conversion before the go-ahead score, and then took control in the fourth quarter as Oregon drove 96 yards in 11 plays for its final TD, a 14-yard touchdown jaunt on fourth-and-2 from freshman running back Freeman.
"I don't think we were fazed by their physicality," Lowe said. "We're physical, too."
Helfrich wouldn't take the bait when asked to ascribe special meaning to the victory. Nor would be say the whole "Oregon can't play with physical teams" skepticism has been vanquished. Truth is it probably hasn't been. As good as Michigan State is, the Spartans play in the Big Ten and the Big Ten had a horrible Saturday, with Michigan getting stomped by Notre Dame and Ohio State losing to Virginia Tech, among other indignities.
Oregon won't win over the entire nation until it wins a national championship, the one glory that has eluded the program.
Beating Michigan State, while only giving the Ducks a 2-0 record, is a significant step toward potentially filling that hole in the program's résumé.
1:00 PM ET Washington Colorado 4:30 PM ET USC Washington State 7:30 PM ET Stanford 5 Oregon 10:30 PM ET California Oregon State 10:30 PM ET 12 Arizona 22 UCLA 11:00 PM ET 17 Utah 14 Arizona State