In five years, the previous decade of Oregon football may end up being remembered as two separate eras: before and after the Arizona game of 2013.
Some would say that opening sentence is nonsense, arguing that the latter era began once Mark Helfrich became the head coach. I would respond by suggesting that for the first time this year, the Oregon football team truly belonged to Mark Helfrich. After a great start to a season that had Duck fans and players alike dreaming of a national championship, the Stanford loss hurt. But it was understandable. After all, Stanford is a great team who just last year, against a Chip Kelly coached Oregon team, beat the Ducks in equally devastating fashion.
Last week’s loss to Arizona, however, was different. It was worse than any loss under Kelly. For the first time this year, people wondered aloud whether Helfrich was the right guy for the job. For better or worse, Kelly’s name had been removed from the program’s performance and future outlook. The Mark Helfrich era officially began on Friday night. It might not have been the start that Duck fans were hoping for, but it was significant nonetheless.
The game started in ideal fashion for Oregon. After an Ifo Ekpre-Olomu interception in the endzone to end Oregon State’s opening drive, Oregon marched down the field and scored an easy touchdown. Thomas Tyner rushed for 53 yards and DeAnthony Thomas punched it in for six.
On the next Beavers possession, it looked like Oregon would run away with the game. The Ducks’ recently-maligned defensive line looked dominant and forced a punt. Oregon effortlessly marched down the field, scoring a touchdown on a 13-yard Thomas Tyner run.
At 14-0, it looked like things would get out of hand quickly. Unfortunately for the Ducks, that’s not how things played out. After another defensive stop, Bralon Addison muffed a punt, and the Beavers recovered, giving their offense great field position. The defense came up big yet again, forcing a field goal attempt, but a Dior Mathis running-into-the-kicker* penalty negated the ensuing miss. The Beavers took advantage, scoring a crucial touchdown to keep the game within reach.
Oregon marched right back down the field, but all-too-familiar red-zone struggles kept the ball out of the end-zone as Helfrich opted to kick a field goal on 4th-and-goal from the two-yard line. The Beavers answered with a field goal of their own, bringing the score to 17-10.
On the next possession, a Mariota interception in Oregon territory gave the Beavers a chance to take control of the game, and they almost did. An odd play that initially looked like an OSU touchdown pass was ultimately ruled a fumble and touchback after review, giving the Ducks a break they desperately needed. With plenty of time on the clock before the half, Oregon attempted to march down the field, but another Mariota interception gave the Beavers the ball near Oregon’s 30-yard-line for the second time in as many drives. They took full advantage this time, scoring a touchdown and making it a 17-17 tie, heading into the half.
The momentum Oregon State had at the end of the 2nd quarter carried over into the third. After an Oregon turnover on downs to start the half, the Beavers, starting a drive in Oregon territory for the 4th time, converted a long field goal to take a 20-17 lead.
The Ducks answered with a deep Mariota touchdown pass to Josh Huff. Oregon State marched down the field again, but was ultimately stopped on 4th-and-1 from Oregon’s 4-yard line. Oregon failed to take control of the game and gave the ball back to the Beavers, who put three more points on the board behind a 3rd Trevor Romaine field goal.
At 24-23, a DeAnthony Thomas kickoff return and two nice runs had the Duck’s offense humming. However, Mariota missed a wide open Pharaoh Brown for a would-be touchdown, and Wogan ended up yanking a FG attempt to the left to end the drive. Oregon State answered decisively with a methodical touchdown drive. A failed two-point conversion put the Beavers ahead 29-24 with 11:00 left in the game.
Oregon answered with a touchdown drive of their own thanks to a gutsy performance by Josh Huff, who caught his 2nd touchdown of the game on a critical 4th-and-11 throw from Mariota. A failed two-point conversion kept Oregon State within one, 30-29.
The teams then traded poor drives before Oregon State went down the field with ease, scoring on a beautiful end-around touchdown run with a minute in a half left. Oregon took over from their own 17 down 35-30. Their final drive of the game isn’t one that’ll be soon forgotten.
In a palpably high-pressure situation, Oregon’s stars shone bright. Mariota, in what he called “the best drive of [his] career,” made beautiful throws to Daryle Hawkins and Bralon Addison to start the drive, putting Oregon in position to score.
The pressure was so heavy that it felt like all oxygen had been sucked from the stadium. Finally, on 3rd down from the 20-yard line, Mariota threw it up in Josh Huff’s direction, in what he would later call “a really bad pass.” Huff leaped in the air, reached behind him and, clutching the ball with 10 white knuckles, brought down the game-winning touchdown.
Oxygen descended back down into Autzen as it erupted with joy.
With 23 seconds on the clock, Oregon kept the Beavers at bay, winning 36-35. In a game that was far from perfect, Oregon found a way to get it done. After an embarrassing loss to Arizona last week, the worst since before this era began, it was hard not to wonder if Oregon’s half-decade among the nation’s elite was over.
An one-point victory over a struggling Beavers team doesn’t change the question, but if getting the job done is the Hallmark of the post-Arizona era, Oregon fans have a lot to look forward to.
RANDOM GAME NOTES
– Both teams made a lot of costly mistakes. This game could have been very different for either.
– You have to feel good for Josh Huff. Say what you want, that guy is a warrior who loves the game. His teammates love him for a reason. On senior night, with the best game of his career and the game-winning touchdown catch; that’s just a great story. He ended up with 9 receptions for 186 yards and 3 touchdowns. What a great performance.
– Huff said that on the 4th-and-11 touchdown catch, the route called for him to run a post but he cut it off short because he knew Marcus was in trouble. That was a pretty good decision, eh?
– Those with questions about the play-calling probably won’t change their tune after this game. I’ll just leave it at that.
– Their were times when this offense was unrecognizable. Luckily, they did just enough.
– Coming into the game, Oregon State was ranked 122nd out of 125 FBS teams rushing the ball. Tonight, they looked like Alabama. They ended up with 259 yards rushing (not including sack totals).
– I noticed some people questioning whether Mariota was injured because of some of the throws he made; no way. He had a couple throws tonight that were absolutely ridiculous. One that sticks out came in the 3rd quarter when he was rolling to his left and fired a strike to Daryle Hawkins near the sideline. Incredible throw. He had 5-6 of those. Say what you want to make yourself think he’ll stay another year, but Mariota will be a top-10 pick in the 2014 NFL draft if he chooses to leave. I would bet my house on that.
– The decision to go for it on 4th-and-11 shouldn’t be overlooked. Many coaches would’ve attempted a field goal there. Helfrich absolutely made the right call, and I said as much before the success of the play. It wouldn’t have been right to put that kind of pressure on Wogan, particularly after the previous miss and the way the Beavers were moving the ball.
– Thomas Tyner had 83 yards and a touchdown in the 1st quarter. He had a couple of runs that really showed how special he could end up being. The 3rd-and-13 first down run in particular looked like he was shot out of a cannon. Given how much Byron Marshall improved between years one and two, it’s exciting to think about what Tyner will look like next season.
– Finally, a note about the Oregon faithful. The crowd went absolutely bananas after the Josh Huff touchdown. It was so nice to hear Autzen erupt like that. For as excruciating as this game was to watch at times, it was almost worth it because of that reaction. Everyone was jumping and/or dancing around for at least an hour — or seemingly so. Awesome atmosphere. Autzen hasn’t lost it folks; the Ducks just haven’t played many close games recently.
*[Ed. note: Kudos to Beaver kicker Trevor Romaine for an Emmy-worthy performance. Maybe they should change the name of the penalty to “snuggling up with the kicker.”]