Is Helfrich Establishing a New Identity for the Ducks?
Is Mark Helfrich’s team taking on a new identity? Did anyone see that ending coming? What about Oregon’s other senior receiver? Following the closest Civil War in more than 30 years that was part of the craziest weekend in college football in recent memory, some thoughts:
Mark Helfrich is Beginning to Establish His Own Identity as Head Coach
Remember The Chip Kelly Show ? It seems incomprehensible now, given what we’ve learned about his personality over the past four years, but Chip Kelly actually once had a weekly coach’s show on KEZI where he talked about the previous Saturday’s game; a role he assumed from his predecessor Mike Bellotti (who picked it up from his predecessor Rich Brooks). I bet he hated every minute of it.
He did the show because that is what first-time head coaches in their first seasons, as Kelly was, and Mark Helfrich is, do: They replicate what the previous coach did until they establish their own identity. Both Kelly and Helfrich had the unenviable task of following the most successful coach in school history. Trying to follow that often means doing something a coach knows they may not enjoy but that there is a public expectation for them to do. For Chip Kelly, that was doing a TV show.
Yet on Friday we saw the first signs of Helfrich establishing his own identity as head coach. We had already seen inklings of it over the season – punting instead of going for it on midfield fourth downs, a greater reliance on the pass – but the loss to Arizona may have provided him his first full immersion into expectations that come with being a head coach. Previously, he had understood the roles and responsibilities. Losing gives the coach the perspective that he is the bus driver, and when the bus goes off the road, they blame the driver, not the bus.
Losing to Arizona likely gave him the realization, “If I lose, they blame me.” It is one thing to know that, it is another to understand it. Once someone understands that, the most common response is “if I’m going down, I’m going down my way.” That is when an identity is established.
Look for the Ducks to continue to further shift their style to make Helfrich’s identity for them beginning with their bowl game, and don’t be surprised if the team has a much different look to it in 2014.
No One Knew What to Expect Friday, Meaning That Crazy Ending Makes Sense
One of the critical moments for the establishment of Mark Helfrich’s identity came midway through the second quarter, when up 14-7, Helfrich elected to kick a field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-goal from the two yard line, a decision his predecessor likely never would have made.
In fact we know what Kelly would have done. Last year, Kelly did go for it on a similar red zone fourth-and-two against Stanford, and the three points Oregon could have gotten would have been the difference between a win and an overtime loss.
While Helfrich’s decision ended up raising a lot of eyebrows at the time, it turned out to be the correct call in a one-point game. Had Oregon not kicked a field goal and not converted on that fourth down, it not only changes the score, but changes the entire complexion of the game.
Oregon State wouldn’t have gone for two on either of its fourth quarter touchdowns; the addition of those two points would have meant Oregon would have been trailing by two scores for most of the fourth quarter.
By contrast, Oregon State went for it on fourth-and-one from the Oregon four-yard line in the third quarter, only to fail to score on the possession. When asked about the decision after the game, Oregon State head coach Mike Riley said, “Yeah, I wish I had the field goal now.”
Riley’s decision wasn’t the wrong one, just one ill-suited for that game. Historically, opponents have had to keep pace with Oregon, match them touchdown for touchdown, which motivated Riley’s choice. Meanwhile Helfrich, leader of the team that “always goes for it on fourth down,” changed things up by taking the kick (3 points). It was the difference in the game.
While Kelly’s style often made for exciting moments, many on fourth down, that style rarely made for exciting games. While Oregon has lost six games since the start of the 2010 season, they had won only four by fewer than two touchdowns. Oregon had lost its last four games decided by less than a touchdown, and hadn’t won by less than a touchdown since 2010. The last time Oregon won a game by a single point? 34-33 over Oklahoma in 2006, the year before Chip Kelly arrived in Eugene.
This made the reporting that the team was celebrating like crazy in the locker room following Friday’s win all the more significant. Teams need close wins to find out what they are made of; to find the confidence necessary for future contests. Having a win like that for the first time in three seasons will be critical in their attempts to get back to the top of the conference next season.
Oregon’s Senior Receivers – Yes, Plural – Shine on Senior Day
It was great to see a terrific final game from the only two seniors amongst the wide receiving regulars: Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins. While Huff got the lion’s share of attention, and deservedly so, Hawkins played well in Friday’s game, and while he had only two catches, both receptions came at critical times in the game, showing what a reliable player Hawkins has developed into by the end of his career.
While it is an era of upheaval for the definition of a “college athlete,” it is still important to remember that all these players are still college students. Ideally, college is a place to foster the development of an individual to prepare them for the world. Few college students have flawless developments. For the majority of students, college is a series of fluctuating periods of success and failure, with the hope that it all comes together for them in the end.
Both Huff and Hawkins have had similar arcs to many of their college peers, not just those on the field: flashes of promise early, challenges and adversity in the middle, with everything coming together in the final stages where things finally “click” for them.
For Huff, it was about becoming the star player he was meant to be for the Ducks. After being used largely as a luxury weapon during Oregon’s 2010 title run, Huff struggled to become the consistent star so many expected of him over the next two seasons. To see him emerge as Mariota’s go-to weapon in Friday’s game was fulfilling, to say the least.
Hawkins didn’t have the scrutiny that is reserved for not-yet-stars that Huff experienced, but he had his less-than-shining moments in big games in previous seasons amplified, leading to some public questioning of his reliability as a receiver.
Seeing Hawkins make those two catches in big situations yesterday to demonstrate his reliability as a receiver was special. It showed the best of player development in college football; potential realized in the beginning, being fulfilled in the end.