The Curse of The Maldonado and how to break it

In 2010-11 the Ducks missed a national title by the distance between a shinbone and a blade of grass, and for three years, they’ve been achingly close to going back, each season falling miserably in the 11th game of the year. They’ve reached 8-0 or 10-0, #1 or #2 in the polls and the driver’s seat, each time crashing and burning, battered and bruised, tentative and tight, fans filing out of the stadium silent and disbelieving under a cold, dreary night sky.

Losses are never one player’s fault. I just picked the title because it sounds cool, like The Curse of the Bambino or the title of an Edgar Allen Poe short story. But look back over the last three seasons, and decide for yourself if the litany of almost doesn’t deserve a name.

2011 USC 38, Oregon 35

The Set up:  9-1, #4  Ducks are poised to move up after #2 Oklahoma State falls to Iowa State on Friday night. Instead, the USC snaps a 21-game home winning streak at Autzen.

Enduring image: Matt Barkley leading the Trojan band after the game.

Heartbreak play:   Field goal sails wide on the last play of the game.

Bad juju: Ducks held scoreless in the first quarter.   Jackson Rice (!) has a 22-yard punt. On the game’s second possession Oregon sacks Barkley on 3rd and 4 who fumbles at his own 25. Brandon Hanna recovers, but De’Anthony Thomas is clocked and fumbles the ball back on the very next play. Oregon drives down to the USC 9 just before half, but a touchdown pass is ruled out of bounds, and LaMichael James fumbles on the very next play.

Duck killer:  Marqise Lee scorches a young Duck secondary for 8 catches, 187 yards and a touchdown. He adds 6 kick returns for 134 yards

Post-game verdict:   “We lost a game,” said James, who rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown. “Life goes on.”

Crunching the numbers:

1st Quarter Pts.PenaltiesTurnoversRushing Yds (vs Season ave)Rushing Yds AllowedQBRField Goals
 Oregon 35 USC 3803-252209 (-90.2)139Thomas 40.2 (-35.3)Maldonado




2012 Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (OT)

The Set up:  10-0, #2 Ducks are poised to move up after Kansas State falls to Baylor just before kickoff. Instead, they’re bottled up by a relentless, pursuing Stanford defense, and fall at home in overtime.

Enduring image: Zach Ertz bobbling the ball at the back of the end zone with his shoulder resting on the end line, ruled a tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Heartbreak play:  Marcus Mariota zooms 77 yards with a keeper in the first quarter, but De’Anthony Thomas, convoying him to the end zone, inexplicably fails to block anybody, instead racing him to the goal line. A Stanford safety knifes in to cut Mariota off at the 15, and the Ducks turn it over on downs at the Stanford 7.

Bad juju: Ducks held scoreless in the first quarter.   Maldonado misses two field goals, one in the third quarter and one in overtime. An overtime fumble squirts from under the chest of Michael Clay. In the second quarter, Erick Dargan intercepts Kevin Hogan and returns it to the Oregon 46 with 1:50 to play, but Mariota is picked off by A.J. Tarpley two plays later.  In the third Ifo Ekpre-Olomu strips a Stanford receiver and recovers at the Stanford 39, but the Ducks get a holding penalty, the drive stalls and Maldonado misses from 42 yards, the ball doinking off the right upright.

Duck killer:  Tyler Gaffney bulls for 33 carries for 166 yards. Ertz grabs 11 passes for 106 and a touchdown.

Post-game verdict:  “It hurts and as I told them, you’d like to have some words that would take the pain out of it, but there aren’t,” Chip Kelly said. “We’ll feel bad for a little bit of time and we’ll bounce back from it.”

Crunching the numbers:

1st Quarter Pts.PenaltiesTurnoversRushing Yds (vs Season ave)Rushing Yds AllowedQBRField Goals
 Oregon 14, Stanford 1705-541198 (-117.2)200Mariota 49.3 (-38.5)Maldonado



2013 (A) Stanford 26, Oregon 20

The Set up:  8-0, #3 Ducks control destiny for National title but get manhandled at Stanford Stadium. Down 26-0 in the fourth quarter, they storm back with a quick drive, a blocked field goal return for a touchdown, a successful onside kick and another drive, but fall 26-20.

Enduring image: A hobbled Marcus Mariota getting helped off the field after a third quarter fumble.

Heartbreak play:  Scrambling left on a gimpy knee, Marcus Mariota misses a wide-open Josh Huff at the five yard-line on 3rd and 6 on the Ducks’ first possession.

Bad juju: Ducks held scoreless in the first quarter.  Midway through the period, they have first and goal at the Stanford 7, but two inside runs gain little, then a 4th down fade to Bralon Addison misses long. In the second quarter they reach the Stanford 2 but De’Anthony Thomas, lying on the ground, gets stripped by Shane Skov and loses possession. Another drive stalls when Mariota fumbles at the Stanford 28 on first and 15.

Duck killer:  Stepfan Taylor bulls for 45 carries for 157 yards and a touchdown. Kevin Hogan bounces off three tacklers for a critical third-down conversion deep in his own territory/

Post-game verdict:   “We don’t hold the cards anymore,” first-year Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said.

Crunching the numbers:

1st Quarter Pts.PenaltiesTurnoversRushing Yds (vs Season ave)Rushing Yds AllowedQBRField Goals
 Oregon 14, Stanford 17010-81262 (-211.3)274Mariota 46.5 (-43.0)0-0


2013 (B) Arizona 42, Oregon 16

The set-up: after a Stanford loss to USC the week before, the 9-1, #5-ranked Ducks control their destiny for the North Division title and a shot at the Rose Bowl, even mathematically alive for the national title game, but they are flat and listless, steamrolled by 6-4 Arizona.

Enduring image: Kadeem Carey, running forever. B.J. Denker, channeling Dennis Dixon and Vince Young.

Heartbreak play: On the game’s first play from scrimmage, the normally reliable Bralon bobbles a pass at the sideline, it gets tipped by an Arizona defender who manages to keep it alive and in-bounds, and the Wildcats Scooby Wright intercepts, Mariota’s first interception of the season.

Bad juju: Oregon held to a field goal in the first quarter. Mariota throws two picks. The Ducks look flat and uninspired, a week after making statements in the press about being unexcited about playing in another Rose Bowl. Carey runs at will, and Denker completes 19-22 passes. Oregon’s defense allows 29 first downs, 11-16 on third down conversions. A second quarter drive stalls when Thomas Tyner fumbles, and UO trails 28-9 at the half. In the third period the Ducks go for it on 4th and goal from the 2 but a fade to Keanon Lowe fails. Trying to spark a 4th quarter comeback, Mariota forces a pass at the goal line and suffers his second pick.

Duck killer: Carey powers for 48 carries, 206 yards and 4 tds, with a long run of 20 yards. Denker passes for 178 and runs for 106, piloting an offense that slices through the Oregon defense.

Post-game verdict: Oregon’s run of 4 BCS bowls ends while losing as a 20-point favorite. “Obviously, how we started, in every phase, that is 100 percent my fault,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and which buttons to push.”

Crunching the numbers:

1st Quarter Pts.PenaltiesTurnoversRushing Yds (vs Season ave)Rushing Yds AllowedQBRField Goals
 Oregon 16, Arizona 4238-663198 (-75.5)304Mariota 49.3 (-42.2)Wogan,




This is the season that the Ducks have to break the curse, which in truth, isn’t a curse at all but a lapse in discipline and focus. Internal leadership on the team has to remember this sad history, and instill a determination to complete the job.

The national title chase is a 15-round heavyweight fight, but there are no knockouts. You have to win every round. Hroniss Grasu, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Marcus Mariota have to make every player understand that the accolades and highlights of week four aren’t enough, that the entire season has to be endured and overcome, that every week is indeed the Super Bowl. They have to take care of lesser opponents. They have to gather themselves for big games late when the pressure becomes excruciating.

Whether it’s winning the day or some other mantra, this team has to find a unifying idea, a meaningful understanding that sustains their purpose for a brutally challenging and exhaustingly long season. The preparation started the second week of January, and it doesn’t end for a year. The grind never stops. It can’t, if you want to win.

At the same time a championship team has to maintain its unity, its sense of humor and its loyalty to each other. They have to stay loose and confident, yet beady-eyed on the goal. The Ducks will never have a better chance than this year. Marcus Mariota is a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback, and Pellum seems to have a deep stable of young, athletic defenders, with Olomu to lead them. The new defensive coordinator’s penchant for aggressiveness, discipline and organization should do the rest.

Championship seasons are rare and elusive. After all the preparation and sacrifice, a team has to get a little bit lucky. No, a lot lucky. A couple of key plays have to bounce the right way. Remember the Ducks first Rose Bowl season, an overtime game at Arizona when Morgan Flint donked a 42-yard field goal off the crossbar, and it bounced in? Remember Nate Costa’s hold at the end of regulation, when he scooped an errant snap off the turf to save the tying extra point? There are strokes of luck like that, moments of supreme good juju where stars are aligned and comets miss asteroids in deep space.

They have to keep Marcus Mariota healthy, and avoid a rash of injuries on the defensive line. And the field goal kicker and the back-up quarterback have to be taken by the bony shoulders and made to understand, sometime during the year, the team will depend on you. It may be for a play or a series or three quarters or three games, but everything will depend on your ability to do your job with little preparation and no warning. You have to be mentally ready for that moment, because nothing in practice can simulate it, at least not adequately. Throw up if you have to, pleasure yourself in the porta-potty if it helps, but go out there and do what you’ve trained to do since you were ten. Seize the moment. Win the day.

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