Oregon’s 2013 season was without question one of the greatest in school history, as the Ducks finished with 11 wins for only the fifth time ever.
The year started out about as well as it could have with the team setting a school record 772 yards of total offense against Nicholls State on its way to a 66-3 win. Oregon jumped out to an 8-0 start, including a 42-14 win over UCLA, a game that featured the Ducks allowing only 64 yards to stud quarterback Brett Hundley. At that point the Ducks were considered a favorite by many to play in the National Championship Game.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota spent the first half of the season as the frontrunner for the Heisman trophy before a knee injury slowed him down. Unfortunately, the team as a whole slowed down with him, falling to Stanford and Arizona on the road down the stretch.
With the two late losses, the wheels appeared to be coming off in a season that had started out with so much promise, at least until the heroic efforts of Josh Huff led the Ducks against Oregon State in the final regular season game. This 36-35 win over the Beavers seemed to salvage the squad’s confidence and national reputation.
All of this came under the direction of Head Coach Mark Helfrich, in his first year with that title, after being promoted from offensive coordinator in the wake of Chip Kelly’s departure. The Ducks’ 11-2 finish is the best record in school history during the first season under a new head coach.
While Helfrich certainly inherited a roster loaded with as much talent as the program has ever had and led by arguably the best quarterback in school history, that should not take away from his accomplishments in 2013.
Many fans were hoping for a conference title or a national championship appearance, but let’s not forget all that Helfrich accomplished since taking over.
With the news that Chip Kelly would be heading to the NFL prior to the 2013 season, Helfrich had to hold Oregon’s recruiting class together, a truly difficult task. Though the Ducks lost four-star prospect Dontre Wilson to Ohio State, the new head coach wasted no time meeting with each recruit to maintain the commitments.
Perhaps an even better indication of Helfrich’s success thus far is the 2014 recruiting class. He convinced 20 players to sign, a result comparable to the 2010 recruiting class (the first full class under Kelly as head coach). The class includes the same kind of offensive firepower that Kelly was consistently able to bring in, (Royce Freeman and Jalen Brown come to mind.)
The continued success on the recruiting trail is encouraging, and shows that Kelly was not the entire program.
However, perhaps the most encouraging part of Coach Helfrich’s first year was his impressive ability to push the idea that Oregon’s Alamo Bowl appearance should be viewed as the first game of the 2014 season, which seemed to give the Ducks new life.
With Mariota back in full health, the Ducks’ offense appeared to stop over-thinking and began to take what the Texas defense gave it. Oregon cruised to a 30-7 victory over the Longhorns, including two defensive touchdowns, and helped save the team (and its fan base) from entering the off-season with a deflated, uneasy feeling.
So, how does Helfrich’s first year stack up to Oregon’s past coaching greats of the modern era, such as Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti, and Chip Kelly?
Brooks came to Eugene to coach a team that had not had a winning season in six years. In his first year in 1977, the Ducks went 2-9 but finished strong with a win over Oregon State (also 2-9).
Bellotti started in 1995, taking over the Brooks-led Oregon squad that in 1994 made its first Rose Bowl appearance in nearly four decades. In his first year, the Ducks went 9-3 (6-2 in conference).
Kelly’s first season was extremely impressive, all things considered. After a truly disastrous opening loss to Boise State, Oregon rebounded to win the Pac-10 with a 10-2 regular season record, heading to the Rose Bowl to take on Ohio State.
Though they fell to the Buckeyes, Kelly’s Ducks were clearly on the verge of greatness.
One interesting note to make is that none of these coaches were able to record more wins than his respective predecessor during his rookie season. Oregon went 4-7 in 1976, but fell to 2-9 under Brooks in 1977. In 1994 the team went 9-4, and Bellotti’s team finished 9-3 in 1995 (with one more conference loss).
Even with the the Rose Bowl appearance, Kelly’s 2009 squad won 10 games, the same as Bellotti’s 2008 team.
This is an encouraging note to make, considering the fact that Helfrich’s 11-2 record was a slight step back from Kelly’s 12-1 mark in 2012.
While Helfrich was not exactly new to the program in 2013, having spent the previous four years as offensive coordinator, he had a lot to live up to. Kelly had taken the Oregon football program to heights it had not known before.
Though it is still too early to tell, Helfrich appears to be on the right track for great things, with a superb record, a strong recruiting class — and a decisive Alamo Bowl victory to finish his first year, which is is something even Brooks, Bellotti, and Kelly were unable to pull off.
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck.