Oregon’s second game on the schedule brings a match-up that could define the Ducks’ entire season, for better or worse. A win against Michigan State would help the Ducks dramatically improve their chances of contending for a National Title — especially under the new playoff system.
While there has been a lot of talk about the offensive and defensive match-ups the game presents, the coaching battle could be where the game is truly won or lost. Mark Helfrich and Mark Dantonio are both well-respected coaches across the FBS spectrum. Although Dantonio clearly has more experience after coaching since 1982, Helfrich showed no lack of expertise in that department after taking the Ducks to an 11-2 record and an Alamo Bowl win over Texas in his first year. Dantonio has also demonstrated his coaching ability over the past six years at Michigan State, taking the Spartans through three seasons of 11 or more wins and finishing the 2013 campaign with a statement win over Duck nemesis Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
There are several distinct differences between the conductors behind two of the nation’s top teams, especially in their backgrounds and coaching philosophies. Although Helfrich has only one year of experience as a head coach under his belt, it is interesting to compare the two coaches before they square off in September.
If one believes that experience comes with age, Helfrich would be just a kid in the college football coaching arena compared with the rest of the field. The average age of NCAA college football head coaches in the BCS era is 55. At 40, Helfrich is the 14th-youngest coach in the FBS.
Dantonio is 58. Maybe that means he is more experienced, or perhaps more withered due to years of stressful coaching. Dantonio did suffer a heart attack in 2010 and had to take two games off while coaching another from the press box. As far as we know, he has not had health problems since.
Nonetheless, both men have had success as a head coaches for various reasons. In addition to the players they’ve coached, both Helfrich and Dantonio learned from the best. As offensive coordinator, Helfrich learned at the shoulder of Chip Kelly, who was so successful that he now leads the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Dantonio learned from quasi-coaching-Yoda Nick Saban while serving as an assistant at Michigan State eight years ago.
This could very well be the reason for the two coaches’ fundamentally different philosophies. Helfrich comes from a background of coaching quarterbacks and offense, having played as a quarterback at Southern Oregon. Dantonio comes at the game from a defensive angle, with experience as a defensive back. Just as their positions battle on the field, they battle off the field with philosophy. Helfrich has seamlessly taken over as the leader of an offensive powerhouse, boasting the second-best team in total OFFENSE in the nation. Dantonio has built a program based on defense, which subsequently has become the nation’s fourth-best team in total DEFENSE.
It is even more impressive that both coaches come from relatively humble beginnings and have become prominent figures in the college football world. Helfrich was raised in Coos Bay, Oregon; a small coastal town of about 15,000. Dantonio spent his childhood in Zanesville, Ohio; a town of 25,000 an hour east of Columbus on I-70 and known for its historical landmarks and with roots in manufacturing.
While both men have vastly different approaches to football, they can agree on one thing: the outcome of the game is crucial to both teams’ post-season hopes. Obviously Autzen Stadium will play a large role as well, with one of the best home field advantages in college football.
It’s likely that Gameday will come to Eugene for the matchup between ESPN’s preseason No. 5 and No. 6. Hopefully the crowd will be able to fuel the Ducks to victory and help Helfrich further establish himself in his still new position.
It is worth noting just how important a coach can be as the leader of a team. More than just calling plays and coaching technique, a coach can inspire. A great coach can get a team to play with heart, making it more than just a game. A coach is every bit as important as his roster. That’s why a team with loads of talent can severely underperform and a team that lacks talent can still make a statement and pull the upset.
Although he is young, Helfrich has the ability to help Oregon football become even better. Whatever happens come September 6th, I know that he and our Ducks will be ready for the challenge.
Top Photo Credit kidsunlimitedtoledo.org