What Mark Helfrich Has That Chip Kelly Didn’t

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At some point during Michigan State’s 20-point run in the second and third quarters, I recalled a forgotten worry of many Oregon fans:

“Wait, did the Ducks ever solve the ‘teams with great defenses shut Oregon down’ perception?”

Turns out, they hadn’t.

That had been the nightmare that had haunted Oregon for the past five seasons, that its offense looked unstoppable against good-or-worse defenses, but great defenses made the offense’s seemingly effortless execution evaporate quickly. Their already naturally small time-of-possession stat would shrink even more significantly, creating what had become a binary outcome for Oregon’s offense: unstoppable or immovable; no in-between.

Devon Allen on his 70 yard TD reception against Michigan State.

Kevin Cline

Devon Allen on his 70-yard TD reception against Michigan State.

For five seasons, that was the mindset that Oregon fans had carried with them. Games against teams they were better than became seemingly automatic. The fear was saved for those opponents with stout defenses; the rare occurrences on the schedule where the Ducks found themselves challenged. This became many an Oregon fan’s burden. It had been narrative under Chip Kelly, and following the loss to Stanford last season, it appeared that narrative would continue under Mark Helfrich.

Then came the Arizona game in 2013, followed by two less-than-dynamic performances against Oregon State and Texas. Through the offseason and carrying into 2014, Oregon fans’ expectations and fears had been reset; instead of knowing where the danger spots lay on the schedule, every game became a mystery.

That mystery drove the usual pregame anxiety of Oregon fans going into yesterday’s game. Fans didn’t talk about “will this finally be the game where the Ducks break through against a great defense?” Fans wondered, “How our they going to play against the best team Oregon has faced since our expectations were reset?” If the Ducks struggled against unranked teams, how would they fare against the defending Rose Bowl champions?

Oregon celebrates a touchdown against Michigan State.

Kevin Cline

Oregon celebrates a touchdown against Michigan State.

For the first 14 games of his career, Coach Helfrich’s perceived greatest sin was that he wasn’t Coach Kelly.

For his first eight games, it appeared that he was; that the “next man up” concept Kelly was so fond of describing with his roles for players would extend to coaches, too. The Stanford loss was bad, but as an isolated loss — on the road — it would have ultimately been dismissed one of those tough outcomes that happen when playing good teams.

Then came the Arizona loss, notable not only for its poor timing, but for its listless presentation. It was the type of loss that didn’t happen while Kelly was head coach, and the offseason sentiment became Oregon fans pining for the days of recent yore. Sure, Oregon couldn’t beat the great defenses, but they at least the won conference championships!

Keanon Lowe scores an important TD against Michigan State.

Kevin Cline

Keanon Lowe scores an important TD against Michigan State.

For the first 14 games of his career, Coach Helfrich’s perceived greatest sin was that he wasn’t Coach Kelly. Yet in his 15th game on Saturday, Helfrich proved that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the team he coaches just put 46 points on a great Michigan State defense, more than the Spartans had given up to any opponent in more than three years.

And that loss to Arizona last year? The Ducks showed a resolve on Saturday to overcome trouble in a way that fans would not have expected from this team at the end of last season, one that stayed in it through a 20-point Spartan run by responding with 28 unanswered points of their own to end the game.

That resolve was needed to keep Oregon in the game until their fortunes could be turned on a single play: the 3rd-and-10 where Marcus Mariota evaded the Michigan State pass rush to pitch the ball to Royce Freeman for 17 yards. The Ducks ended the drive with a 24-yard Devon Allen touchdown reception, the first of Oregon four unanswered second half scores. It was a huge momentum swing for the Ducks, as Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio conceded in his post-game press conference:

“We had to stop the momentum and we had him dead to right and he got out. We had him. I even said, ‘He’s sacked.'” Dantonio huffed. “But again, you have to credit him, that’s why [Mariota] is the player he is.”

Marcus Mariota evading pressure from the Michigan State defense.

Kevin Cline

Marcus Mariota evading pressure from the Michigan State defense.

To succeed of anything, you need to be good and lucky. That play, how it swung the momentum for Oregon and changed the game, made me think about a similar play in this very matchup 15 years earlier.

In Michael Weinreb’s article from last week on the Michigan State-Oregon game from 1999, he told the story of how the Spartans prevailed on defensive back Amp Campbell’s touchdown return of a Herman Ho-Ching fumble (Oregon fans who remember still look to the sky at the memory of it) that ended up as the winning score for Michigan State. That season-opening win fueled a five-game winning streak that helped the Spartans go 9-2 that year, and raised head coach Nick Saban’s profile to the point that he could be lured away by LSU. From Weinreb describing the leadup to the play:

It’s easy to imagine that if what happened in the second half of the first night of the 1999 season had not taken place, then Nick Saban might have gone 6-6 again, and he might have lost his job at Michigan State, and he might have slipped back into the NFL as an assistant coach, and from there, who knows what kind of peculiar path his life might have taken?
But what happened next did happen next.

Saban went on to win four national championships, a product of his quality as a coach. But he needed that break back in 1999 to give his career the momentum to reach the levels he achieved. He was good, but he needed luck, too. Kelly was good too, but if there was one trait that he was always short on in his time at Oregon, it was luck. That bad luck may have been the only thing that caused him to leave Eugene without a national championship.

Royce Freeman with a second half touchdown against Michigan State.

Kevin Cline

Royce Freeman with a second half touchdown against Michigan State.

Maybe Saturday was that break for Mark Helfrich. Oregon has now defeated the most imposing opponent on its schedule this season, and early returns on this year’s Pac-12 contenders have shown them to have less bite than expected prior to the season. Things are lining up for Oregon this year. Then again, we say that every year.

To succeed, you have to be good and lucky. Kelly wasn’t lucky, but he was good. We know Helfrich can be good, too, coaches don’t win 11 games in their first year by accident. But maybe Saturday’s game was the break necessary to push him and the Ducks down the road to success.

Top image by Cliff Grassmick

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Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt is a senior writer and managing editor emeritus for FishDuck. Follow him on Twitter @nathanroholt. Send questions/feedback/hatemail to nroholtfd@gmail.com.

  • Ethan Elson

    good article, very well written. i tend to agree about helfrich. i think hes finding out that this is his team too, not just mariota’s. was it just me or did helf seem to be a little more in command on the sidelines?

  • Chris

    But, but, but … the B1G is down this year (even further) and the Spartans lost a bunch of studs on defense and the game was at Autzen and it was too hot for MSU and Oregon showed they couldn’t REALLY run the ball that well. So it wasn’t that great of a win and Oregon has a gimmicky offense and they’re all flash and sizzle and style, but no substance and they’ll wilt when they play a team with a REAL big boy D. Or so I hear.

    • fairweatherfoul

      That’s what you hear from those whiny little boys that refuse to believe Chip dumped them and UO. They’ll say anything to minimize Helfrich’s potential success.

      Kelly was all about establishing a one team culture. He hand picked his successor only so the culture would be preserved.

      Metaphorically, any coach but Helfrich would have blown up the whole thing, just like the new alpha male in a pride of lions–kill all the cubs and start over. Helfrich did get rid of some problem cubs, but he produced a bunch of new, talented cubs to help the pride hunt.

  • hooverli

    What Mark has that Chip didn’t is a mature Marcus Mariota—one of the greatest Duck qb’s ever. We’ll see how good Mark really is after Marcus is moves on to the next level.
    Chip got the Ducks to 4 BCS games (including the NCG) with Jeremiah, Thomas, and a RF Marcus.

  • O.l. Forester

    Take another look at Kevin Cline’s photo above of Royce Freeman running down the sideline. Look for Mark Helfrich. That is a coach with focus. Every person on the sideline is watching Freeman. Helfrich, he’s looking in the backfield, not watching the runner at all. Probably why he was admitted to medical school. He’s not looking at the symptoms or outcome, he is looking for the play behind the player. I find this photo very, very interesting.

    • hvrli

      Who’s that dude with the crazy ‘fro, running in front of Mark?

  • Godux

    Chip was the final piece in the building process which has now become a refining and decorating one. Helfrich has a mature product to take care of, and he is doing it.

    Helfrich salvaged the first recruiting class when in was in jeopardy due to problems Chip left behind. Off the hook for that, Mark may have put together the best recruiting class Oregon has ever had (this year’s 13 freshmen who have already played, plus a few others) and may be improving on that with the next one.

    What he has, that Kelly and his predecessors never had, is a chance to lose what they built. They were always expected to fall short. While none except Kelly threatened to win a championship, they exceeded expectations. Helfrich has none capable of being exceeded. Fans expect Oregon to be in the final four, not this year but for the near future. They expect them to win as well.

    The buzz is already audible that this is the last year he can meet that expectation. When Mariota leaves, it is all over.

    I can’t buy into that. Position by position Oregon is built on the ‘Next Man Up’ concept. We may not get another player of Marcus’ ability soon. Nobody else will either. The talent pool and recruiting board (committed players) will provide adequate replacement to remain in the hunt. Nobody had heard of Mariota before his RS year. Oregon has consistently slipped a very solid QB into the slot due to injury or graduation because it has a system, and lots of talent, with depth, to stock it with.

    Lockie may be another very capable back-up next year, or a successful starter. I can’t think of a program in the conference that wouldn’t be happy to have him on campus, most as their starting QB next year.

    So what Helfrich has that none of the other had, including Kelly, is a paid off Rolls Royce.( no pun intended) All he has to do is maintain it and he seems ton know how to do that.

    • Chris Andres

      I’m intrigued by both Mahalak & Waller. Both unknowns for sure, but so was Mariota.

      • Godux

        Yes. I’m in Maine now, far from my old rumor sources , but I’ve read enough to think there is talent there to leapfrog Lockie, who looked pretty good in the opener and has a good handle on the playbook. Hopefully Mahalak is soaking up the nuances and will get a chance to try them out, perhaps in the next couple of games. We, and all commits and targets, know the best QB will play rather than spend a year behind an incumbent if he is better.
        I can’t recall their names at the moment but there were one or two other recruit targets who saw themselves fitting into the Mariota mold. Of course seeing and doing are not the same.

    • Michael G

      Fantastic post, by an obvious fantastic fan!