The Oregon Ducks have arrived at the Pac-12 Championship proving ground. Again. The time has come for them to finish what they started. They are now looking for their first conference championship under head coach Mark Helfrich and have earned the right to represent the Pac-12 North division in the final conference matchup against Arizona tonight.
As we anticipate the Pac-12’s marquee event, let’s take a closer look at three of 14 Oregon honorees for the 2014 All Pac-12 Conference teams. Running back Royce Freeman, safety Erick Dargan, and linebacker Joe Walker are special players that have stood tall along with quarterback Marcus Mariota all season long.
“Great offense wins games …”
The much quacked about Duck offense is humming along as one of the best in the nation. Mariota has blossomed into an NFL caliber quarterback of the highest order, providing weekly clinics and Sportscenter highlights for the last three months. While Mariota is undoubtedly the best player in college football, the Heisman candidate has also inspired his teammates to perform on an elevated athletic plane. The outcome has been nothing short of a magic show every time these young men hit the field.
The Ducks’ offense hinges upon a strong running game and demands versatility from its backfield. Successful runners in Oregon’s scheme must execute the read-option, slam in-between tackles, block for play action, and beat defenders to the edge.
Oregon’s running back coach Gary Campbell is known for his development of memorable backs, polishing the naturally gifted athlete into smart, effectual runners. True freshman running back and Pac-12 freshman offensive player of the year Royce Freeman, Campbell’s most recent protégé, has proven the perfect compliment to Mariota in the backfield.
Freeman is Oregon’s preternatural back, firm and fast, with a million dollar smile. Freeman leads the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns with 16 and is on pace for the most single season rushing touchdowns in school history.
The smiling stalwart is elusive but has the fortitude to blast through running lanes created by the offensive line. Defenders must make a choice when facing the 6 foot, 229 pound pain-load: chase or tackle, both being lofty propositions.
If Oregon needs to slow down, Freeman steps in as an every down back, grinding for yardage while chewing up the clock. After coming off initial blocks, Freeman transforms into an impromptu receiver and reliable safety valve for Mariota. The true freshman dazzled onlookers at Reser Stadium with a finger-tip catch and run for a touchdown demonstrating his ability to do anything for his team. Freeman’s collegiate coming-of-age has been essential in developing the identity of the Oregon offense beyond Mariota.
“But great defense wins championships”
It is often said, “Great offense wins games, but great defense wins championships.” Surely, cynics and sabermetricians alike have by now debunked this statement and it’s probably idealistic fluff. But there is still some emotional value in that quote, if only to inspire a defense to rise up and obtain an identity. The Oregon defense has played spirited football all year, from the rise of its linebacker corps to its airtight containment in the secondary, continuing to pursue perfection.
“We’re in search of playing that complete game […] because we haven’t done it yet. Can we get this right, that’s what our focus is on right now,” Oregon’s defensive coordinator Don Pellum told CSN.
If they are getting it wrong, it’s fun to imagine what “getting it right” will look like. Players such as Erick Dargan and Joe Walker have given this defense substance. Most of all, they cast a shadow of their own, one that looms large on the sideline while Mariota is at work.
The Dargan Supremacy
There is a young man who roams the secondary like a hungry animal. A true ball hawk, All Pac-12 second team safety Erick Dargan poses a major problem for any offense or special teams. Dargan is one that exemplifies pitch-perfect form combined with fringe elements of unchecked aggression, an embodiment of the ideal fear-inducing safety.
As Oregon’s leading tackler with 81, it is rare when the redshirt senior is not in on a play.
And it doesn’t stop there. Dargan leads the Pac-12 in interceptions (five) and has forced fumbles this year against stout Stanford and Utah teams.
Mariota is to Oregon’s offense as Dargan is to Oregon’s defense — a catalyst; an inexplicable “X” factor. Players like Dargan give Oregon’s defense a unique persona and eleven reasons to watch the game when Mariota is on the sideline.
Dargan is the leader of a group of football marauders with high hopes and cruel intentions, the effects of which have rippled across the nation. Just ask five-star high school defensive end Josh Sweat from Chesapeake, VA. (Sweat has scheduled an official visit to Oregon and is listed as the highest rated overall player in the nation, according to 247Sports.)
This Friday, the scales will tip one way or the other with contributions from proven playmakers such as Dargan.
The Rise of Joe Walker
It seems the Ducks have kept the “Kiko Alonso” model as the linebacker gold standard, recruiting players with equal parts strength, size, smarts, and speed.
Oregon linebacker and All Pac-12’s honorable mention Joe Walker is a perfect example. A master of open field tackling, Walker has quickly risen amongst the ranks of Oregon’s defenders. The dynamic JUCO transfer from Palos Verdes, California, is now best known for his 100-yard touchdown run in Utah, flipping the momentum in Oregon’s favor for good.
In the span of a season, Walker has already made an impact, starting in six games and racking up 69 tackles on the year. To witness a “Walker tackle” is to see how football’s founding fathers must have envisioned the perfect take down: head to the side, body in full extension, arms locked in complete restraint of the ball carrier. It’s a beautiful thing.
Along with his speed and size is Walker’s situational awareness, knowing when to jam the line, stepping back to spy the quarterback, or running to assist his teammates in a tackle. Walker is a multi-talented force of nature with rising stock at Oregon.
Chasing it …
Last year, Helfrich addressed the Oregon faithful:
“We’ll keep chasing it,” Helfrich said.
What he meant is they won’t quit chasing their dreams. Everything from titles to bragging rights could be realized, Helfrich believes, if they are perfect in their preparation. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but perfect practice helps, something that fans are witnessing as Oregon inches closer to the College Football Playoff.
Sometimes, Helfrich sounds like his old boss, Chip Kelly.
“You don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to level of your preparation,” Kelly once said. In that case, the Ducks are falling upwards, rising, not sinking, to 11-1 and second overall in the national College Football Playoff standings.
Indeed, this Oregon team looks different this time around.
There was an important learning moment in October, which forced this team take an honest look in the mirror. They responded to that mid-season question mark by becoming arguably one of the best football teams in Oregon’s history.
Each position group has produced multi-talented playmakers. And big plays are contagious, elevating the entire team, boosting morale and removing doubt.
It says a lot that Oregon had 14 players either selected to All Pac-12 Conference teams or that received honorable mentions. And it is their relentless preparation that has the Ducks looking like consummate professionals. This year, the deck is loaded with talent and the Ducks will show the whole country exactly who they are.
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck