Amidst all the x and o analysis flying back and forth over the National Championship Game on Monday, it’s easy to forget that some of these players weren’t even starters when the season began. Despite the frenzy of speculation over responding to the up-tempo offense, defending the deep ball or stopping the run, one of the most important factors both in understanding how these teams got to the NCG and deciding who will win it is not how they will deal with each other, but how they have dealt with their most formidable common opponent: injury.
The highest profile loss is OSU’s star quarterback Braxton Miller, who was poised to follow a spectacular 2013 season in which he threw for over 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns with what was expected to be a strong Heisman campaign this year, but sustained a shoulder injury in August that kept him out for the entire season. One shudders to think what could’ve been, had he been able to remain at the helm of the Buckeye offense. Blows like that, though, aren’t the hardest ones. Miller could’ve been a huge asset to Ohio State, but they knew all year that they wouldn’t have him. They played every week without him, built a system without him, learned not just to cope but to flourish on the arm of backup J. T. Barrett, and then eventually third stringer Cardale Jones. The toughest hits to take are the midseason meat-grinders, the ankle-biters, the November and December griddle games where you start to see guys you’ve been in the trenches with all year start to disappear. Oregon is all too familiar with those.
Included on the Injury Report for Monday’s game are All-Americans Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Tyler Johnstone, Marcus Mariota favorites Devon Allen and Bralon Addison, and All-Pac-12 TE Pharaoh Brown, and that’s just the guys who haven’t been allowed back on the field. It seems like the Ducks just got back Keanon Lowe and Hroniss Grasu, another All-American who will be paving the way for returning runningback Thomas Tyner on Monday. All have been hurt. All have come back, and come back with a vengeance.
Injuries have been a huge part of the story of this Oregon team, but thanks to Ducks’ extraordinary culture of teamwork and support, so has consistent and prodigious success. Said DB Chris Seisay, ”All the injuries that have been happening…We just get stronger…that’s just our mentality.” Those are tough words, game-face words, but the Ducks aren’t all stone-cold mercenaries. They care about each other, and that’s just as important as their toughness. Later in the same interview, Seisay remarked ”We’re all close to each other, we’re like brothers.”
Asked about the special kind of chemistry he’d been able to instill in his injury-riddled o-line this season, line coach Steve Greatwood responded, “These guys all have trust in one another. I think as long as they know that the guy next to him has put in the same amount of work that they have, the chemistry takes care of itself.” That’s in line with this week’s narrative of Oregon as a calmer, more caring organization than a traditional football squad, but it also speaks to a team unity that has instilled a quiet toughness in the squad. Intimidating as they may be on their own, when you come to Eugene you’re not just playing Mariota or Hroniss or Seisay, you’re playing the Ducks.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline