A vast colosseum lies brooding on the banks of a wide lazy trout-filled river. Surrounded by nothing but forest and thick grass, both barely waving in a gentle breeze under azure cloud-dappled skies. Such is the vision of Autzen Stadium from the top of Skinner’s Butte on game day in the fall. A stadium, a field, soldiers marching to battle and the vast legions of fans swarming to watch them. The quiet thunder of thousands of feet, marching not in the unison of an army, but in unison of purpose.
2000 years from now archaeologists may find a similar setting. The footprint of something great, colossal, buried by time, silt, trees and grass, still just barely waving in a gentle autumn breeze. What will they think of this edifice created to allow tens of thousands to watch combat?
Will they crouch, and, letting the rich soil sift through their fingers, trying to imagine battles past, the roar of the fans, the glory of victory? Lifting their eyes to watch passing clouds momentarily block the sun, will they ponder under what conditions the games were held? Did the heroes gladly sacrifice themselves in the searing heat, driving rain, the cold and snow even? Did their blood mix with sweat and tears and drip into that very same soil upon which they crouched?
Such is the promise of another fall of Oregon football in 2016.
During these dog days of summer young men are preparing to go together to battle yet again. Countless hours spent training speed and muscle, countless hours repeating all of the necessary skills: catch, throw, push, block, twist, leap, run. Working over, and over, and over, to create a symphony of motion out of 11 individual instruments. Instruments, that when combined in one accord, become a mobile delivery system of subjugation. Eleven men blended into a machine whose sole purpose is to bend others to their will.
This is the Oregon way, this is the definition of Win The Day. This way is not blunt force trauma, it’s suppression, conquest. It is to score so often and so quickly that the opponents simply give up, that they simply stop trying – as I wrote about here last year. That they realize the futility of their every action, that they question why they even stepped on the field with the Ducks to begin with.
At times the Duck defense has flirted with greatness, has taken this definition of the Oregon way and forced it on opposing offenses. But those moments have been fleeting, and too infrequent. Even during the Rose Bowl, during which we utterly and completely destroyed Florida State, our defense gave up 6.3 yards per carry (not including Jameis Winston). If Florida State hadn’t committed so many unforced errors (five turnovers), the game would likely have been much closer and the outcome not at all pre-determined.
If you watch the Duck run defense in that game, ignoring all the turnovers, you will see the precursors to Ohio State’s victory in the National Championship game. All of the warning signs were there, if you weren’t blinded by the gaudy stats and 59 points the Ducks put up in the semis. Urban Meyer was not blinded, nay, his eyes where wide open. They saw through the success of Florida State how to wear down the Oregon defense taking advantage of Don Pellum’s defensive strategy.
Despite Oregon’s rotation and general fitness, its undoing was fatigue. Watch the game again. Time and time again Oregon forced Ohio State into third-and-long, even third-and-very long, yet the Buckeyes converted. And in many cases those third-down plays were exceptionally long plays time wise, and during that time (when we typically were dropping eight players in coverage), the Oregon defenders were running all over the place. This led, simply, to exhaustion. But Ezekiel Elliot was not exhausted, and in the fourth quarter Ohio State outscored the Ducks, 21-0.
After those games and players graduating, changes were made, but not improvement, our defense being one of the worst in the nation statistically. This year will be different, it has to be, as it would be nearly impossible to get any worse. But to compete in the Pac-12, as a starting point, the Ducks are going to need to improve – a lot. They need to become one of the best defenses in the league, because the Ducks can’t be sure that their offense will dominate as it has over the past nine years.
As our defensive players ready themselves for the upcoming season, their goal cannot just be mere improvement over last season. It cannot be that we’ll be breaking in a new defensive scheme and it’s good enough just to be better. Nay, this summer our defensive players must believe that they are preparing for battle, that the foe is not whomever is up next on the schedule but themselves. That every practice and workout is a military drill to bring uniformity, cohesiveness and dominance.
They must believe that their pads and helmets are their armor and that their jerseys and cleats are their raiment of battle. That each time they run out of the tunnel onto the field they are entering the arena for battle, not for individual glory, but for the glory of the whole. That in denying the opponent the ability to advance they will remove the opponent’s will to play. That in their symphony of motion they will secure victory.
And through that victory they will find the greatness of the whole and deliver glory to the entire team of Oregon. And the 60,000 fans in the arena will rise up with one voice to cheer them not just for victory and dominance, but for finally bringing the Oregon way to the defense each and every game. That all would recognize that the true glory is not in the victory itself but in the individual sacrifice that led to it. That each game would start with the mantra of “Sacrifice” and end with the players walking off under this banner: Won The Day.
Top photo from video