FishDuck Game Review: Injuries and Offensive Output Leaves Victory Somewhat Hollow

It is the signature moment of every Oregon pre-game fire-up motivational video–the long-standing replay of Kenny Wheaton’s iconic interception against Washington in 1994, known as “The Pick.” The crowd builds to a crescendo amidst the sounds of Jerry Allen yelling “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score!” A few revs from the Harley, punctuating “the most improbable finish to a football game!” and it’s officially go-time.

The Duck preparing to storm the field in his traditional style

The players sprint out to field, and the fans are in a frenzy, with chants of GO and DUCKS echoing from side-to-side inside the enormous bowl of Autzen Stadium.  It has been a staple of the Oregon pregame ritual for over a decade.

Traditionally, the Duckvision pre-game video has always been punctuated by “The Pick.”  There have been past years where The Pick has been moved earlier in the highlight, but it always manages to find its way back as to the finale. It is a representation of the moment when everything changed, when the climb to the top began. But recently Oregon has accelerated faster than the Harley down the field to the upper echelons of college athletics, re-defining their measure of success.

The 2012 video is the second year in a row where The Pick has been moved up in the highlights; clearly a nod to the Ducks’ attempt to truly make The Pick as a defining piece of history rather than an iconic reference to the current state of the program.  As the highlights stack up for the Ducks in recent years, the implication has been, “those past moments were great, but this is a new day.”

Just after fans were reliving The Pick for the umpteenth time, Fresno State ran onto the field amidst a cascade of half-hearted boos.  It was a fascinating juxtaposition, the 35-point underdogs taking the field against the Ducks, against the backdrop of classic highlights from an era when their matchups were brutal affairs, bludgeoned close battles with Oregon usually just barely escaping the Bulldogs, the non-AQ team that NOBODY wanted to play.

Their teams were similar, right down to their mustachioed coaches with pro-style offenses; in the blue corner coach Mike Bellotti and the red corner coach Pat Hill, each one fighting for validation amongst college football’s hierarchy.

From 1996 to 2006, the Ducks and Bulldogs played five tough games, including two overtime marathons to the last-man standing, all of them won by the Ducks–all by seven points or fewer.

A Traditionally Difficult Foe

  • 1996: The first ever overtime game in college football regular season history came as a result of Joshua Smith’s game-tying 38-yard field goal late in the 4th.  Fresno gets the ball first in overtime, and unaware of the strategies of Kansas-plan overtimes, decided to settle for a field goal.  Oregon would then score on the first play of its possession, a 25-yard pass from Tony Graziani to Josh Wilcox. (Read’s account of the game for a far more complete history.)
  • 1997: The second straight overtime game in the series was one of wild lead changes. Fresno led 14-7 after the first, Oregon led 11 after the third, only to see Fresno score 17 unanswered in the fourth quarter to force overtime. In OT, the Bulldogs settled for a field goal after an impressive goal line stand led by Peter Sirmon. On Oregon’s possession, Jason Maas finished it with a 1-yard touchdown run.
  • 2002:  The Ducks trailed 24-15 late in the 3rd quarter, and despite an untimely fumble by Jason Fife with less than five minutes to play, Oregon still managed to score the final 13 points. Onterrio Smith’s touchdown run with 1:07 left won it 28-24.  It was the biggest margin of victory at Autzen Stadium over FSU in the series until 2007.
  • 2005:  Fresno State came to Eugene looking good after blowing out to Weber State in their opening game.  (Sound familiar?)  The Ducks trail by ten after the first quarter, but by halftime is able to take control of the game.  Still, Oregon can never fully separate itself from the Bulldogs.  A 42-yard touchdown by Terrence Whitehead with 4:16 left made it 37-27, but Fresno State still manages to make the Ducks sweat, scoring a touchdown with 1:50 left to close it to 37-34.  Luckily for Oregon, that was also the final score, as the Ducks squeaked out another win.
  • 2006: Playing in Fresno, Oregon never trails after the first quarter, but never fully puts the Bulldogs away, either. Tied 24-24 with 4:55 left, Oregon fakes a field goal, optioning holder Brady Leaf out, who pitches to kicker Paul Martinez for the game-winning touchdown. The Bulldogs hang around, as the Ducks need an interception late in the game to seal the hard-fought win.
  • 2007: By the time Fresno State returned to Autzen Stadium in 2007, things had changed. The coaches were the same, the familiar foes Bellotti and Hill prepared for battle once more, but the teams were not on par any longer. For the first time in the series Fresno State looked like it didn’t have the horses to keep pace with the Ducks. The perennial thorn-in-the-side of Oregon had been destroyed, the Ducks eviscerated the Bulldogs in the first half, jumping out to a 42-14 lead before cruising to a 52-21 victory. After years of hard fought battles, the Bulldogs didn’t even make it a contest.

Play cards have become a staple of the Chip Kelly offense

What was the difference this time in the 2007 battle that made the consistently formidable Fresno team look feeble? The Ducks’ new offensive coordinator, coaching in his third game, a man by the name of Charles “Chip” Kelly, was running version 1.0 of his offense. This season is his sixth iteration.

That 2007 loss really signaled the end for Pat Hill, no longer competing toe-to-toe with the nation’s best striking fear in the opponents, Hill’s boys limped through the last few seasons before Coach Hill was shown the door after 15 years at the helm in Fresno.

Fresno State is hoping their new coaching addition and scheme change will yield similar success to the change that happened in Oregon back in 2007. New coach Tim DeRuyter, former defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, is implementing the spread after years of a pro-style offense under long-time coach Pat Hill, a system that appears eerily similar to that run by Oregon.

A week one blowout against Weber Stat,e and having the younger brother of the greatest quarterback in school history (quantitatively measured by Heisman finish) in Derek Carr, has fans in Fresno convinced the future is bright. The second half of their game against Oregon left no reason for them to feel otherwise, showing that maybe the 2007 game wasn’t the final nail in the coffin of the Fresno State program after all. New system, new coach, new signs of life.

The Ducks took a lot of heat this off-season for their schedule, in the wake of Kansas State backing out of a home-and-home agreement, but the first two weeks of the season have shown that it isn’t as weak as first thought.

In week one, Oregon played the hardest game of any team in the top-12 (as determined by closeness of point spread) outside of the Michigan-Alabama matchup.  Arkansas State may have been a heavy underdog, but they were also a defending conference champion, a 2011 bowl team, and a 10-game winner last year led by the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, Ryan Aplin. A quick start by Oregon led to a slow second half, sleepwalking through Arkansas State’s attempt at a comeback, bringing a 50-3 deficit to a much more respectable 57-34 finish.

Oregon’s week two matchup of Fresno State had historically given them fits, Fresno State once again returning to Autzen hoping that 2007 was a fluke not a trend. The question going into Saturday’s matchup was, with Fresno State feeling revitalized, had they closed the gap and returned the series to its hard-fought battle past, or would the gap between the schools be even more pronounced than it was in 2007?

The answer was both, actually. After going 4-9 last year, the second half showed that Fresno State looks like they could make some noise in the Mountain West this year. The Bulldogs made great halftime adjustments on defense, something Chip Kelly was quick to credit Fresno coach Tim DeRuyter in doing.

De'Anthony Thomas sprints for a touchdown vs. FSU

Oregon’s offense in its sixth year under Kelly’s tutelage may be far more supercharged that it was five years ago when last encountering Fresno State, though it didn’t appear quite as high-velocity as last week when, in the widely circulated words of Arkansas State defensive coordinator John Thompson this week perfectly described it, “That is, by far, the fastest team I have ever, ever, EV-VER seen.

What did replicate itself from last week was the tale of two halves; a first half where Oregon showed it could beat any team in the country, and another where they provided stacks of coaching tape to review on Monday. After grabbing a 35-16 halftime lead, four second half fumbles, three of them lost, made the game more of a contest than the first half necessitated.

Marcus Mariota (or is it Mario-tawww!?) followed up his spectacular first game with a rocky performance more expected from a redshirt freshman–taking three sacks and losing two fumbles and at times appearing off-target. After a near flawless performance in week one, perhaps expectations were too high that such a performance could be routinely replicated.

For all the adversity, Mariota failed to get rattled, leading the Ducks to a final drive to seal the win. Last week we were willing to let him steal Jack Thompson‘s nickname.  This week he showed why freshmen, no matter how talented or poised, are still freshmen.  Though unlike many freshmen, Mariota still showed the kind of poise and improvisation to thrive, proving that he just needs time.

If Mariota wants improve his consistency, he needs to look no further than to his backfield-mate Kenjon Barner. Barner’s highlights might not lead Sportscenter this week, but football purists had to love watching this performance, showing how much a player improves by his senior year. On every rush, Barner would wait…and wait…and wait…until the holes opened up, and explode through the gap making huge gains whenever they became available.

Kenjon Barner had career highs in yards and carries

As fumbles made the game tight late, Barner went to work, as he had done all day, punctuating the drive and the game with his third touchdown. Barner finished with 201 yards on 34 carries, the best performance of his career. When asked after the game if it was too many carries, Barner replied “I’d carry the ball 40 times if necessary.”

The game served as a defiant answer to any critics unsure if he could be the Ducks’ bell cow, spending the previous three years as LaMichael James’ primary back-up, and prone to several injuries in the past.

Steady is important, steady wins games. But steady rarely makes headlines and highlights. Headlines and highlights are De’Anthony Thomas’ specialty.

Remember in 2005, when Reggie Bush ran all over the Bulldogs in the Coliseum?  Fresno State fans would love to forget, especially since that moment started the slump of 11 losses in 12 games. The last thing they want to see on the opposing sideline is the conference’s best scoring-threat since Bush, who drew comparisons during the game to the former Heisman Trophy winner.

On his first carry, there was De’Anthony Thomas, in an almost mirror image of Bush’s legendary run from 2005, running 20 yards upfield, then cutting back for the touchdown.

What would have been his second touchdown in as many carries was wiped out, because the officials decided to review the spot of the previous play by Mariota. When it didn’t seem like Thomas could top that moment, his 51 yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter instantly became the lead-in for a clearly in-progress Heisman-worthy highlight reel.

It wasn’t all good news though in Oregon’s 42-25 victory over the Bulldogs. For the second week in a row, the win felt somewhat pyrrhic, not only for the second half lapse, but for the number of Ducks left limping afterwards.

Josh Huff's knee injury may have looked worse than it actually was

If Josh Huff is lost for any extended time, it could really hurt the receiving corps. No Duck receiver had more than three receptions, although that could just as easily be attributable to the dominance of the run game as to any dearth of experience at the position. Carson York, just barely back from his devastating knee injury in the Rose Bowl, was seen limping off the field with a knee injury again that could prove significant.

Multiple offensive linemen got dinged, and then came news of senior safety John Boyett, conspicuously out of the lineup, may require season-ending surgery. With Jared Ebert already lost to a knee injury from week one, it is far too early in the season to see this many Ducks going down with injuries, even with Oregon’s depth.

If Fresno State was looking to avoid shades of 2007, perhaps it is Oregon fans that should be recalling history as well, as the trend of injuries parallels the 2007 Oregon team that showed so much potential early in the season only to limp their way through the tail end of the year with one catastrophic injury after another.

For all the concerns about the defense after Arkansas State, Oregon’s second half offense gave the Ducks defense plenty of opportunities to redeem its reputation.

For as much sweat as fans poured over each Fresno State possession, the defense only surrendered 19 points in the second half despite repeated difficult starting field positions from a result of shanked punts and self-inflicted offensive wounds.

While it was a curious choice by Fresno State to make aggressive play calls to get the ball into Oregon territory only to then settle for field goals, credit the Oregon defense for creating enough doubt about converting to prevent Fresno from going for it more on fourth down.

A minute-long synapse of the Fresno State-Oregon game

Two weeks into the season, it is becoming clear that this may be the most physically-talented team Oregon has ever put on the field. When playing at their peak, they could beat any team in the country. For all their flash, they have also provided a lot of “coachable moments”–things to be improved Sunday through Friday. Yet to put together a full-game performance, the first game left the 2nd half defensive performance with questions, and in week two it was the offenses turn to leave many scratching their heads. Fortunately, it is still a young season, one where the supposedly “big” games don’t come until later in the year.

It is likely that they won’t be truly tested until November 3rd, giving Oregon six more games to refine and improve before their matchup with USC. The starters have proven they can control a game. The refinement of the reserves will determine whether this can be a special season, particularly if the reserves become full-time starters if the trend of injuries continues.

Game notes:

  • De’Anthony Thomas’ dangerously fielding the punt in the 1st shows his anxiousness to run anything back. He has the body language of the Trix Rabbit every time they kick away from him.
  • Poor Josh Huff, spent all last season hurt, and was injured again in the first quarter. The crowd chanting “Huff! Huff!” was a nice touch.
  • Carson York hurt as well, let’s hope that his re-injury isn’t too severe.
  • Kiko Alonso’s goal line stop in the third felt incredibly reminiscent of Peter Sirmon vs Fresno State in 1997.
  • Bralon Addison, who played few snaps in the first half, handled kickoffs in the second half, to mixed results.
  • The Carr Brothers: David Carr had a pass completion percentage of 64% from 1997-2001 as the Bulldogs starting QB. In the NFL, Carr had a completion percentage of 59%. David’s brother Derek Carr is the starter for Fresno State. As a high school starter, Derek had a pass completion rate of 58%. In two years as the Bulldog’s starter (2009-2011), Carr the Younger has a completion percentage of 63%.
  • The Ducks and Bulldogs have played each other nine times. Oregon leads the series with six wins and only two losses (four of the six wins were in Eugene). The last time the teams played was in 2007. The Ducks won 52-21.
  • Despite losing five-straight to the Ducks before Saturday, Fresno State has kept it close. Four of those five losses were by one score or less, including three games that were decided by four points or less.
  • Saturday’s game featured two of the 10 most efficient passers in the FBS after Week 1. Fresno State junior Derek Carr ranks seventh with a rating of 206.53, while Mariota is ninth at 203.18.
  • Since 2000, Oregon is 33-6 in regular season games against out-of-conference opponents (and 3-0 vs. Mountain West).
  • Nike has incorporated “Chain Maile Mesh” material into the uniforms. It’s a lightweight ultra-breathable material – used in both the jersey and pants.
  • Kenjon Barner surpassed 4,000 all-purpose yards for the Ducks during the game. If he puts up numbers comparable to LaMichael James last year, he can reach #2 on Oregon’s all-time rushing list. Not bad for somebody who has been a back-up his whole career until 2012.
  • At halftime, Kenjon Barner had 17 rushes for 137 yards with two touchdowns, while De’Anthony Thomas was also over 100 yards. Barner finished with career highs in both carries and rushing yards.
  • Oregon has only scored one touchdown in the second half of both games in 2012.


Post-game Interviews

Pre-game Photos

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1st Half Photos

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2nd Half Photos

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For additional images, visit the Flickr page:
*Images courtesy of ©Kevin Cline Photography

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