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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