Mark Helfrich Faces 1st Major Test in Getting the Ducks to Finish Strong

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Mark Helfrich Faces 1st Major Test in Getting the Ducks to Finish Strong
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich suffered his first loss as a head coach against Stanford.

Now that he has experienced what it's like to lose a game as a head coach, Oregon's Mark Helfrich will be tested like never before.

Coming off his first loss as a head coach, Helfrich must convince his team that the season is far from over. He was the offensive coordinator when Oregon lost November games in 2011 and 2012, but being a head coach is so much more than helping run an offense that practically runs itself.

The psyche of a team can be very fragile and difficult to manage—especially when that team is in the situation that the Ducks now find themselves. Having gone 54-8 since the start of the 2009 season, the Ducks have had a relatively easy time of late.

Oregon has been forced to break a sweat in just a handful of those wins, and it has cost them when they have found themselves in a slugfest. When the inevitable close game has come around in the last three years, the Ducks have fallen to teams that had been there numerous times before.

Oregon hasn't lost consecutive games since losing three straight during the 2007 season. That year, the Ducks were ranked No. 2 and coming off a big win over a ranked team at home entering a bye week. After the week off, they traveled for a Thursday night road game at Arizona.

Oregon's quarterback, Dennis Dixon, was the leading Heisman Trophy candidate before going down with a knee injury against the Wildcats. His Heisman hopes, as well as Oregon's national title dreams, evaporated with one ill-fated plant of his left foot.

Oregon's 2007 season fell apart when Heisman favorite Dennis Dixon went down with an injury.

Coming off another Thursday night road loss with a hobbled quarterback, the main focus for Helfrich is to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Oregon isn't decimated by injuries the way the 2007 team was, but there are plenty of similarities between that season and this year's team.

This season, the Ducks were No. 3 in the BCS and likely headed to the BCS National Championship Game had they finished undefeated. They had the Heisman favorite in quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was helped off the field during the loss to Stanford after an awkward hit to an already injured knee.

Unlike Dixon, Mariota returned to the game and his season is not over, but his Heisman hopes and Oregon's national title dreams are a thing of the past.

Marcus Mariota avoided the same fate as Dixon, and the Ducks hope to avoid a repeat of the 2007 season.

The Ducks failed a big test as a team against the Cardinal, but there is still plenty to play for. Their rookie head coach will need to rally his team the way his predecessor, Chip Kelly, was able to do after one of Oregon's rare losses during his tenure.

Coming off the disappointment against Stanford, Oregon faces a tricky road game on Saturday when they host the Utah Utes. On paper, the Ducks should win going away, but if football were played on paper, Oregon would be undefeated.

Ask the team that just knocked the Ducks out of the national title picture. On October 12, the Utes beat the Cardinal 27-21 in Salt Lake City.

The Utes handed the Cardinal their lone loss back in October.

It shouldn't take much convincing for the Ducks to get back to work and finish the season off with the effort and efficiency they have used to build a powerhouse. Despite a combined 16-11 record between its next three opponents, Oregon should be able to handle Utah, Arizona and Oregon State with ease.

The physical part of the game isn't the issue for the wounded Ducks, who suffered their lone Pac-12 losses in 2011 and 2012 during the month of November. Having suffered another late-season loss, which calls into question whether the Ducks are built to win a national title, winning over their own frustration will be tough.

Football is a physical game, but the mind is a powerful instrument, and it can cause the body to do questionable things when emotion gets a hold of it. The Ducks need to even themselves out in a hurry because the Utes have been known to pull off a big upset.

The Ducks have a team full of veteran leaders and young stars, and among them, a leader must rise to the challenge of guiding this team through the rest of the season. They were able to recover from a loss in the last two seasons, but only needed a win over Oregon State to finish the conference schedule.

Safety Avery Patterson is one of the team leaders for the Ducks.
In 2011, the Ducks beat the Beavers before facing UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Last season, their win against the Beavers led to a BCS bowl berth.

In Chip Kelly's first season as Oregon's head coach, the Ducks bounced back from a season-opening loss to Boise State to win 10 of the next 11 games to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. After another season-opening loss in 2011, the Ducks won nine consecutive games before a November loss to USC. They bounced back to beat rival Oregon State before beating UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Last season, a win in the annual "Civil War" against Oregon State was all it took to earn them a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.

Another BCS bowl appearance is all but a done deal if the Ducks win the next three games. But In order to make it to a fifth consecutive BCS game, they have more work to do than the previous two seasons. The Ducks will need to win two games against teams fighting for their bowl lives and a game against their traditional rival to finish 11-1.

If they do finish that way, the disappointment from the Stanford loss will fade by finishing the BCS era with yet another BCS appearance. It was that way under Kelly in all but one of his seasons as Oregon's head coach, and things turned out just fine.

Chip Kelly suffered a November loss in each of his last two seasons at Oregon, but the Ducks recovered nicely.

Mark Helfrich has been largely untested through the first nine games of his head coaching career. The Stanford game could serve as a catalyst for another late-season run or send the Ducks into a tailspin. The loss to the Cardinal was loud and abrupt, but Helfrich's first season at the helm will likely be defined by what happens over the next month.

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