A month of bowl game preparation can be a blessing or curse for Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, as his team readies for an Alamo Bowl date against Texas.
Blessings are evident. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, hampered by a left knee injury in the regular season’s final month, practiced without a brace on Thursday. A healthy Mariota is obviously paramount to the Ducks’ offensive game plan, but especially so given Texas’ deficiencies.
Helfrich and coordinator Scott Frost have had ample time to study the Texas defense, a unit that struggled mightily against up-tempo, spread offenses similar to that which Oregon runs. In particular, the Longhorns struggled against mobile quarterbacks like Brigham Young’s Taysom Hill and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace.
The Longhorns haven’t struggled quite as mightily since Greg Robinson settled back in as defensive coordinator of head coach Mack Brown’s staff, but this hasn't exactly been the 2005 Texas defense, either.
With Byron Marshall healthy again, Oregon has the leader of its multifaceted run game spearheading the attack. Add Mariota at full strength and the dynamic ball-carrying his knee injury limited last month, and the Ducks present Texas with one of the most difficult-to-contain looks in college football.
Conversely, the inherent curse is in the additional preparation time that Texas has been afforded to examine and replicate the issues that vexed Oregon late in the season.
The season’s final month erased the unbeatable air surrounding Oregon as it blasted one opponent after another through its 8-0 start, dominating on both sides of the ball.
BCS chaos shaking out as it often does, a one-loss Oregon team could have factored into the BCS Championship equation. A single blemish suffered at Stanford may not have necessarily eliminated Oregon for the title game bid Auburn earned, but a two-loss Oregon squad had no shot at a BCS bowl game, let alone the crystal ball.
Opponents rushed with confidence on the Ducks defense in the final month. Stanford and Arizona went with an approach of quantity over quality, nickel-and-diming at fewer than five yards per carry.
However, the ability of each offensive line to dominate in the trenches and turn those medium-length rushes into sustained drives kept the ball away from the explosive offense and ultimately became Oregon’s undoing—and is an area for Texas to potentially exploit.
To give up big yards on more than 40 carries from Pac-12 pace-setters Tyler Gaffney and Ka’Deem Carey is one thing. Allowing Oregon State, the conference’s No. 11-ranked rushing offense, to go for 231 yards on the ground is much more disconcerting.
Stopping the Texas rush isn't just necessary for an Oregon win, it’s about making a statement for a defense that’s still maligned for its ability to stop high quality competition.
The Ducks’ motivation—or lack thereof—is an often cited factor in their late-season woes. With Texas playing in its home state and with the opportunity to give Brown a victorious sendoff, the Longhorns would seemingly have a monopoly on motivation.
“If you want to try and find a reason for motivation, you can nitpick on anything. You can say our motivation for wanting to win is just because it’s our coach’s first season,” senior safety Brian Jackson told The Oregonian.
And indeed, notching Helfrich win No. 11 is of particular significance because of what that number means in recent program history.
With records of 12-1 in 2010, 12-2 in 2011 and 12-1 last season, Oregon is a benchmark for consistency in college football. Only Alabama and Pac-12 North rival Stanford have been as consistent in that same period.
A loss sends Oregon to its worst final record since going 10-3 in 2009, Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach.
Surely there is no shame in first-year Coach Helfrich finishing 10-3. However, the expectations Helfrich inherited from Kelly differ from those Kelly took on after Mike Bellotti.
Where Kelly’s first season was a step forward—the program’s first BCS bowl in eight years and first Rose Bowl in 15—this season has shown a slight regression. The Alamo Bowl is an opportunity to take a step back in the right direction and for the Ducks to earn their national championship contender status heading into 2014.