Hint: It’s not just Mark Helfrich. Well, it’s mostly Helfrich…but not all Helfrich.
Every civilization has its rise, apex, then demise. Unfortunately, for reasons he can’t 100-percent control or articulate, Oregon football coach Mark Helfrich will be the man fingered for destroying the Ducks’ unprecedented two-decade run to big-time college football prominence, and—perhaps more importantly for the school’s flagship brand that made it all possible—ruining a marketing behemoth.
Like ‘em or not, it’s the hard-nosed, platitude-spittin’, god-fearin’, you better-stand-or-whatever-for-the-anthem-regardless-of-how-many-innocent-black-men-get-shot-by-cops (193 in 2016 and counting) football coach that still ascends to the ranks of the sport’s most notable: think Harbaugh’s Michigan, Saban’s Bama and a cracker named Dabo somewhere in the starched white sheet-loving part of South Carolina. The free-thinkers, the revolutionaries, those who stick up for their players and give them a voice—regardless of color or background—well they usually end up in Pullman, Washington.
Sustaining mainstream success in a town whose biggest media juggernaut is still KDUK was never in question. It was always a matter of when, not if, things were going to come crashing down on the Oregon football Banana Republic.
2016 is that year.
Let’s get to the schedule first. Heading into week three, Oregon was untested like homeschooled kids and had the first two home games (UC Davis and Virginia) to work out the kinks. Though Nebraska is a second-tier team in the monster Big-10 this year, going to Lincoln and getting a W during the Huskers’ 90k-plus 350th consecutive sell out (dating back to when the Beatles were not only still together, but still touring) was no easy task.
Helfrich and co. did their usual Stef from the third act of Goonies disappearing act in the late stages of the game and with a little help from the cornfed refs (bringing back a late fourth quarter game-sealing turnover on a false start call) notched their first of what will be at least seven losses.
Oregon is likely to squeak (squawk? …sorry) out wins at Washington State and at home vs. Arizona State (maybe…the Sun Devils are 3-0.) Though they’re on the road against a much-improved Oregon State, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt there too.
That’s the extent of their feasible wins.
Here’s the bad news/loss column:
Sept. 24 vs. Colorado:
Colorado is the most improved team in the conference (and maybe the nation) this season. Oregon’s only nearly indefensible weapon, running back Royce Freeman, left in the first quarter of last Saturday’s game against Nebraska with an undisclosed leg injury. Though Freeman may be ready to shed his health center boot against the Buffaloes Saturday, he likely will see limited playing time and won’t be at full strength. Oregon is also bereft of the services of Olympic hurdler and head field-stretcher Devon Allen, who will reportedly miss the remainder of the season with an ACL injury as well as offensive lineman anchor Tyrell Crosby, who hurt his left foot in Lincoln.
Colorado senior sensation Sefo Liufau is the PAC-12 South’s quarterback of note thus far this season (which is saying a lot considering Josh Rosen is in that pack.) Liufau has completed 71.1% of his passes for 768 yards and 6 touchdowns. The Buffaloes, in other words, are an entirely different animal than in years past and I like them to sit atop the south division along with Utah by season’s end.
Oct. 8 vs. Washington:
Don’t think the Huskies, perhaps a top 5 team nationally, haven’t had this game quadruple-circled on their calendar since about, oh, 1994? Think again. The 2016 Huskies are, to borrow a Bill Bowerman term, better, faster and stronger than the Ducks in literally every aspect of the game. Since The Pick, Washington has only beaten the Ducks a quartet of times and not once since 2003.
Oregon fans have even gotten a little
obnoxious overly confident about the Pac NW rivalry with this Twitter account:
— Last Time UW beat UO (@LstTimeUWBeatUO) September 22, 2016
Yes, the clock will start over at just under 4,750 days.
Oct. 21 @ Cal:
Cal re-entered the mix a couple years ago as a California school that the West Coast’s favorite safety school, UC Eugene, loses recruits to at the last minute (joining Stanford, USC and UCLA.) The winds of change have been felt from the MacArthur Maze all the way up to the IHOP on Franklin. Berkeley’s state-of-the-art revamped Memorial Stadium and accompanying facilities was the University of California system’s biggest investment of the century this far beyond buyouts for crooked or otherwise underperforming chancellors.
Cal will let the Ducks put up some points (see: giving up 43 to the then-21-ranked Texas Longhorns at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 17) but they’ll also score a lot too. Plus, every time a Cal player scores now, he’s instructed to hand the football directly to an official under orders from head coach Sonny Dykes. So there won’t be any more last-minute dropping-the-ball-at-the-one-shenanigans.
With Dykes’ offense averaging 45+ per game thus far, that portends a lot of ball-handing at Memorial Stadium come late-October.
Nov. 5 @ USC:
USC’s non-apologetic and very Trojan-esque drubbing Utah State was sandwiched by an absolute whoopin’ in Jerry World (52-6) at the hands of Alabama and a dismal scoreboard-didn’t-totally-reflect-the-one-sidedness 27-10 loss to Stanford week three.
USC head coach Clay Helton, an interim promoted after The Sark tanked, was awarded the permanent job last year by outgoing athletic director Pat Haden. He is 1-4 since trolling the sidelines next to Tommy Trojan full time and is garnering a reputation for doing less with more than any coach this side of South Bend.
Last week, the Trojans had a fourth and 6 at the 50, trailing the Cardinal by 17 points with nine minutes to go, Helton chose to punt.
So Helfrich and Helton in a battle of which storied PAC-12 program frontman wants it least. Unfortunately for Oregon’s head coach, the Coliseum home crowd and the still-emerging USC defense should give those SC sideline sweater monkeys something to not-have-to-fake-smile about in early November.
Nov. 12 vs. Stanford
In a recent back-and-forth of who can knock whom out of national title contention, Oregon returned the favor last year with a 38-36 upset at the Farm as graduate transfer QB du jour Vernon Adams Jr. threw for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Oregon got a late stop on a 2-point conversion to spoil Stanford’s playoff hopes.
Stanford is a year better, wiser and, from the looks of things, faster. Barring any injury to Christian McCaffrey, who went for 33 carries, 147 yards and 1 touchdown last season against Oregon, (and is trending to do that in the first half alone this year) David Shaw’s Cardinal should have no problem handing the Ducks their sixth loss of the season in Eugene.
Nov. 19 @ Utah
Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham knows how to beat Mark Helfrich, straight up. Last year, the Utes came into Autzen and handed 54,000 Oregon fans dressed like a Dri-fit factory exploded all over them their worst home loss, in, well…ever.
At this point in the season, the Utes could well be one win away from facing Stanford in the PAC-12 championship game. Though I don’t think Utah quite matches up on defense with the Cardinal and are definitely one or two Heisman candidates away from the Tree on offense, a win at home against the Ducks to make it two in a row against the former unstoppable — and that late in the season (see: cold blowing through the aspens off the Wasatch) — will be a good warm up for the postseason ahead for the Utes.
Three more reasons the Ducks, systemically, need a rebuild/rebrand.
Coaching: Mark Helfrich wears the hangdog appearance of a guy who just lost his wife in a big box store and is stuck pretending to look at breast pumps in the maternity aisle because that’s where he’s hoping she’ll materialize as he tries to eschew the thought that she’s blowing Alex from Target in the bathroom.
Defensive coordinator Brady Hoke and his 4-3 scheme straight outta Remember the Titans is a hair less inspiring than his pleated Dockers. Together, Helfrich and Hoke are summarily unraveling the storied two decades rise to prominence of the Oregon coaching tree — from Brooks-to-Bellotti-to-Kelly and Aliotti on the defensive side — in a single season.
Besides Bellotti’s hiccup/player-developing 5-6 season in 2004 (they were 10-2 in 2005), the Ducks haven’t had a losing season since 1993, otherwise known as my freshman year in Eugene. The question is, how long till Justin Wilcox (architect of Wisconsin’s crazy-effective next-gen hybrid defense) gets the call from AD Rob Mullens …and the chance to don the big O visor?
Marketing: Oregon did something over the last two decades that no football program, not Alabama, not USC, not Florida, not Penn State and not Notre Dame had ever done: They gave the student athlete every facility, doctor, specialized instructor…and uniform combination that the pros got—in some cases, moreso. As other colleges (and companies: See: Under Armour) caught on, the distance between Oregon’s program and everyone else has shrunk…see: the appeal for natives to leave California and California schools, now gone. Specifically, Oregon had a long-time pipeline to the inner-cities of Los Angeles and Houston to pump in recruits; looking at the re-emergence of prominence of the LA schools (or at least the strength of their last few recruiting classes compared to Oregon’s) as well as the rise of schools like Houston into the national conversation, and an argument can be made that Oregon is going to have to focus once more battling it out with Oregon State, Washington State and even U-Dub for recruits. Parity, in other words, has returned as the perks have spread.
Mojo: I guess this all does go back to 1993 when Josh Wilcox sat in the back of my public speaking class and was actually the funniest, smartest guy in the room on or off-stage. The son of a NFL hall-of-famer (and older brother to Justin) was a Eugene guy through and through and even though he could’ve played elsewhere in the PAC-10 or beyond, Oregon was home. Former Duck fullback Eric Winn, whose father Dick also played for the Ducks back in the day before facemasks, once told me over a couple beers that Duck football, real Duck football, is for people who understand a little bit that Oregon’s a different kind of place. Plus, its uniform colors are “Ugly-ass John Deere Green and faded school bus yellow.”
I like that. I’ve been missing that. And, as it turns out, so have the Ducks.