Oregon survived its first big Pac-12 test on the road.
Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) runs the ball for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Wyoming Cowboys at Autzen Stadium. (Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports)
(C+P) — In this first year of the much-awaited college football playoff system, the importance of making an impression on the committee that votes on the four participants is just as crucial as the victories themselves.
The margin of error is not as small, but there still isn’t much forgiveness for a letdown.
This would have been the case had the Oregon Ducks not been able to hold off pesky Washington State on the road. Instead, Mark Helfrich’s team came through for a 38-31 win last Saturday night in Pullman—with tremendous quarterback play from Marcus Mariota and the aid of a missed pass interference call in the fourth quarter.
“There was a ton of adversity,” said Helfrich, in his second year as head coach. “Some self-inflicted, some not. I thought our guys did a great job of seeing it through.”
The win keeps the Ducks unbeaten at 4-0 and No. 2 in the latest Associated Press poll. It also gave them a taste of what’s to come over the next six weeks.
Granted, Oregon passed its initial test of the young season by overpowering defending Big Ten champion Michigan State on Sept. 6. However, the real examination of this team’s staying power will be if it can go through the rigors of the Pac-12—a conference that can boast nearly as much talent as the almighty SEC.
The Ducks have had their chances in the past—previously under Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly, and now with Helfrich—only to be tripped up before getting to the finish line. Despite having never won a national title, Oregon is consistently the target of the other Pac-12 foes—getting every opponent’s best shot—thanks to their flashy offense and even flashier uniforms.
This season will be just as tough—beginning with Arizona at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2. The Ducks have the benefit of their deafening home crowd, but the Wildcats may have destiny in their back pockets. After all, they were one of only two teams to hand Oregon a loss in 2013—and did it in remarkable fashion, 42-16. The ‘Cats are now reaping the thrills of a successful Hail Mary pass that lifted them to a win last week against California. Rich Rodriguez’ club could also be facing a Ducks team looking ahead to a meeting with UCLA the following Saturday.
Quarterback Brett Hundley can win games single-handedly, but he and the Bruins have not been all that impressive in getting to 3-0. A meeting with Oregon at the Rose Bowl should wake them up—if they are somehow still slumbering by Oct. 11.
After UCLA comes Washington (currently 4-0), and then a road game against the Cal Bears before hosting Stanford—who lost on a last-minute field goal to USC. Suffice it to say, it is a month-and-a-half run with a fair share of land mines. Moreover, we’d be remised if we did not bring up the rest the schedule—including the always-tough Civil War against rival Oregon State in the regular season finale.
What looms ahead is no easy task for the Oregon Ducks. However, that task can be made much easier by the play of their QB. Marcus Mariota has already shown why he is the early leader for the Heisman Trophy. In a performance over Washington State that Helfrich described as “ridiculous,” Mariota shredded the Cougars secondary for 329 yards, five passing touchdowns and just four incompletions in 25 attempts.
“He did a great job of rattling the defense in the second half,” Helfrich said. “The guy is special.”
Mariota is certainly special when it comes to passing efficiency, as he connected on 74 percent of his throws so far in 2014. The result has been 1,135 yards in the air and 11 TDs with nary an interception. In his Ducks career, his TD-to-INT ratio is 76-to-10.
He may have put the team on his shoulders in defeating Washington State, but even a player of his caliber cannot carry the load through the rough slate that lies ahead.
Mariota was sacked five times last Saturday and constantly pressured, which makes his efforts even that much more impressive. However, it is a safe bet that another letdown by the offensive line will ultimately result in a much-unwelcome defeat.
“We knew that (Washington State is) an aggressive defense and that we were going to have to take a couple hits,” Mariota said. “But we just had to keep chugging.”
In addition, the defense must become more consistent. It allowed the Cougars—the nation’s best passing team—to walk up-and-down the field and put up 21 points in the first half. However, it stepped up in the second half—including a crucial fourth quarter stop that led to Mariota’s game-winning drive.
That march culminated in a 6-yard toss to Keanon Lowe, a senior who recorded 104 receiving yards a pair of touchdowns. Lowe, Byron Marshall and Devon Allen have combined for 10 TD catches so far this year and collectively average nearly 17 yards a reception. That trio, plus the five rushing scores and 5.4 yards per carry from Royce Freeman can ease the burden on their highly-touted signal caller.
With strong competition, in addition to their stellar play, Oregon has everything in front of them to grab the eye of the playoff voting committee and be in a position for the school’s first national championship.
It is a chance to be known for its play on the field instead of its wacky uniform combinations. A chance to finally be college football’s beauty queen—instead of the ugly duckling.