The game felt like such a punch in the gut.
No, it wasn't terribly surprising, considering Stanford had done the exact same thing a year earlier. Still, it was a Stanford team that had lost to Utah, and an Oregon team that had scored 55 or more points in six of its first eight games. Even after the departure of Chip Kelly, there was an almost invincible atmosphere around Oregon, which seemed like a program reaching its peak. But for a significant stretch of time on the first Thursday of last November, Oregon appeared utterly hopeless to find the end zone against Stanford's physical, mistake-free defense. Stanford marched to a 26-0 lead, and while Oregon mounted a late (but futile) comeback effort, the damage had been done. We wondered if Oregon was ever going to take that next step, even if it had already done so by nearly winning the 2010 national title.
It's a testament to the job Kelly did that Oregon's expectations have been reframed in such a way that a season that ended with an 11-2 record -- and a bombardment of Texas in a bowl game in its backyard -- seemed so disappointing. This is a Ducks program that didn't go to a Rose Bowl between the 1957 season and 1994; that had one top-10 finish ever until Mike Bellotti pushed them over the top in 2000; that was mostly a national afterthought for so many years. Yet the end of last season felt so disheartening.
Rich Brooks got the ball rolling by the end of his tenure, Bellotti carried that momentum into making Oregon a respectable top-25 contender and Kelly emerged -- with the help of Nike, of course -- to reshape Oregon into a national power that went to four BCS bowls in four years, including two Rose Bowls and the national championship game. Oregon became the futuristic "it" program of college football, accomplishing nothing short of altering how we think about how football should be played.
So, yes: a tough act for Mark Helfrich to follow, even if Kelly spent only six years total in Eugene. Few coaches have made such a tangible impact, both on their team and on the sport as a whole, in such a short period of time.
Ultimately, the end results in Helfrich's first season after moving up from offensive coordinator weren't that much different from Kelly's usual output; they just felt that way because of what he inherited. Oregon's record was better by one game than Kelly's 10-3 debut in 2009. The Ducks finished second nationally in yards per play and scored 45.5 points per game. They were one of six teams to average more than six yards per carry on the ground. They ranked third in plays of 20 yards or more. Helfrich largely kept Oregon rolling; it just felt like a disappointment because of how high expectations were, and how unsettling the team's November was with the mostly-hopeless loss to Stanford and the bizarre, uninspired 42-16 embarrassment at Arizona. It didn't help that the Ducks were left out of the BCS, which was more a product of geography and bad luck than anything else.
So, entering Saurday's spring scrimmage -- with special uniforms, of course -- at Autzen Stadium, the question becomes: Which direction is Oregon heading? It feels unfair to put so much pressure so soon on Helfrich, who is 11-2 as a coach and only 40 years old. But 2014 feels like a vital season for determining the future trajectory of the program -- how much of the success was tied to the presence of Kelly and how possible it is to maintain the lofty standing Oregon has attained. Because assuming quarterback Mariota leaves next year, Oregon faces a potentially significant rebuild, at least by recent standards.
For now, Helfrich was given a major gift this offseason. Instead of talking about Oregon as a rebuilding team this season, we're talking about a likely preseason top-five team and national championship contender. Not only did center Hroniss Grasu (arguably the best at his position nationally) and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (top five, at worst, at his position) decide to return for their senior seasons, but they're joined by Mariota -- one of the two best quarterbacks in college football, a preseason Heisman frontrunner and the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft.
Mariota may have been the top pick had he left this year, after his redshirt sophomore season, and his return means Oregon keeps one of the most valuable players in college football. He averaged 9.5 yards per attempt with 31 passing touchdowns and just four interceptions last year, and he also ran for 715 yards and nine touchdowns. Two-thirds of the way through the season, the Heisman appeared to be his; then he tweaked his knee against UCLA, and Oregon went on to lose two of its next three games with a less-mobile version of Mariota, who finished with negative-34 rushing yards (sacks included) against Stanford and Utah.
Much of November was spent downplaying the injury, but it's an easy red flag to point to, because Mariota clearly had taken a step down from the impossibly complete player he was earlier in the season. More than usual, last year's Oregon offense was built around the quarterback, but Oregon probably relied on him too much: Because he's such an effective passer, the Ducks couldn't afford to run him into the ground, but the offense had no other choice than to run through him at all times. Although Byron Marshall eventually emerged as the newest backfield star and freshman Thomas Tyner showed flashes of brilliance, the backfield situation was more unsettled than usual, especially as De'Anthony Thomas struggled to stay healthy. Throw in the unexpected in-season departure of tight end Colt Lyerla, and even greater pressure was placed on Mariota to pick up the slack.
This all happened under the watch of Helfrich, who was learning to be the program's CEO; and coordinator Scott Frost, in his first year calling plays, only six years removed from acting as co-defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa. Oregon understandably had high expectations, but given all the moving parts and Mariota's eventual injury issue, its margin for error was thin. It's not too surprising, in retrospect, that November featured those hiccups -- not only with the two losses, but then the 36-35 close call against rival Oregon State. It also wasn't the end of the world.
Not everything is perfectly stable now. Longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is retiring and passing the baton to Don Pellum. The wide receiver situation is up in the air, thanks to the departure of senior Josh Huff and a torn ACL this spring for Bralon Addison. But otherwise, Oregon returns all five starting offensive lineman in front of Mariota, its top three rushers and a promising group of tight ends, meaning it might be able to keep up its record-setting offensive pace, especially as Frost gets more comfortable in his increased role.
Kelly will always be identified as the driving force behind Oregon's jump from contender to power, as he should be. So Helfrich must take Kelly's framework for success and build his own identity within the larger Oregon football paradigm. It's not an easy thing to do, no matter Oregon's resources, and with only one year under his belt as head coach out from under Kelly's wing, it's difficult to know just where the Helfrich-Oregon marriage is heading.
It's also not necessary to treat every Oregon loss as a referendum on its wide-open, fast-paced, track-style philosphy. Sometimes great teams lose, and great quarterbacks get hurt, and a couple of underwhelming games aren't the end of the world. Offensively, Oregon is more stable now than it was a year ago, when for two months it obliterated everything in its path. With Mariota and nearly all his key teammates on offense back -- and with division rival Stanford replacing most of its defense -- it's not time to leave the Oregon bandwagon. In the short term, at least, it's time to double down.