EUGENE, Ore. – After finally beating Stanford for the first time in three tries as a starter, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota didn’t waste time thinking up new phrases to describe how the Ducks rolled to a 45-16 win against the team that crushed Oregon’s Pac-12 title dreams in 2012 and 2013.
“Just continue to take it one play at a time, as cliché as that sounds,” Mariota said Saturday. “With these defenses, they’re so stout. Sometimes you’ll only get a yard or two on first down, but you can’t think that’s the end of the world. You’ve just got to continue to battle.”
Mariota wasn’t alone. The Ducks rolled through their interviews just like they rolled through the Cardinal, tossing out clichés the way Mariota tosses third-down conversions.
“We were just thinking one play at a time,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “That’s what we tell ourselves before every drive. One play at a time.”
“It’s a big win for all of us and our team,” left tackle Jake Fisher said. “We put a lot of effort into this game like we do every week. Our coaches did a great job with our game plan and we executed.”
“You definitely have to watch the film, but I think we played one of our best games so far,” cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu said. “We played with a lot of energy and played hard mostly the whole game.”
This is not a criticism of the Ducks. Far from it. They simply answer their questions more efficiently than most other teams -- just as they play more efficiently than most other teams. This is the vision Chip Kelly had for the Ducks. He created a team that would run the same play repeatedly if a defense refused to adjust. He created a team that would, if it could, play the same game every week, that would bury its opponents with early touchdowns and make them try to dig out. He created a team that would offer only platitudes after wins, giving away none of its secrets.
The question following Kelly’s departure after the 2012 season was whether successor Mark Helfrich could keep Oregon’s culture intact. After losses to Stanford and Arizona last year and a loss to Arizona this year, that seemed uncertain. But Saturday was the best example yet that Helfrich can replicate the atmosphere Kelly created.
Helfrich’s Ducks looked exactly like Kelly’s Ducks in two key stretches. In its first three possessions, Oregon embarked on three 75-yard touchdown drives. Mariota worked the magic that should earn him the December trip to New York that he was denied last year because a bum knee slowed him through a key late-season stretch. When a full-speed Mariota puts the ball in the belly of his tailback, he freezes the entire defense. If the hole is there, he’ll let the back take the ball. If the hole isn’t there, Mariota can keep the ball or throw it.
The prospect of Mariota blazing around the corner is enough to make the defensive backs look momentarily at the line of scrimmage -- especially after he raced for a 22-yard touchdown on a read option halfway through the first quarter. When the defensive backs hesitate, at least one Oregon receiver pops open.
This means that Mariota, who has a more NFL-ready arm than any of the signal-callers who ran this offense before him, is often throwing to a receiver with a five-yard circle of green around him. When the line, which has struggled through injuries but seems to be rounding into form, gives him even a little time, Mariota makes the offense hum like an explosive-play assembly line. “He’s tough to contain,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “You put pressure on him and he doesn’t feel it, he escapes the pocket and he throws the ball down the field. As a runner and a passer, he’s special and we just couldn’t contain him.”
If Oregon can keep playing the way it played Saturday, it can win its way into the College Football Playoff. The Ducks were just on the outside at No. 5 when the selection committee released its first rankings this past week, but they’ll probably be in the top four this week. They also know that they can get knocked out of the playoff race, possibly for good, if they let up even a little next week at Utah. The win over Stanford puts Oregon in firm control of the Pac-12 North, but the Ducks probably need to be perfect from this point forward -- not just win the Pac-12 -- to make the playoff.
Oregon’s defense remains flawed, but its ability to force turnovers at opportune moments works in concert with the Ducks’ offense. On Saturday, the Oregon defense allowed Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan to average nine yards per pass attempt and allowed the Cardinal to gain 5.9 yards a play. But when a Jordan Williamson field goal sliced Oregon’s lead to 24-16 with 2:30 remaining in the third quarter, Oregon’s offense ripped off a touchdown drive and the Ducks’ defense responded by forcing and recovering a Hogan fumble. Three plays later, Mariota was back in the end zone and the Ducks’ lead was 45-16.
When Oregon is rolling, the Ducks’ efficiency can be positively mind-numbing. And that’s exactly what they want. They want third-down conversions such as the Mariota-to-Royce Freeman pass in a one-score game late in the third to feel inevitable to an opposing defense. They do not want the defense to have hope. Last year in Palo Alto, with Mariota nursing a knee that had caused him to miss most of the week’s practices, the Cardinal knew they could shut down the Ducks. Saturday, all Stanford defenders could do was wonder how Mariota would beat them this time.
That’s the feeling Kelly created, and that’s the feeling we weren’t quite sure Helfrich could reproduce. But he has. And Saturday, Helfrich did something Kelly’s last team and Helfrich’s first team couldn’t do. It solved the Stanford problem, which Helfrich still insists was always an Oregon problem wrapped in cardinal and white. “Was there ever an actual monkey on my back?” Helfrich cracked, managing to make even the clichés entertaining. “A primate? Was there?”
The only Oregon player who broke the cliché ranks was freshman receiver Darren Carrington, who caught four passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. While most of the Ducks downplayed the importance of the win, Carrington revealed that someone had placed flyers in the players’ lockers during preseason camp. The flyers contained quotes from ESPN analysts. “They said Oregon was too soft for Stanford,” Carrington said. “Maybe they had a change of opinion. Who knows?”
Though he doesn’t play like it, Carrington remains wide-eyed at the idea of playing with Mariota. “A play is never over with Marcus back there,” Carrington said. “You just know something is going to happen. He’s like Houdini.”
That’s way too elaborate a response for the Ducks, who prefer their players blaze through interviews with the same maddening consistency that they use to blaze through defenses. But Carrington is only a freshman. He’ll learn. If the Ducks keep this up, by December he’ll be explaining how Oregon plan to take things one play at a time throughout the playoff.