Oregon eyes national title, shatters soft label behind Rose Bowl blowout
PASADENA, Calif. -- As they stood on the sideline Thursday during the waning moments of a blowout, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu discussed etiquette. In the past two decades, most teams that have won the Rose Bowl have doused their coach with something. Gatorade. Water. Anything wet that can fit into a large bucket. But Mariota and Grasu agreed that in this new era, the winning coach of a semifinal should remain dry. So, minutes later, in another brilliant Ducks defensive stand on a day full of them, Grasu scuttled an attempt to drench Oregon coach Mark Helfrich.
“This isn’t done,” Grasu explained later. “We’re not done yet.”
Against a previously undefeated defending national champion loaded with future NFL players, the Ducks made history and, in the process, shattered the prevailing myths about their team. Oregon, considered by college football’s old guard to be a soft, finesse team with a gadget offense and an unhealthy obsession with uniforms, manhandled Florida State at the line of scrimmage, harassed quarterback Jameis Winston into critical mistakes and turned five Seminoles' turnovers into 34 points in a 59-20 win that gave the Ducks the first victory in College Football Playoff history. Oregon snapped Florida State’s 29-game win streak and staked its claim to a spot in the national title game against Ohio State on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.
“It’s perfect,” Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone Jr. said. “I need another game. … If this had been my last game, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” Early in Thursday’s third quarter, Malone made the play that started the Seminoles’ downward spiral. With Florida State trailing by five on its first possession of the third quarter, tailback Dalvin Cook took a handoff from Winston and raced toward the left sideline. He zoomed by Malone, who turned and chased. “I just kept running to the ball,” Malone said. “Magical things happen when you run to the ball.”
A terrible thing happened to Cook when Malone reached the ball. Malone ripped the ball from the freshman, handing it back to Mariota and the Ducks’ offense. Less than 90 seconds later, freshman back Royce Freeman dragged 314-pound Eddie Goldman into the end zone to extend the Ducks’ lead. Team Soft? An Oregon player had wrenched the ball from the hands of the ACC’s best freshman. Then a 229-pound Ducks back had carried a potential first-round defensive tackle across the goal line. There was nothing soft about these Ducks, even if one was kicking himself for making Freeman drag so much weight. “We should have probably been blocking Eddie Goldman,” Grasu said of the offensive line. “That’s our fault.”
Winston and Florida State responded with a drive that looked like the ones that had helped the Seminoles overcome second-half deficits against Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and Georgia Tech. On third-and-21 from his own 36, Winston threw a beauty to Bobo Wilson for 23 yards. On third-and-two from the Oregon 33, Winston found Rashad Greene for 15. On the next play, Winston hit Travis Rudolph for an 18-yard touchdown that slashed Oregon’s lead to 25-20. Florida State would not score again, though.
Oregon answered 87 seconds later with a touchdown, and another Cook fumble on Florida State’s ensuing possession led to a 26-second Ducks' scoring drive.
Then this happened.
“It kind of looked like he slipped on a banana in a cartoon,” Oregon linebacker Torrodney Prevot said of Winston’s Garo Yepremian impersonation, which ultimately resulted in a 58-yard touchdown return by Oregon linebacker Tony Washington. “Saw T-Dub’s burst,” Helfrich cracked. “Talked to the receivers coach afterward. He may be moving there next week.” Winston wound up throwing for 348 yards, but that play will be the one shown ad nauseum from the only loss of his 28 starts as a college quarterback. “We just got beat,” Winston said. “Turned the ball over too many times.”
Those turnovers crushed the Seminoles. How’s this for perverted symmetry? Oregon and Florida State each gained 208 yards in the third quarter. Yet the Ducks outscored the Seminoles 27-7 in that period. “You go up heavy and high on a pretty darn good team,” Oregon secondary coach John Neal said. “They couldn’t recover. That’s devastating. It’s just devastating.”
The Ducks were supposed to be the ones who couldn’t recover from the loss of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the All-America cornerback who tore his ACL late last month and had to watch from the sidelines. But fellow senior Troy Hill locked down Seminoles star Greene, who made six catches for 59 yards.
The Ducks took command after that Winston fumble. It meant Florida State would not engineer one of its trademark comebacks. “I felt like it was over,” Hill said. “I know they come back a lot. But the whole time, I kept saying: They’ve never played a team like us. They’ve never played a team like us.”
And the Seminoles hadn’t. The Ducks, whose loss to Arizona came during a period in which the offensive line -- since fixed -- was in disarray, played the brand of football their coaches envisioned when former coach Chip Kelly arrived as the offensive coordinator before the 2007 season. Kelly’s warp-speed offense convinced defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who retired after last season, to re-imagine his unit as a group that placed a premium on turnovers to get the ball back to the offense for fast, backbreaking touchdowns. Helfrich and current offensive coordinator Scott Frost have kept Kelly’s vision intact, and defensive coordinator Don Pellum has picked up the torch from Aliotti. On Thursday, all aspects of Oregon’s schematic culture worked in harmony. “The best thing our guys do is they don’t have to rise to an occasion because they trust the work they put in,” Frost said. “All they did tonight was go out and act like themselves.”
That includes cutting celebrations short when there is more work to do. As Malone described the victory, fellow semifinalists Alabama and Ohio State clashed in the Sugar Bowl on a television over Malone’s left shoulder. “I’m about to go study film right now,” Malone said. Later, Grasu explained why his coach remained dry and the Ducks remained unsatisfied. “It’s obviously a huge deal to win the Rose Bowl,” Grasu said. “But it’s a playoff semifinal now. We’ve got one more game to go.”