EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum paused, shrugged and raised his eyebrows in one of those I-have-no-idea-but-I’m-going-to-act-confident kind of ways. You’ve seen it before. Certainly he has, too. And if you’re asking how the Oregon football team will survive yet another severe injury to a key player, well, you understand why Pellum gave the answer he did.
“I think our whole team has to be ready,” Pellum said.
No kidding. Especially this year.
Injuries happen to everyone, coaches say, and they’re right. The unusual part for the Ducks, who meet Florida State in the College Football Playoff Rose Bowl semifinal on Thursday, is that they’ve managed to sustain success despite multiple injuries to some of their best players.
Coaches in the Ducks’ locker room spin it all as “opportunities for someone else,” according to Oregon receivers coach Matt Lubick. And this season, the Ducks have had lots of such opportunities.
It started in the spring, with Lubick’s unit. Bralon Addison, Oregon’s most proven receiver (61 catches, 890 yards, seven touchdowns in 2013), was lost for the season when he tore his ACL in April. The Ducks were already lacking depth at the position, but at least they had four months to figure out a backup plan.
An extended timeline didn’t exist in August, when former freshman All-America and projected starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone also tore his ACL. Then his backup, Andre Yruretagoyena, suffered a serious right leg injury in Oregon’s second game against Michigan State on Sept. 6. And because Murphy’s Law appears to be real in Eugene, tackle Jake Fisher (left leg) got hurt the next game against Wyoming.
“It’s just seemed to pile on and on,” Fisher said.
“Snakebit,” was the word of choice from head coach Mark Helfrich, who prefers to shove aside injury discussions. The Ducks stopped talking publicly about injuries when Chip Kelly took the reins in 2009, often refusing to confirm anything even as players limped out of practice on crutches. Helfrich said it’s a little gamesmanship, a little privacy laws and a lot of not making excuses. If coaches spend time fretting about this or that player going down, his teammates will, too.
Most teams don’t recover from this type of depletion, chalking up a season-gone-wrong to too many bumps, bruises and breaks. Last year Florida suffered multiple injuries and went 4-8, a mark that started the calls for coach Will Muschamp’s job. Georgia went 8-5 in 2013 after losing almost every key skill-position player at some point, including quarterback Aaron Murray, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley. Because of this, Helfrich marvels as what his group overcame. Consider that besides the battered offensive line -- which has also missed starting center Hroniss Grasu for the last three games, though he is expected to play Thursday -- the Ducks also lost tight end Pharaoh Brown (leg) for the year. Receiver Dwayne Stanford and tailback Thomas Tyner have been hampered by injuries. And just when the offensive line is starting to piece itself back together, another blow to a team hoping to win its first national title: Starting cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, one of the best in the nation at his position, tore his ACL the week before Christmas in bowl practice.
That prompted Pellum’s reaction when asked about redshirt freshman Chris Seisay, who will fill in for Ekpre-Olomu. Pellum pointed out that the Ducks have typically rotated a lot of players on defense throughout the game, which helps with a new starter’s comfort level. Helfrich added that Seisay -- or anyone else who is called on unexpectedly -- would have something else going for him: belief.
“It’s mindset,” Helfrich said. “It’s not just something we say. We don’t go, ‘Hey, um, get in there, we believe in you!’ It’s, ‘We trust you.’”
Fisher agrees, saying confidence thrives in the locker room among players. He was driven to get healthy to play with his brothers and protect Marcus Mariota, the recipient of both the 2014 Heisman Trophy and 12 sacks in the two games the line was manhandled (at Washington State, Arizona). Still, Fisher had confidence the younger linemen would find their way. The fact that Oregon’s offense did not wilt in the face of injuries, Fisher said, is due to veteran offensive line coach Steve Greatwood. Fisher stopped short of calling Greatwood the true MVP, though a case could certainly be made for the 28-year veteran assistant; despite a reshuffled line, Oregon led the conference in rushing (237.3 yards) for the ninth season in a row.
“We have the same expectations for him (the backup) as anybody else,” said Fisher, who missed almost a month.
Lubick’s group is a perfect example. The receiving corps took a by-committee approach without Addison, as six players average 35 receiving yards or more. (Byron Marshall, who played running back last year but has been used mostly in the slot, leads the team with 62.6 per game.) Speedster Devon Allen, who won the 110-meter hurdles at the NCAA track and field championships earlier this year, chips in with 52.6 yards, but is always a threat to create separation and get in the end zone. In fact, the committee seemed to be better than the individual: In 2013, the Ducks averaged 291.5 receiving yards per game; in 2014, that total jumped to 308.9.
As for the running game, it turns out issues are much easier to absorb with true freshman Royce Freeman (99.9 rushing yards per game) on the field.
Of course, the injuries take a toll, mentally, physically and emotionally. The Ducks have almost lost count of the number of times they’ve had to call out, “Next man up!” And, yes, it can be devastating.
“It’s like losing your brother or sister,” Pellum said. “So you’ve gotta deal with it, internalize it and then the next day you have to go out, put him on your back and fight for him.”
It’s a lofty weight, to be sure. But at this point, the Ducks know how to carry it.
Oregon's Road to the National Championship
Oregon 62, South Dakota 13 (Aug. 30)
Oregon cruised in its season opener, getting four touchdowns from Marcus Mariota and dropping 41 points in the first half.
Oregon 46, Michigan State 27 (Sept. 6)
Michigan State scored 24 points in the second quarter to bring a 24-18 lead into halftime before Oregon ended the game on a 28-3 run. Mariota threw three touchdown passes.
Oregon 48, Wyoming 14 (Sept. 13)
Mariota had four total touchdowns and went 19-of-23 through the air as the Ducks scored 41 unanswered points in the second and third quarters.
Oregon 38, Washington State 31 (Sept. 20)
Ducks coach Mark Helfrich called Mariota's game "ridiculous" after the Oregon quarterback threw for 329 yards and five touchdowns in the team's first road test. Mariota also led the game-winning nine-play, 79-yard drive that ended in a six-yard touchdown pass to Keanon Lowe.
Arizona 31, Oregon 24 (Oct. 2)
Oregon's only loss off the season came at the hands of Arizona, which upset the Ducks for the second straight season. Mariota caught a 26-yard touchdown pass on a halfback pass, but Oregon was unable to overcome the 24-14 lead Arizona brought into the fourth quarter.
Oregon 42, UCLA 30 (Oct. 11)
Oregon rebounded from its only loss of the season by beating UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The Bruins made things a little interesting when they shrunk the Ducks' 42-10 lead to 42-30 with 2:47 remaining. Mariota scored four total touchdowns while Royce Freeman rushed for 121 yards and two scores.
Oregon 45, Washington 20 (Oct. 18)
The Ducks won their 11th straight over the Huskies as Freeman rushed 29 times for 169 yards and four touchdowns.
Oregon 59, Cal 41 (Oct. 24)
Mariota threw five touchdowns, and Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford each had 100-yard receiving games as the Ducks picked up another road win. Freeman rushed 22 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
Oregon 45, Stanford 16 (Nov. 1)
Stanford had won two straight against Oregon coming into this season, but Mariota scored four total touchdowns as the Ducks pounced on the Cardinal early.
Oregon 51, Utah 27 (Nov. 8)
The tide shifted early and dramatically as Oregon's Joe Walker pounced on the football after Utah's Kaelin Clay nonchalantly dropped it a yard before crossing the goal line. Walker returned the fumble 100 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 7-7. It was the closest the Utes would come from that point on.
Oregon 44, Colorado 10 (Nov. 22)
The Ducks had no trouble with the Buffaloes, taking a 27-point lead into halftime and outgaining Colorado 597-226 for the game. Mariota scored four total touchdowns.
Oregon 47, Oregon State (Nov. 29)
The 118th playing of the Civil War was really no contest -- the Ducks scored 30 points before the Beavers got on the boards and Mariota totaled six touchdowns (four through the air).
Oregon 51, Arizona 13 (Dec. 5)
Oregon gained vengeance on Arizona with a dominant outing in the Pac-12 championship, scoring 23 unanswered points before opening a 44-7 lead through three quarters. The Ducks outgained the Wildcats 627-224 with a nicely balanced attack (326 yards passing, 301 rushing).
Oregon 59, Florida State 20 (Jan. 1)
After leading by just five at halftime, the Ducks forced four turnovers in the third quarter and ended the Rose Bowl on a 34-0 run to rout the Seminoles and reach the national championship. Mariota contributed 400 yards of offense and three touchdowns.