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Oregon keeps eye on title despite season plagued by major injuries

With Rose Bowl approaching, Oregon keeps its eye on a national title despite a 2014 season plagued by key injuries.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.