Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Oregon Football Preview: Can Mark Helfrich Break the Cardinal Curse?

The only game Super Mario actually looked like a freshman.
It's been a long time since an Oregon first-year head coach has beaten Stanford. Rich Brooks didn't do it. Mike Bellotti didn't do it. And Chip Kelly didn't do it, either. So if Mark Helfrich and the #2 Ducks lose to #5 Stanford down on the Farm this Thursday, historically, it's not a bad thing. It derails Oregon's chances to meet Alabama in the final non-playoff BCS title game, sure, but it really doesn't.... oh hell, it would be a horrible thing.

Now, the last time Oregon lost to Stanford down on the farm, that was Chip's first year. Toby Gerhardt ran all over the Duck defense for a Stanford record 224 yards and Oregon lost 51-42. It is worth noting that Chip book-ended his Duck career with losses to Stanford. The second one being the the nasty 17-14 loss last year that prevented the Ducks from playing 'Bama in the BCS title game.  So two of Chip's seven losses as a college head coach came to the same team. The Cardinal are, of course, the only college team that Chip lost to more than once.

(For the record, Chip's other losses in college: Boise State in his very first game, where the punch happened; Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, Auburn in the BCS title game, LSU, and USC.)

This is not your father's Stanford team, but neither is it the team that Chip lost to twice. The Cardinal have looked decidedly human this season, and yet are ranked 5th in the BCS heading into Thursday's matchup against the #2 Ducks. They should have lost to Washington, they did lose at Utah, and the Beavs just flat blew it despite a multitude of chances. (Somebody pointed out that the Beavs started 6-1 and they could finish 6-6. They have a point, especially after OSU looked just awful against USC.)

Whereas Oregon’s not had that atrocious full game yet. I'd say they looked pretty bad in the first half against Washington State. I'd put that half ahead of the UCLA first half, where they made exactly two mistakes (fumble and botched punt) and the Bruins were able to take full advantage of having two 30-yard fields to be tied with the Ducks at halftime.

This means that Oregon is due for a bad game from start to finish, of course, and that game will come. But I really don't see it happening Thursday. The best teams win the games they should have lost, and that partially why Stanford in 7-1 and 5th in the BCS instead of 5-3 and an afterthought.

One certain number tells you why Stanford isn't 5-3. It should not be surprising that the Cardinal lead the country in kickoff return yardage, and that's thanks to one player, Ty Montgomery, aka, the reason Stanford did not lose to Washington. He had 290 total yards in that game (including that 99-yard kickoff return to begin the game) while the Cardinal offense had 284, and the Huskies had 490. There's your reason Stanford won. If Stanford is going to make a game of this on Thursday, it will be thanks to Montgomery, because one of the Ducks worst statistical categories is kickoff return defense.

Although let's be honest, that's a misleading statistic. Consider, when Oregon's up by 40 points and kicking off, are the special teams guys- who have done this nine times already- really going to go full speed on kick coverage?

Stanford is also number one in the country in tackles for loss. I would say that the Oregon offensive line must try and contain the Stanford D-line, but seriously, isn't that something an O-line has to do every game? It's like a stupid “keys to the game”: block the defense, win the turnover battle, and score more points. Gee, thanks.

Anyway, as for the Oregon offense, Marcus Mariota has not thrown an interception since the loss to Stanford last year, he's at 293 and counting, which is the Pac-12 record. Although he should have been picked against Cal, he was throwing the ball waaayyyyy too hard in the rain. The one thing Mariota has to work on is “touch,” it seems to me he zips the ball every throw. Even his lofty passes, which is hard to do. Ah well, I suppose it's a better problem to have than not throwing decisively.

In large part because of that, the Ducks already have two 500-yard receivers this season, Josh Huff and Bralon Addison. This may not seem like a tremendous statistic until you consider that Oregon did not have a single 500-yard receiver at all last year. It was patently obvious Oregon did not have a go-to guy in the passing game, mostly because Huff was hurt (again). Now he's as healthy as he was his freshman year, and it's showing. Stanford's defense is fair-to-middling, and although they slowed down UCLA's offense, they haven't seen anything like this. Nobody has, really.

The statistics tell me that Oregon should win handily. But despite their shortcomings, Stanford is- without question- the best team Oregon will face outside of a bowl game for the second straight year. Last year I ignored the little voice in my head that said “this Stanford game won't be as easy as many say it will be.” So this year I'm letting it out. Part of me says that it will be the closest game of the season for Oregon, and part of me thinks the Stanford offense, who looked absolutely awful against UCLA, will not be able to do much. But, again listening to that voice, Stanford's offense didn't look particularly good last year against Oregon, and we know how that turned out. The stats tell me Oregon will beat up on the Cardinal, the voice tells me otherwise. I've learned to listen to that voice. I say it won't be easy, so settle in and prepare for a good one. An instant classic, as they say.

Back to the coaches. The last Oregon head coach to beat Stanford in his first season was Dick Enright in 1972, but that victory happened at Autzen. (Pause here for terrible joke.  Dick Harter was the Oregon basketball coach at the time, and he was better than Enright.  So the joke at the time was, "If you can't get your Dick Enright, get your Dick Harter.  I told you it was terrible.  Now back to the program.)   Jim Aiken is the only first-year Oregon coach to beat Stanford at Stanford. And that was in 1947. So if Mark Helfrich loses, he'll have done something that lots of Oregon coaches have done. And if he doesn't... well, while Brooks, Bellotti, and Chip did a lot of things for Oregon football, there's one thing they didn't do, and Helfrich would still have a great chance to do it. And that wouldn't be a horrible thing.

"I'd be the first to do what?"

photos courtesy: fishduck.com and  getty images, via fishduck.com