Young Ducks grow up in hurry
EUGENE — Mark Helfrich was confident in his team’s conditioning, preparation and talent before Saturday’s top-10 slugfest at Autzen Stadium.
But a coach never truly knows how his players will respond to adversity until they face some.
Oregon overcame the heat, key injuries and a 27-18 deficit to defeat Michigan State 46-27 in front of 59,456 witnesses and a press box packed with national media.
“We thought we had a pretty mature group of young players, and I think that was very evident in the second half, particularly at halftime in terms of their approach,” Helfrich said Sunday. “There was no panic, no element of fear, nothing, other than ‘Here’s what we need to improve upon in every phase.’”
Marcus Mariota was able to convert a couple of timely third downs and found Devon Allen and Keanon Lowe for touchdowns during the dramatic turnaround in the third quarter. Royce Freeman jump-started the running game with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“Michigan State was not a team where we’re going to ground and pound and make a whole lot of headway,” Helfrich said of the strategy against the Spartans’ stout defense. “Our plan going in was — we’ll try to take our shots and get the play-action game going and get the perimeter game going. …
“Against a team like that, you’re going to have a few plays that look great and a few plays that look ugly.”
Michigan State’s offense was 6-for-8 on third-down conversions before first-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum’s crew flipped the switch. Helfrich described one of Connor Cook’s chain-moving throws as a “gut punch.”
Led by Arik Armstead’s play on a defensive line that used eight players, Joe Walker’s spectacular start at inside linebacker and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s All-America exploits in the secondary, the defense did its part in Oregon’s 28-0 run to end the game.
“Part of that was, schematically (Don Pellum) changing it up, and part guys just doing their job,” Helfrich said. “We ran better to the ball, which is encouraging.”
MOVING ON UP: The Ducks’ victory was impressive enough for the voters to move them up from No. 3 to No. 2 in this week’s Associated Press poll. Oregon received 16 first-place votes and passed Alabama (one first-place vote).
Defending national champion Florida State remains No. 1 with No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 5 Auburn rounding out the top five. Michigan State moved down from No. 7 to No. 13.
Other Pac-12 teams in the AP top 25 are No. 9 USC, No. 12 UCLA, No. 15 Stanford and No. 16 Arizona State.
Oregon remains No. 4 in the coaches poll behind Florida State, Alabama and Oklahoma.
PLAYING ROUND ROBIN: Oregon now leads the all-time series with Michigan State 3-2. The home teams have won all five meetings.
The Ducks make the return trip to East Lansing on Sept. 12, 2015.
In an interesting scheduling quirk, Oregon hosts Wyoming on Saturday morning at Autzen Stadium. The Cowboys also play Michigan State on Sept. 27 at Spartan Stadium.
The Ducks are scheduled to play at Wyoming on Sept. 16, 2017, at War Memorial Stadium on Laramie.
NOTABLE: Oregon’s team awards were given to Lowe (58 yards receiving, one touchdown) and left guard Hamani Stevens on offense, Walker (nine tackles, two for loss) on defense and Charles Nelson on special teams. … Helfrich also included running back Tony James, a true freshman expected to redshirt, among the scout team standouts. … About 1,000 tickets remain unsold for the Wyoming game.
QUOTABLE: “The Autzen experience is enhancement free. We can very safely say no augmentation, no enhancement, no silicone,” Helfrich said, referring to a Michigan State beat writer’s claim that Oregon benefits from artificial noise being pumped into the stadium over the loudspeakers.