Ducks are on the outside looking in
EUGENE — There’s a good chance Oregon will be watching the inaugural College Football Playoff from the outside with its nose pressed against the window.
It appears the Ducks have accepted an invitation to the Pac-12 parity party instead.
After Oregon’s 31-24 loss to Arizona on Thursday night at Autzen Stadium, all six teams in the North Division had at least one conference loss. Entering Saturday’s games, the Ducks (4-1, 1-1) were tied with California (3-1, 1-1), Stanford (3-1, 1-1) and Washington State (2-3, 1-1) for the division lead ahead of Oregon State (3-1, 0-1) and Washington (4-1, 0-1).
“That was, I think, some of the trepidation early on in the whole College Football Playoff movement if there wasn’t that declaration really of Conference Champion A, B, C, D,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said Friday after a sleepless night at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex reliving another costly lost to the Wildcats. “It’s up to somebody else, and as soon as your record isn’t hyphen-zero, you (can lose out). From that standpoint it’s a little bit frustrating, but we can’t do anything about that now.”
Oregon has scored 62 points and allowed 62 points in conference play after a narrow road win at Washington State (38-31) and the excruciating defeat to emerging South Division contender Arizona (5-0, 2-0).
Over the last six Pac-12 games dating back to the November 2013 collapse, Oregon is 3-3. The trend is especially troubling to a fan base that got used to dominance during Chip Kelly’s 33-3 cakewalk through the conference of champions.
The players got a rare fall Saturday off while the coaches worked ahead on preparations for next week’s game at No. 8 UCLA. The Bruins hosted Utah in a late game Saturday.
“I think there’s going to be a ton of movement nationally, as well as in our conference,” Helfrich said. “This is a tough conference, as we’ve said for a long time, coupled with the toughest path to that playoff.”
Oregon’s struggles along the injury-ravaged offensive line have been a major issue since Jake Fisher went down against Wyoming two weeks ago. Marcus Mariota has been sacked 12 times in the last two games, and the once-feared rushing attack hasn’t produced a 100-yard tailback in any of the five games.
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost said Thursday night that Mariota was not 100 percent healthy following the physically punishing Sept. 20 game in Pullman. The second-year head coach would prefer his assistants and players refrain from talking about injuries, especially if their comments can be interpreted as an excuse.
“Everybody thinks that our injury policy is hard or easy, depending on which way you look at it. We believe 100 percent in our guys, we believe 100 percent in our team,” Helfrich said. “I know Frosty is trying to have the back of Marcus, but if we gave everybody that crutch at the beginning of their career, ‘Hey, we need to wean you into this, we need to wean you into that,’ then Marcus isn’t Marcus as a freshman.
“We’re going to put the best guy in the best situation, in every phase, at every position for the betterment of our team.”
Defensively, Don Pellum’s unit is leakier than Edward Snowden.
Oregon gave up 495 yards on 86 plays (5.8 per snap) and 29 first downs, including 13 in the third quarter when Arizona went on a 21-7 spurt.
Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, making his first Pac-12 road start in the 100th consecutive sellout at Autzen Stadium, threw for 287 yards and a touchdown. Running backs Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson combined for 207 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The Ducks either didn’t do enough homework on Rich Rodriguez’s scheme or froze during the final exam.
“Defensively, a lot of guys had eyes in two spots,” Helfrich said. “In that kind of game it’s assignment football.”
Tony Washington made what could have been a game-changing sack on third-and-goal with the score tied 24-24, but the fifth-year senior defensive end was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after taking a celebratory bow.
It was curtains for the Ducks after that as Arizona punched in the go-ahead touchdown and then forced Mariota to lose a fumble to thwart Oregon’s final drive.
“There’s probably nothing worthwhile in life and definitely zero in football that’s done individually. Nothing,” Helfrich said. “We celebrate with our teammates in everything we do. That rule is, I think, very subjectively enforced across the landscape. That aside, that’s not what we’re all about.
“Tony felt horribly last night, felt horrible this morning. It wasn’t one play (that cost us), but that’s a significant situation for sure.”