In less than 12 hours, the Oregon Ducks will face off against the Arizona Wildcats who not only beat the Ducks last year, but embarrassed them in dominating fashion. As Duck fans, including myself, watched the devastation unfold, most undoubtedly circled this day on their calendar a chance for redemption and revenge. That day is finally here.
As is always the case, the Oregon coaches and players have said they are focused on this year and this game, rather than getting revenge on a team that stopped them dead in their tracks last season. They are, of course, focused on Winning the Day. That being said, I have to believe a good number of those guys had some good dreams last night about redeeming themselves and giving the ‘Cats a good ol’ fashion beat down.
Those that have followed my posts for a while now, have likely read my tale of following that battered Oregon team off the field last year. It was something I hope to never experience again. The devastation on each and every player’s face was tragic and inconsolable. The emotion was overflowing as some punched doors and others looked straight down in defeat. As I wrote then, there was no way any of these guys ever wanted to feel like that again. Even Mariota said it was the first time he had ever been blown out “like that”. As sold out as he is on the WTD mantra, I can’t imagine he’s forgotten that night. I can’t imagine that at least part of him isn’t going to be motivated by those ugly moments in desert as he leads his team against this conference foe. But will that motivation be enough?
Hurdles to Redemption
Given the Ducks’ success over the past few years, fans have gotten used to winning…and winning. Even after two losses last year, it was easy to make excuses for those losses and continue predicting an Oregon win with every match up. After a rough entry into this year’s Pac 12 play however, many might be a little more hesitant to make those victory predictions, myself included.
The reality is, the Ducks have some hurdles in their quest to redemption. Yes, they are winning. Yes, they have amazing talent. Yes, Marcus Mariota saves the day over and over again, finding plays out of nowhere it seems at times. But no matter how good he is, 7 sacks in one game (Washington State) is unacceptable.
Enter problem #1: The Offensive Line.
Unfortunately, several talented players in charge of protecting Oregon’s Heisman hopeful have been injured and are out indefinitely. Tyler Johnstone, Andre Yruretagoyena and most recently, Jake Fisher, went down early this season causing a reshuffling at the line and the addition of some young, non-scholarship walk-ons to take over protecting Mariota. Hopefully the bye week gave that crew a big more time to settle in and make some improvements but if they look like they did against Washington State, tonight could get pretty ugly. Especially against this Arizona team that is averaging 2.5 sacks per game.
Now on to Problem #2: The Secondary.
With an All-American corner, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, leading the way, it has almost been shocking to see the struggle in the secondary this year. Sure, there have been some big plays, including that beautiful interception by Ekpre Olomu against Michigan State but overall this group has been out-beaten far too often, giving up many more passing yards to much less talented teams they are sure to face as the season moves forward. Again, a bye week has likely provided some time for adjustments and improvements, but if this group doesn’t pick it up, the Ducks could lose their chance at redemption.
The Silver Lining
Despite Oregon’s current struggles, there are several reasons to stay positive and there are a number of differences between this game and the same match up last season in Tucson. First of all, one of the main factors in last year’s game was Mariota’s health. Though he wouldn’t admit it at the time, his knee was banged up and his play was extremely limited. Offensive Coordinator, Scott Frost, told me after that game that they essentially changed the entire game plan around his limited mobility at that time. This year, Mariota is running full speed. If the line can protect him even a bit better than it did against WSU, Mariota could single-handedly affect the game’s outcome.
Second of all, last year’s team came into Tucson “undisciplined” as then Wide Receiver, Daryle Hawkins, put it. Coach Helfrich also talked about the team being “sluggish” that week. Something was missing out of the gate and it was obvious. This year, the Ducks have had a bye week to prepare, rest up and get fired up. They also have that coveted home field advantage and their own fans to give them an extra boost. To the fans attending the game, this may be one game your “O’s” could make a big difference.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this year’s team has learned to fight through adversity. Last year’s team had done so much damage to every opponent that very few games, if any, were ever in question. They didn’t have to dig deep very often. In comparison, this team has already had to fight through some things and even play from behind at times. They’ve had to find a way to win and lean on each other. They’ve had to believe in themselves and not give up. So far, it’s worked.