Column: Oregon takes aim at Ohio State, and its aura of history
Oregon has defeated Ohio State for a significant collegiate championship.
It just hasn’t been recently, or in football.
The Ducks, also known then as the “Webfoots,” captured the first NCAA basketball championship in 1939. The game was in a Big Ten gymnasium at Northwestern, and the score was 46-33.
Oregon would be happy to take that final score and run in Monday’s first College Football Playoff championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
A victory over Ohio State in football would, however, be a first. Oregon is winless in eight tries as it yearns to establish a legacy the Buckeyes have shovel-passed from Woody Hayes, to Jim Tressel, to Urban Meyer.
Oregon wants to be in football what Ohio State already is.
You could almost smell Ohio State’s aura as the Buckeyes leaned on all their history in advance of the title game.
Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich looked like a paperboy sitting next to Meyer at the Sunday coaches’ news conference in a Dallas hotel.
Helfrich, promoted to head coach two years ago after Chip Kelly left for the NFL, talked about all the “dumb luck” that got him to this game.
Helfrich has that “pinch me” look because he is an Oregon-born coach, from Coos Bay, proud to be leading his home-state team to this pinnacle.
Reporters wanted to know what it was like to face such an esteemed coach as Meyer, who was coming off a win over Alabama’s equally esteemed Nick Saban.
“There’s not too many guys like those two,” Helfrich said.
Helfrich has not made any boneheaded tactical mistakes to suggest he is not qualified to coach in a game of this magnitude.
Yet he is overmatched in star power by Meyer, who has already won two national titles at Florida and is on the cusp of taking his legacy to the next level.
An argument can be made that Meyer is in the midst of, perhaps, the greatest single coaching season in college football history.
Meyer has brought the Buckeyes to the brink with a third-string quarterback. In three seasons, he put Ohio State on a playing level that just defeated the best team in the Southeastern Conference.
Meyer has coached with tremendous success at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, but returning to Ohio was his true calling. He was raised in Ashtabula cheering for Woody Hayes against Bo Schembechler. Meyer attended the University of Cincinnati but mentored at Ohio State as a young assistant under Earle Bruce.
If Ohio State wins a national title with Cardale Jones at quarterback, Meyer could supplant Saban as college’s best current coach. Saban would still lead in titles, four to three, but the topic would be up for discussion.
Meyer is leading Ohio State through what he calls “uncharted waters.” He became Meyer by absorbing the Sun Tzu tenets of understanding your “enemies.”
Meyer respects Helfrich, what little he knows of him, but revered Kelly, the coach who gave Oregon its modern-day swagger.
Kelly revolutionized the Oregon Way with up-tempo offense but was also cutting edge with his unconventional approaches to practice and nutrition.
“The culture that Oregon has created is something I’ve studied in great detail,” Meyer said. “And I say culture because that’s what it is.”
Meyer, during his time away from coaching, visited Oregon to study its ways.
He came to understand what Oregon was doing under Kelly, particularly with speed and pace, was as psychological as it was physical.
Helfrich runs a kinder, gentler version of Kelly’s chaos but is getting the same results.
Some say Oregon’s second-half pace in the Rose Bowl forced Florida State, a team that had won 29 straight games, to quit.
“The D-line wasn’t really playing hard at all, and that showed us we really needed to get in shape for this game,” Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa said this week.
Meyer had his team practice this week against a stopwatch, knowing Oregon averaged a play every 16 seconds against Florida State.
Meyer calls it “defeating the demon, the demon that takes place when fatigue takes over, and that’s real.”
Helfrich doesn’t have Meyer’s pedigree but has proven more capable than he looks or acts.
He is much more player friendly than the cryptic Kelly and has used camaraderie to his advantage.
After Oregon lost its only game this year, at home to Arizona on Oct. 2, Helfrich arrived 25 minutes early at practice the following day.
He was the last person on the field.
“The entire coaching staff, every single player, they were out there together,” he said.
Helfrich said that kind of resolve “slaps you right in the face.” Since the loss, Oregon has averaged 49.2 points in nine wipeout wins.
Helfrich’s quiet confidence comes in knowing that, although he might not be the best coach in Monday’s game, he will be coaching the best player.
Helfrich has the unprecedented privilege of leaving Oregon’s fate with quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is looking to cap one of the most prolific seasons in history with a capstone victory for the program.
Oregon’s destiny, seemingly, could have not been put in more capable hands.
Mariota has yet to be rattled in a game, or at a news conference. He faces fourth and goal with the same temperament as he uses to pour a cup of tea.
Based on the quarterbacks’ demeanor and cockiness at media day, the uninitiated might have guessed Mariota was the third-stringer and Jones was the Heisman Trophy winner.
Some quarterbacks would be petrified losing two starting receivers in the last two games.
Mariota just shrugs his shoulders and promises, “there will be another guy ready to go.”
At this point, after all he’s accomplished, how can you doubt him?
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