Friday, January 9, 2015

2015 Rose Bowl: The Oregon Trail to a Championship and Respect

Florida State Blown Out by Oregon in a Duckwalk
January 9, 2015

By Brian Bentley

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “Respect? I don’t get no respect!”

In the 2015 Rose Bowl, the first College Football Semifinal playoff game ever, the Oregon Ducks proved that if nobody gives you respect, you can take it like someone’s wallet. On a sunny, chilly winter day in Pasadena, they stole the game from the dazed and confused Florida State Seminoles. The second half of the contest was such a blowout that many fans pulled over their hoodies and exited by the beginning of the fourth quarter.

The final score was 59-20, but the Ducks beat-down of the Seminoles resonated far beyond the lopsided 39 point victory. The 2015 Rose Bowl was the highest rated program in the history of cable television. It was a passing of the torch from one national power center to another. College football has been dominated for eons by teams from the South.

These yahoos have hyped their hubris and carved their contempt for the Pac-12 Conference with the kind of blatant disregard that made institutionalized racism a Southern institution. This Rose Bowl was about emotional and physical payback – revenge for the disrespected West Coast and an Oregon team fed up with the label “soft.” It could have been a Dirty Harry sequel. Call it Sudden Impact: Pasadena.

Under the creaky BCS Championship format, which was finally euthanized this year in favor of the more logical four-team playoff, two Southern schools, Alabama and Florida State – both losers in Semifinal Bowl games on New Year’s Day – would have been playing in the newly-minted College Football Playoff title game. Seven of the past eight winners of the BCS National Championship game hailed from the Southeast Conference. Not this year, Gomer, as Oregon and Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State will battle for the prize in Arlington, Texas on Jan 12th.

If true respect must be earned the hard way, the Oregon Ducks have done so, whether the South is on board with the concept or not. Oregon has been arguably the best team in the 2010’s, the first to win 50 games and the team with the scariest and most productive offense in college football history. Their up-tempo offense, brilliantly designed by former head coach Chip Kelly and handed down like a prized family rifle, initiated a play every 16 seconds in the Rose Bowl. Time waits for no one, especially opposing defenses.

It’s tough to stop an offense that sets up that fast, and the Seminoles scrambled to get players to the line of scrimmage in time for the snaps. Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, the most gifted college quarterback of the decade, orchestrated a spread offense that moved with inhuman precision and accuracy. Oregon chews up defenses like a pit bull shredding up your favorite shoe. Nine times this year, they have produced touchdown drives in 36 seconds or less. The Ducks often start games slowly, but only four teams since 2011 have been able to contain and beat them for four quarters.

In boxing, you can often predict a winner just by how the fighters chose their entrances. Football is likewise and it’s possible to hedge your bets by how loose and confident the players look in the tunnel heading to the field. While Florida State appeared hesitant and a bit overwhelmed pre-game, Oregon players were bouncing around like dozens of mischievous Muhammad Ali’s, poised and bratty at the same time, straining at the bit to wreak havoc.

To understand how the cocky 2015 Oregon Ducks are not the same nervous bunch that choked under expectation and lost the 2011 BCS title game against Auburn, one needs to appreciate safety Erick Dargan. The team leader in tackles with 70, he also leads the Pac-12 in interceptions with five. A smart and fearless competitor, he played a backup role until finally getting his starring shot as a senior this year. Dargan’s fierce play, along with his cold, pitiless stare embody the best qualities of “thug” street toughness without the unnecessary byproducts.

If you have questions about Oregon’s toughness, come see safety Erick Dargan.

Championships are forged from balanced teams and predatory gladiators like Dargan. This latest version of the Ducks is an opportunistic, attacking group of battle-tested veteran seniors and sensational freshmen like “can’t be knocked off his feet” running back, Royce Freeman. These are supremely talented guys who understand it is their time and are too young, and full of life to be scared of anything like losing. Oregon’s reputation as an entitled team that gambles is more about calculated risk-taking to frustrate and cripple the opponents’ will to fight. Part of the mystique is the snappy and garish, sometimes goofy, Nike uniforms that change color schemes every week. If you can pimp the other team, they are left with the intimidating impression that you don’t give a fuck. To walk onto a field dressed like that you have to be good.

Jameis Winston, Florida State’s quarterback and the Heisman Trophy winner last year, also came to play at the Rose Bowl. With his unsavory legal past and murky reputation, Winston is the polar opposite of Oregon’s humble, lovable QB, Marcus Mariota. But he is no less a competitor, and coming into the game, his team was enjoying a 29-game win streak. Winston had not lost since he was a senior in high school. While he often appears exasperated with an air of emotional wreckage, he’s led his team from behind to victory nine times this season. Winston’s grown-man energy was the driving force that kept the game close in the first half. When the halftime show began, the teams were locked in a near statistical dead heat with Oregon ahead by the indifferent score of 18-13.

Analysts say that winning football games is not just about stats, but about certain key moments that swing the momentum from one side to the other. To beat the Oregon Ducks, you don’t have to play a perfect game, although near-perfect would be desirable. But your team cannot turn the ball over, cannot come out of the Red Zone with only field goals. You can’t come from behind to win, because nobody can play catch-up with Mariota when he is ahead and his offense is firing on all cylinders. Trading scores does not work if you trail Oregon by two or more touchdowns and you can’t stop them from scoring.

Imagine the night sweats that defensive coordinators must suffer before they play Oregon. If your defense can actually cut off the corners so the Ducks spread-formation plays don’t get many yards after catch, then you’re set up to be attacked down the middle, with Mariota firing strikes through vertical passing lanes. The quarterback who seldom throws from the pocket, threw 56 touchdowns this season. You heard right, 56. Nobody can freeze a defense with a look-off or a play action fake like Oregon’s main man. If your linebackers and D backs hesitate for a moment or commit the wrong way, Mariota, the fastest quarterback to ever play the game, is off and running free. It’s like trying to catch dust in the wind.

Opportunity lost against the Ducks is opportunity rarely seen again. In the fiercely contested second quarter, Florida State had eight snaps inside the Ducks’ 15 yard-line and came away with only three points. On fourth and goal at the one yard-line, Oregon’s Tony Washington ankle-tackled Winston to save a touchdown. The officials removed another potential FSU touchdown opportunity with a blown non-call of interference on tight end Nick O’Leary in the end zone.

With two minutes left in the first half, the ACC champs were trailing 18-6. Gaining some footing in their familiar come-from-behind mode, FSU mounted an impressive six-play, 71 yard drive, producing a touchdown to make it a five-point game at halftime. Despite Oregon appearing to have the edge throughout the first two quarters in speed, swagger and stops, the game was knotted up. Neither quarterback had thrown a touchdown. But Mariota did throw only his third interception in 397 attempts, a rare miscue that Florida State failed to convert to points. As fans rushed to be first to the bathrooms, they left a game with little rhythm that felt clumsy and in need of definition.

From the perspective of the Florida State Seminoles, the third quarter of the Rose Bowl was a dose of the mortality they had rallied against and lucked away from for 29 games. It was a reality check delivered in a brutal series of body blows by an unbeatable opponent who sucked the wind and then the heart from them.

Oregon’s success lies in the tempo of their offensive attack and a newly gelled defense. Nose guard Alex Balducci and defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner were a three-man front that routinely head slapped, sucker punched and muscled their way through five offensive lineman and made the FSU backfield their home. Three players beating five off the ball left Winston on his own and chased from the pocket like a man with a twisted ankle fleeing attack dogs.

The third quarter began quietly but suddenly turned otherworldly at about the eight minute mark. That’s when Nike CEO and Duck benefactor/mojo man Phil Knight appeared on the sidelines, gestured to the heavens and the sky fell in on Florida State. With the score 25-20, the Ducks shifted into overdrive. Mariota hit receiver Darren Carrington with a sideline bullet that turned into a 56 yard touchdown scamper. FSU running back Dalvin Cook fumbled and Mariota quickly connected again with Carrington for a 30 yard touchdown.

Florida State is known for having no quit, and mounted a drive to the Oregon 30. Trailing 39-20 on fourth down, this was their opportunity to make it a two-score game. But Jameis Winston’s number was finally up and he stuck the dagger into his own team’s heart. Flushed from the pocket, he tried to make a play and slipped like a throw rug had been pulled from under him. Flopping to the ground, he fumbled the ball backwards. Tony Washington, the Defensive Player of the Game, scooped it up and rumbled 58 yards for another touchdown. Game, set, match.

The game was a beat-the-traffic score of 52-20 at the start of the fourth quarter. FSU had committed five turnovers in six possessions in the third quarter, leading to four unanswered Ducks touchdowns. In retrospect, it wasn’t that hard to see coming. Oregon is ranked second in the nation in turnover margin (good). The Seminoles are ranked 101st with 12 fumbles and 20 interceptions. Expecting to win a close game against Oregon with those numbers is like leaving a can of lighter fluid inside the fireplace at Thanksgiving dinner and hoping for a quiet meal.

Oregon head coach, Mark Helfrich’s enjoyed his 29th 50-point game since taking over as the master of the offense. The Ducks racked up 639 yards in total offense. Running back Thomas Tyner was running downhill contributing 124 yards and two touchdowns. Darren Carrington, not exactly a household name, had a career performance with seven catches for 165 yards and two TD’s. Meanwhile, the Oregon defense was performing a Vulcan mind meld with FSU receivers all day – in synch with their every move, cutting off and anticipating routes and harassing Winston to no end.

As the game’s outcome became inevitable, Florida State had the body language of a man being led to the gallows. Their corner threw in the towel when Mariota took off on his own touchdown run and the defense hardly bothered to line up. Oregon’s bloodthirsty avalanche of tempo, speed and execution sent a message to the world, addressed to the SEC. There’s a new sheriff in town.

The view from Section 28 got better as the game went on

For Oregon alumni like myself who saw this final L.A. game of the Mariota era in person, it was hard not to leave the Rose Bowl misty-eyed. It felt like the end of a movie that took five long years to make. The credits haven’t rolled as the College Football Playoff championship game is Monday. The Ducks are six point favorites and Oregon’s first national championship is still 60 minutes away. But what a ride through the 2010’s it has already been. Nothing can replace the excitement and buzz of seeing your old school, with years of unremarkable football distinction, become the rock stars of our time and the media darlings of everyone west of the Cuyahoga River.

This Rose Bowl win is dedicated to the ghosts. The ghosts of former Ducks: Dan Fouts, Bobby Moore, Joey Harrington, LaMichael James and coach Chip Kelly – the man with the incredible vision who made it possible. This was for all the Oregon fields of dreams that were cut short. For favorite son and track superstar Steve Prefontaine, who died in a single-car accident at 24, before he could bring the Olympic Gold Medal back to Eugene. It was a fist pump for the countless warriors with losing seasons who shed green blood to represent a town best known for rain and a smelly sawmill. But mostly, it was about respect. Whether the Oregon Ducks ever climb this high up the mountain again, respect is something you carry to a place that no one can take away.

Go Ducks.