It's gut check time for these Oregon Ducks

It's gut check time for these Oregon Ducks
November 24, 2013, 12:00 pm
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Mariota: I've never been blown out like this

"There are a bunch of guys that are very hurt in that locker room right now that care a great deal about each other." - Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich

TUCSON, Ariz. – Now we will find out what these Oregon Ducks truly are made out of.

The national title is gone following Saturday’s head-scratching, 42-16 loss at Arizona.

Pac-12 title is also off the radar (baring a miracle). With it, the Rose Bowl, or any other BCS bowl games, is no longer in Oregon’s future.

The team’s eight-year stretch of not getting blown out by middle-of-the-pack underdogs is also finito.

At least a little of the No. 12 Ducks’ swagger has taken a beating.

So how will Oregon react?

[RELATED: Rapid Reaction- No. 6 Oregon Ducks fall to Arizona, 42-16]

These Ducks (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) have known nothing but success measured by four consecutive BCS bowl game appearances.

“I haven’t felt this one too much in my career here,” UO defensive end Taylor Hart said following the game. “It’s probably the first time it’s ever happened to me.”

No “probably” about it. These Ducks rarely lose and definitely don’t lose big to heavy underdogs.

“It’s very, very frustrating, obviously” Helfrich said. “We put a lot of work into this. Our guys put a lot of work into this. There are a bunch of guys that are very hurt in that locker room right now that care a great deal about each other, about this team and about the outcome and we didn’t represent that very well today.”

This season still has great value for the program if the Ducks embrace what lay ahead.

Depending on their mindset, things could go one of two ways.

The Ducks could go in the tank and lose Friday’s Civil War to a hapless Oregon State team and get then get blown out in a bowl game.

[RELATED: Arizona out-Oregoned Oregon during 42-16 upset victory]

Oregon did just that in 2006 after a once promising season went south. That year ended with a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Vegas Bowl, the last time Oregon was drubbed by an underdog.

Or, the Ducks could rise to the challenge in the face of no longer being a BCS contender and salvage the season by destroying the Beavers (6-5, 4-4) and winning a third consecutive bowl game.

The latter has only happened once before in program history. Oregon won bowl games following the 1999, 2000 and 2001 seasons.

In fact, Oregon has won just 11 bowl games dating back to 1916. So bowl game victories of any kind should remain of great value to a program still striving to establish itself as one of the marquee, all-time programs. Those include the likes of Alabama, Texas, Florida State, USC, to name a few of the handful who enjoy such lofty status.

Oregon is not there yet. It might be an elite program of this era, but not in history.

Getting there requires sustained success over decades, not brief bursts here and there that don’t include national titles.

So winning a third consecutive bowl game at this point should matter a lot to the Ducks program.

But will it to the players?

[ALSO from Fentress: Oregon Ducks offense in disarray]

We heard receivers Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas say last week that their focus remained on the national title even though the Rose Bowl was much more likely.

Their dedication to excellence should actually be commended, not demeaned as it was by many.

But how now do players with that mentality get jacked up for the Alamo or Holiday bowls?

“Not worried about a bowl game,” Thomas said Saturday. “We’re just worried about our next opponent and that’s it.”

That’s a good start. OSU, which lost 69-27 to Washington on Saturday, is playing horribly right now and shouldn’t be much of a challenge for the Ducks.

“I think this short week is kind of a blessing for us,” UO quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “We don’t get that day to kind of think about it. We’ve got to come back and just focus up and battle through it.”

Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti appeared more relaxed following Saturday’s loss than he did following some victories this season.

He pointed out that finishing the regular season 10-2 wouldn’t be so bad.

“That’s a pretty good record,” he said. “It’s probably not the 12 wins that we’ve become accustomed to.”

No, it isn’t. But 11 with a bowl victory would come close. So can the players strive for that as an acceptable number of wins with no big BCS hoopla?

“They won’t give up,” Aliotti said. “They’re not going to give up…I love these kids. I’m hurting for these kids.”

Mariota said the two defeats do not define these Ducks. He’s right. But a third loss, depending how it comes about, could define this year’s team as quitters like that 2006 team.

Oregon got whipped Saturday. It happens. But when it happens in bunches to close out a season it usually points to something more.  

When asked where he could find motivation the rest of the way, Mariota didn’t point to bowl games or championships. Instead, he pointed to the simplest reason why these young men play football in the first place.

“You get to play another game,” he said. “I get to go play a game I love on Friday. That’s the most joy that I can get out of it. I get to continue to play this game that I truly love. I’m going to continue to lead these guys and hopefully we can bounce back be ready for Oregon State.”

Finding joy simply in playing might be just what’s needed to help the Ducks salvage what has become a disappointing season.