Can Marshall, Tyner shoulder the load?
EUGENE – The No. 2 Oregon Ducks will probably lose sometime this season.
Not a prediction. Merely a statement of mathematical probability as UO enters the toughest part of its schedule starting with No. 16 Washington (4-1, 1-2 Pac-12) Saturday in Seattle.
Then comes Washington State (4-2, 2-1) at home, No. 11 UCLA (4-0, 1-0) then at No. 5 Stanford (5-0, 3-0).
Oregon will be favored to win all four games but only the Cougars should be considered a sure victory. In a bet against the field winning once, the safe bet would be the field.
We’ve witnessed Oregon (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) dismantle lesser teams with great ease for some time now. But what will these Ducks do when faced with real adversity? Not invented adversity created by nitpicking from the unrealistic such as UO trailing for a few first-quarter minutes, actually having to punt or, heaven forbid, giving up a touchdown in a 50-point win.
Rather, the type of adversity where things haven’t gone according to script. When the opposition is capable of punching back. When points don’t come in bunches. When the game is in doubt in the fourth quarter.
Oregon hasn’t always handled itself well in those situations.
Twice over the past two seasons the Ducks lost critical games at home that ended their national title hopes. UO was heavy favorites in both games. Only once in history has Oregon finished a regular season undefeated. The run included a 15-13 win at California that nearly ended a run to the BCS National Championship Game.
We know these particular Ducks can generate blowout wins with alarming efficiency. They’ve been doing it in crazy fashion since the start of last season when they outscored opponents 49.6 to 21.6 with few meaningful snaps taken in the second half of games. This season, the opposition has been whipped by an average of 59.2 to 11.8.
But mixed among that 18-game stretch dating back to last year is a still-stupefying, 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford at home in 2012. The 10-0 Ducks were 20-point favorites, seated first in the BCS standings and ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. Stanford was ranked No. 14.
But the capable Cardinal did what other teams did not. It fought back. Oregon wilted. Undefeated season, done. National title chances, gone. It's the only game in which quarterback Marcus Mariota has been forced to deliver late in the clutch without a lead. He didn't make it happen.
In 2011 a 9-1 Oregon team sat at No. 4 in the BCS standings before losing at home to USC (No. 18 in the AP Poll and serving a bowl ban) and fell to No. 10.
A 12-1 Oregon team that year (Ducks won Pac-12 the championship game) would have had a shot at earning an invitation to play a rematch with LSU in the national title game.
Both losses to USC and Stanford could be considered choke jobs given that the Ducks were heavily favored, at home and had so much to play for yet performed below their capabilities.
Will such a letdown come again this season?
Winning easily is nice and all but it’s only an advantage if it continues. Otherwise, it has its caveat: Blowing teams out does nothing to prepare a team for performing when the game is on the line.
Since 2010 Oregon is 3-3 in games it did not win by more than 10 points.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said the Ducks do things in practice to make the team uncomfortable and prepared for tough situations. Loud music. Simulating late-game situations, etc.
All of that certainly helps but nothing prepares a team to play in tight fourth quarters like playing in tight fourth quarters.
Such a fourth quarter is likely on the horizon. It will probably occur once, if not multiple times over the next four games. Should Oregon escape unscathed, it should cruise through meetings with Utah (3-2, 0-2), at Arizona (3-1, 2-0) and against Oregon State (4-1, 2-0).
Then, only a Pac-12 title game would then stand between Oregon and the national championship game.
The Ducks very much are national title worthy. But to get there, they must avoid choking on their own success and against opponents capable of putting up a fight.