Civil War features two grumpy teams
November, 29, 2013
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com
If misery loves company, the Civil War might be more civil this season. At least, Oregon and Oregon State -- fans, coaches and players -- can commiserate with each other on what horrible losses and disappointing season downturns feel like.
The Ducks and Beavers arrive at their annual showdown with their mid-season swagger replaced by a limp. The Ducks, eyeballing the national title game much of the year, have lost two of three and now must contemplate their first BCS bowl-less season since 2008. The Beavers, 6-1 a month ago, had bounced back from an opening loss to Eastern Washington to regain a national ranking, but they are now riding a four-game losing streak that was capped by a miserable white flag performance against Washington.
The Ducks were blown out last weekend 42-16 by an Arizona team that had lost at home the previous week to Washington State. The Beavers gave up 692 yards -- 530 yards rushing! -- in a humiliating 69-27 home loss to the Huskies.
What went wrong for the Beavers? "What didn't?" replied coach Mike Riley.
"I would have to say that was as out of character as I've seen us play ever," Riley said. "I shouldn't say I'm at a loss, but we just have to coach better and play better."
Oregon also seemed to lose its poise last week. First, De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff caused a stir midweek by saying they weren't excited about playing in the Rose Bowl. That inspired national chortling about karma when the Ducks face-planted, thereby eliminating themselves from consideration from the slighted Granddaddy.
The loss also created some tension for first-year coach Mark Helfrich when the inevitable, "That wouldn't have happened to a Chip Kelly coached team," was broached by a fan base that hadn't suffered through a loss to an unranked team since 2009, Kelly's first season. Helfrich made no excuse for the Ducks’ woeful performance.
"We certainly didn't play up to our normal standard and like I said on game day that starts and ends with me," Helfrich said.
So what of the Civil War? Oregon is a three-touchdown favorite, but the real question is do both teams show up with something resembling their A-game? Or does just one?
"The team that handles wherever they are right now the best has the best chance to look good and play well," Riley said. "Now these guys are really good, so we're going to have to be so drastically different than we were last Saturday night. Can we do that is our issue?"
The Beavers’ biggest problem is obvious: They can't run the ball. They rank 120th in the nation with 72.8 yards rushing per game. Once they hit the second half of a backloaded schedule, opposing defenses were able to scheme up the previously potent passing game, and that has led to an offensive regression, particularly for QB Sean Mannion. He threw just three interceptions in the first eight games. He's thrown 10 in the past three.
Riley, however, brushed off talk that Mannion's confidence has taken a major hit.
"I get the question, but he's actually good," Riley said.
If Mannion starts slowly against the Ducks, it would be reasonable to wonder if Riley might turn to back senior Cody Vaz, who started five games in 2012 but was beaten out in the preseason by Mannion, a junior.
The Ducks’ quarterback, Marcus Mariota, hasn't slipped as steeply as Mannion, but he's proven fallible after becoming a leading Heisman Trophy contender through the first eight games. For one, he threw his first two interceptions of the year against Arizona, though the first wasn't his fault by any stretch. Second, he's beaten up, starting with a knee spring suffered against UCLA four weeks ago. He also appeared to get his bell rung late in the loss to Arizona, but he told reporters this week he has passed all concussion tests and will start against the Beavers.
Mariota is the least of the Ducks’ problems. Uncharacteristic offensive sloppiness and a flagging defense have been the larger issues. And, not unlike the Beavers last week against Washington, the focus and effort didn't seem very Oregon-like against Arizona.
"We did a little bit of introspection following the game, talked through that," Helfrich said. "Talked about exactly what we have to do to fix that. I think our guys responded well these last couple of days."
Both teams are headed to the postseason, so this won't be their final game. Yet both coaches know how their team performs in this game will be carried by their fans into the offseason, either as a representation of resilience or a red flag suggesting sagging morale.
Both coaches are counting on a bounce-back performance, one that means the game will reward the better team, not the one that can muster the least indifference.
"They flushed it well," Helfrich said. "The last couple of days have been very spirited, very physical practices. They are ready to get back at it."