- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Oct. 26, No. 2 Oregon rolled over No. 12 UCLA in raucous Autzen Stadium. It was a vintage Oregon performance. The game was tied at the half and then -- zip! wham! zooooom! -- it was 42-14 and the Bruins looked stunned.
Ducks sophomore running back Byron Marshall rushed for 133 yards on just 19 carries and three touchdowns, including two during the dominant second half. Running back had been a position of concern in the preseason. Marshall had answered that concern.
He led Pac-12 running backs with 6.8 yards per carry. He was tied for first with 12 rushing TDs. His 109.9 yards per game ranked fourth in the conference and 18th in the nation. The UCLA game was his fifth consecutive game with more than 100 yards rushing.
And Oregon was rolling toward the national title game. It was averaging 55.6 points and 331.5 yards rushing per game, both numbers ranking second in the country. The Ducks appeared unstoppable, despite that slight limp in quarterback Marcus Mariota's stride after the UCLA victory.
Then … Stanford.
"We took a shot to our confidence in that game," Marshall said. "I don't think we were the same team after that. That kind of put a downfall to everyone's performance. Stanford was a big loss and that hurt."
Yep. And the Ducks' downfall after that 26-20 defeat ran parallel to Marshall's own personal slide.
The Oregon offense would average just 29.2 points over its final five games. During that span, Marshall would rush for 159 total yards, average 4.2 yards per carry, score just two more TDs and sit out most of the Arizona loss and the narrow win over Oregon State due to injury. With Marshall hurt or in check, the Ducks averaged 180.8 yards rushing over the final five games. Good for some teams, but not for Oregon.
While the popular -- and ultimately accurate -- explanation for the Ducks' slide in 2013 was a knee injury to Mariota that pretty much eliminated him as a running threat, Marshall's waning production over those final five games is also pretty telling.
When Oregon opens spring practice on April 1, Marshall and the Ducks are going to be in both familiar and unfamiliar positions. They, again, are going to be Pac-12 favorites and national title contenders. And they are going to be grumpy.
"11-2 is never a bad season, a bad record to have, but to know you are definitely one of the most talented teams in the country and could have been in the national championship or at least a BCS game, that's kind of eating at all of us," Marshall said. "We know we were better than we played in that last month. A lot of guys were hungry to come back and start working for next season."
Of course, the Ducks did get a boost shortly after the season ended when Mariota announced he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, where he likely would have been a first-round pick.
"It kind of seemed like he might have his eye on the first round," Marshall said. "It's really hard to see that and come back for another season. It was definitely good news. It did catch me as a bit of a surprise. Everyone was super-excited about that. Our offense will have the same, familiar pace. There's definitely that chemistry that will still be there. His leadership will be still there. I feel like we're going to pick up better than where we left off last year."
Marshall, 5-foot-10, 201 pounds, has been focused on getting stronger this offseason so he can be a more physical runner, as well as working on his lateral quickness. He knows there are no gimmes on the depth chart. Speedy Thomas Tyner, a touted 2013 recruit, rushed for 711 yards -- a school record for a true freshman -- and nine touchdowns last year, matching Marshall's 6.2 yards per carry. While they look like a dynamic backfield duo, Marshall wants to maintain his status as option 1A.
"I think both of us are capable of making big plays," Marshall said. "We just kind of have to see how the coaches are going to play that out. It's not necessarily my decision. Of course, I'd like to get the ball every play for all four quarters. Obviously, that's not going to happen."
While Mariota is the unquestioned star of the offense, the key for the Ducks getting back on track is restoring their dominant running game. Mariota is a dynamic runner, both leading the spread option and as an improvisational scrambler, but keeping him healthy is critical for the Ducks' national title hopes. Further, if Marshall and Tyner are scaring opposing defenses, that will open up the downfield passing game.
If Marshall becomes a star this season, the offense will be tough to stop. Marshall, in fact, might be the difference between a third consecutive season looking up at Stanford in the North Division standings -- another near-miss -- or the Ducks earning a berth in the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff.
While Marshall and Oregon will be all about "Win the Day" again in the fall, focusing only on the immediate game at hand, don't think for a minute the offseason musing doesn't include coveting the one thing that has eluded the program: a national title.
Said Marshall, "The last two or three years, we've kind of been right on the edge of going to the national championship game. Or winning the national championship game. It's too long. I feel like we're overdue. I know other people do too."