The preseason AP college football poll came out yesterday, and the Ducks are third in the country for the third time in four years. Over the last five years, they have the best record in college football at 47-6, an .887 winning percentage.
Yet it’s in the ultimate-game mentality of sports that they are more remembered nationally for the handful of games that they lost. People remember the failures and pratfalls. They remember Michael Dyer getting up to run again, or Nick Fairley stuffing the Oregon running game. They remember field goals that went wide and fumbles at the goal line. Rightly or wrongly, they associate the Ducks with flashy uniforms and a video game offense that seems to sputter in big games, knocked backward by more physical teams.
At practice Saturday the Oregon coaches were talking about execution. It takes superb execution to win marquee matchups and prevail against elite teams. Execution means all 11 doing their jobs, cohesively. It means knowing what you’re doing and responding to specific situations the way you practiced them. Mark Helfrich told the media after the workout, “Our effort level has been really good,” Helfrich said. “Our execution has not been where we want it to be, which you know, that happens this time of year. Once we get into game mode, which won’t be late next week, will we really start refining things.”
Andrew Greif of the Oregonian said that the Ducks “have graduated from learning large concepts to putting in more specific scenarios such as “game-ending situations, end of half, end of game.”
Almost every day at practice the head coach picks a moment to interrupt a drill and send a field goal kicker out onto the field cold for a surprise “game-winning kick.” Confidence is key, making the testing situation familiar. Special teams and tight ends coach Tom Osborne said #1 kicker Matt Wogan had made 8-8 from 54 yards, but when called on later in the clutch scenario he boofed the try. It’s like legendary golfer Bobby Jones once said about his sport: the most important distance in the game is the six inches between your ears.
Fans can look back over critical moments from Oregon’s five-year run of success and find the exact plays where the Ducks failed in execution. The opponents deserve full credit for winning those games, but the lessons of defeat are hardest and most important:
Trailing 7-0 at Arizona after a freak interception and a quick Wildcat drive, the Ducks go three and out deep in their own end with a pair of incomplete passes. Rich Rod’s squad drives 59 yards in 10 plays for a 14-0 lead, and the Ducks, who control their own destiny for the PAC-12 Championship Game, look inattentive and lethargic.
On the drive, B.J. Denker completes passes on 2nd and 14 and 3rd and 8, the second one for 9 yards and a first down at the Duck 30. On 3rd and 1 at the 12, reserve linebacker Rahim Cassell jumps off sides for an easy first down.
Oregon answers by driving 64 yards on 12 plays, but they have three penalties on the drive, a false start, an illegal block and holding , the last one inside the 10, and they settle for a Wogan 33-yard field goal. EXECUTION.
Wildcats get the ball back and drive 83 yards in 16 plays for another touchdown. The drive gets going when Denker hits Samaje Grant for 10 yards on 3rd and 8. He’s accurate and comfortable, with little pressure and too much cushion.
The Ducks get a touchdown of their own but misfire on a two-point conversion. 21-9. The defense forces Arizona’s first punt, getting the ball back to the offense which is again pinned deep in their own territory at the 4. DAT gets the visitors out of the hole with three nifty runs out to the 48, but on the next play, Thomas Tyner fumbles.
The defense holds, forces another punt that Wildcat punter Drew Riggleman wedges down to the Oregon one. The Ducks drive 59 yards in 11 plays but sputter on 3rd and 4 and 4th and 2, turning the ball over on downs.
Down 28-9 the defense forces another three and out, getting a stop on Denker on third and 2. Mariota and the Quack Attack drive 76 yards, reaching 4th and two at the Arizona 6. A pass to Keanon Lowe in the end zone sails high and wide.
Arizona scores again later in the third quarter, converting on 3rd and 5 when the Ducks secondary is caught holding. 35-9, and not pretty.
Mariota finds some rhythm on the last possession of the third quarter. He hits Mundt for 14, Addison for 8, Huff for 29, Hawkins for 30, then Huff for 2 yards and a touchdown.
Arizona answers with another scoring drive to make it 42-16, highlighted by a 35-yard run by Denker on which the Ducks lose contain, and 9 punishing carries by Ka’Deem Carey, who pounded the Ducks soft front seven for 206 yards and 4 touchdowns that day.
Desperate now, Oregon drives quickly to the UA 13, but Mariota is intercepted at the goal line by Shaquille Richardson, a bad read, the sophomore quarterback’s second interception of the year.
You can find similar failures of execution in the Duck’s loss to Stanford. The Cardinal got them out of their rhythm and manhandled them at the line of scrimmage, but Oregon hurt their cause by failing to make plays when they had the opportunity.
On the opening possession Marcus Mariota has Josh Huff wide open at the goal line but he can’t plant and throw on his injured knee. He shotputs the ball and it falls short.
On their next possession the Ducks reach the Stanford 4 but a fourth-down fade to Addison sails high and wide.
Stanford puts together a 96-yard scoring drive, pounding the ball with Tyler Gaffney. They convert on 3rd and 2, 3rd and 1 and 3rd and 3, and the Ducks front seven looks helpless and overmatched.
Oregon goes three and out, and The Cardinal execute their game plan flawlessly with 59-yard scoring drive, converting on 3rd and 6 and 3rd and 1, Kevin Hogan scrambling 11 yards up the middle for the score. 14-0, Tree.
The Ducks respond by driving 80 yards, but De’Anthony Thomas has the ball stripped away by Shane Skov at the Stanford 2.
Hogan scrambles for 12 yards on 3rd and 6 from his own 6, three Ducks missing tackles, and the Cardinal eat up the last 8:26 of the first half driving 96 yards for a field goal in 20 plays. Visiting Duck fans are in stunned silence, the #2 team in the country trailing 17-0 at the half after squandering opportunities at the 4 and the 2.
After the half The Cardinal add a pair of field goals on drives that take up 10 minutes of the third quarter. The defense can’t get off the field on 3rd and 3, 3rd and 1 and 3rd and 6. Oregon drives down to the 19 but Mariota fumbles under heavy pressure, a sitting Duck without his acceleration and mobility.
A furious 4th quarter rally falls short. Failures in execution and fundamentals, particularly ball security and tackling, dictate that the Ducks have no chance. Stanford pounds them at the line of scrimmage and punishes a limping Mariota.
Execution means making crucial plays in big games. If the Ducks want a different outcome in 2014, the talk about execution has to be more than lip service. They have to limit turnovers and costly penalties at key times. They have get stops. And they have to complete the plays that are there to be made when they have the opportunity.