Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Full Gameday Experience

My search for a good Bloody Mary in Eugene brought me to Sixth Street Grill, downtown on . . . . . . uhh, where was it? . . . . . Oh ya, 6th Street. It's just across from the Incredible Hult Center.

Excellent tomatoey body, not too watery like so many BM's are. Superbly spiced. They could afford to be bolder on the vegetables and other fixin's. But plenty bold on the alcohol. This beverage is heavily fueled!

While there, I discovered a new viable pregame routine thanks to Oregon grad and longtime Eugene resident Vance Naegle, who asked to remain anonymous for this story. The Hult Center parking structure is free on weekends as long as no events are scheduled. And I doubt they would be fool enough to schedule an event during a game.

The Sixth Street Grill, as I said, is right across the street. It's split in half -- kid friendly dining room on the right and minorless bar on the left. Great food. Not a huge place. But the idea is to park free at the Hult, pre-function at the Grill, then bus to the stadium, which isn't that far.

At the game, we enjoyed the usual . . .

Eric Dargan intercepts.

IT'S A FUMBLLLLLE! Oregon steals it. 

And then, THIS guy again! Or as he is called these days: "Cover Boy". 

"Cover Boy". For the third consecutive
year, Mariotta dons the cover of SI.
Let's just hope this year he shakes
off the curse and takes Oregon all
the way.

Some of us got to hang with Da Duck:

This was the best dressed Duck fan. 
Duck in Bobo Fett helmet.
"Bobo Duck"?

Then we walked back towards campus and enjoyed one of the funnest experiences for an Oregon fan or grad.
After a successful game at Autzen, this is Oregon fans' victory cigar.
Don't bother with foo foo artichokes and basil goat cheese here.
Just order yourself a damn pepperoni pizza and be prepared
to have your eyes roll back into your head. 

If you're going to spend 50, 80, or 100 bucks for each game ticket these days, you gotta mix in those other venues that fill you with the great memories.

Does anybody remember when was the last time Washington State had a winning season? Would you believe it was over 10 years ago?!?  In the 2003-2004 season, they capped off a brilliant 10-win season with a win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Since then, they've been generally terrible, mediocre at best. 
In all this time, they've had trouble getting a coach to capture the imagination of players and new recruits to rebuild the team. And the jury is still out on whether Mike Leach is that guy now.

He's trying. But before they beat Portland State last week, he was talking of his team's "culture of losing". This excerpt from AP sources:

"There is nobody on our team that has won in college football, and so we have to take that step and that's why it's so important that we're strong internally," Leach said. "There are no players on the team that have won."
The Cougars remain a young team, with plenty of underclassmen and walk-ons seeing playing time. They have already had 12 players make their first career start this season.
"We're younger than nearly everyone we've played," Leach said.
That includes the rapidly improving offensive line that protects quarterback Connor Halliday, the nation's leading passer. The line is made up of walk-ons and first-year players.

Let's get something straight. Connor Halliday is the nation's leading passer for one reason. The Cougs don't run. They just don't. In their win against Portland State, they threw for a whopping 630 yards and ran for 76. Nearly 3/4 of their plays were pass plays. 

Can you think of a team who passed 75% of the time and won the National Championship, or a major bowl, or won their league, or even finished high in league standings? I can't. Those teams are few and far between, and probably had a super QB and at least one gifted receiver. In other words, a fluke. A novelty.
So I'm confused about Leach talking about getting beyond this "culture of losing", all the while having his team play a one dimensional system that is doomed to fail. 

Oregonion writer Ken Goe is a football genius (at least for this week) because he's thinking what I'm thinking. Here are his thoughts posted yesterday:
My first exposure to what would become the "Air Raid" offense came in 1990 when a young, cocky coach named Hal Mumme brought his Iowa Wesleyan team in to play Portland State.
Mumme was just beginning to develop concepts he refined into the Air Raid at Valdosta State and Kentucky.
Mike Leach, currently running the show at Washington State, was on Mumme's staff at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky, and part of the offensive brain trust.
On Saturday, Leach will pilot the Air Raid against Oregon in a 7:30 p.m. game in WSU's Martin Stadium.
Here is a good story on Mumme, which traces the evolution of his career and the offense.
While he and Leach were at Kentucky, I visited a practice prior to the 1999 Music City Bowl. I asked if there were any rules for reporters at practice. The response? Don't get run over.
After practice Kentucky quarterback Dusty Bonner broke down some of the Air Raid's concepts for me.
As Bonner explained it, the Air Raid is all about matchups. The quarterback comes to the line of scrimmage and examines the defense. Because of the Air Raid's spread formations, it's hard to disguise defenses and coverages. So, Bonner said, he just looked it over, found the matchup he wanted to exploit, took the snap and exploited it.
Because the quarterback usually determines his receiver with the pre-snap read, he gets rid of the ball quickly. This makes Air Raid quarterbacks very difficult to sack.
There is a well-designed method to the madness.
My problem with the Air Raid is two-fold:
-- It's difficult to stop until it gets into the red zone. When it's close to the opposing goal line and space compacts, those quick passing routes don't work as well.
-- In this offense the running game is an afterthought. It's another reason the Air Raid isn't as effective in the red zone. And the lack of a running game makes it difficult to protect a lead late in the game.
It's a stat-friendly scheme for quarterbacks and receivers. But unless an offense can translate yards into points, it's not an offense you win championships with.
So there you go, long suffering Cougar fans. Fun. Exciting. But don't expect a whole 'lotta success. Are you OK with that? 

Gametime: Saturday evening at 7:30 Pacific on ESPN.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wyoming and the Big Question

Wyoming is coming to play. Like the Ducks, they are undefeated. They have an offense, a defense, a bunch of coaches, and they came all the way to Eugene on a jet plane. When the game starts at 11 a.m., they will be on the field ready to play.

The Cowboys, coached by a highly respected Craig Bohl, boast a stingy defense, particularly against the run. The following are excerpts from the SB Nation blog, Mountain West Connection:
The odds are definitely stacked against the Cowboys (43 point underdogs) but none the less the Pokes will hope to come in showing they will be "Cowboy Tough" and that they will be able to play their brand of football regardless of the strength of the opponent. . . . .
The Cowboys defense hopes to contain the Ducks offensive attack by staying disciplined and tackling well in space.  It will be very important for the secondary to improve on their tackling, a weakness for the defense the first two ball games against Montana and Air Force.  The strength of the defense is the Cowboys front seven.  The first two Mountain West Conference Defensive Players of the Week have come from two of Wyoming's linebackers in senior Mark Nzeocha in week one and senior Jordan Stanton in week two. It will also be important for Wyoming's talented defensive ends in junior Eddie Yarbrough and senior Sonny Puletasi to get a good pass rush on Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. . . .
Offensively the Cowboys will look to continue to control the ball, have no turnovers and win the time of possession battle.
In the end the Cowboys just need to show they won't back down from the Ducks and that they are able to play their brand of Cowboy Tough football. 

Did you see that? He called Wyoming "Cowboy Tough" two times more than anyone has EVER called the Ducks "Cowboy Tough". I mean people have called Oregon "Duck Waterproof" or "Mallard Melancholy". And of course Eugenics are considered "Liberally Lackadaisical" or perhaps "Patchouli Pungent". But Cowboy Tough? Never.

This raises some key scouting questions for Oregon. Should Mariota pass? Should he run? Should he hand it off? Wyoming is going to try to limit turnovers. Should Oregon do the same?

But beyond all that is an even greater question. Early before kickoff. Before the teams even show up at the stadium Saturday morning, we need to know. . . . .

. . . Where in Eugene might one be able to get a really good Bloody Mary?

I'll be on the search.

Wyoming at Oregon. 11am Pacific on Pac-12 Network.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Spartans Fall Down, Go BOOM!

The following is a message delivered from the Oregon Ducks to the rest of the college football nation.

Michigan State fully intended to win this game. And for awhile, it looked like they would. Through the second and beginning of the third quarters, the Sparts scored 20 unanswered points. At this point, Oregonian writer John Canzano was apparently writing Oregon's obituary. You know, the one that says that as good as Oregon's blur offense is, they will never ever ever beat the big boys. Who could've argued?

I'm going to print Canzano's entire story (apologies to those of you who have already read it) and interject [my comments] in and around it.

Canzano: End of an era? Nope. Marcus Mariota saves Oregon's season
[This just in. Marcus Mariota named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week.]
By John Canzano | The Oregonian  
EUGENE -- Ron Mason is 65 years old. He makes $9.50 an hour working sideline security duty during Oregon football games at Autzen Stadium. When he reported for work on Saturday for the Michigan State game, Mason was assigned the visiting-team sideline and given explicit instructions should he encounter joyful Ducks fans leaping over the railing to rush the field after the game.
Said Mason: "We were told to let 'em go. And I'm too old for anything else."
No. 3 Oregon beat No. 7 Michigan State 46-27. Mason and his crew tried to "let 'em go." But in the end, nobody came. Very few Ducks fans hopped the railing. Almost none, in fact. It was as if Oregon's fan base had been here before, and expected to win, and acted like it.
Two quarters earlier, a funeral was being held for the era.

Oregon was done, right? They'd surrendered 24 second-quarter points to Michigan State. They'd fallen into a coma on offense. Gone was the edge. Lost was the identity. Marcus Mariota's final season was bleeding out in a 20-minute, 39-second scoreless span in which the Ducks played with the energy of a slug.
The Ducks had 14 rushing yards on offense in the first half. This means if you got off the couch and walked 59 feet during the intermission, and your dog got up and followed you, you'd both outgained them.
Oregon's season was going to be a goner. Dead. Over. Both coaches spent the week politicking for the college football playoff-selection committee. Lots of talk about how the loser would still have a chance to be in the final four. But the performance for a while was so anemic the entire season was slipping away.
"People around here are used to us getting yards easy and scoring easy," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "It can be frustrating (to call the game) when we're sputtering. We need those tempo plays. We knew we had to keep going fast."
The Ducks started going fast. The rhythm picked up. The tempo returned. Oregon's lifeless corpse jumped out of the coffin during the funeral procession, and ripped off 21 points in a five-minute span in the second half. This was sparked by Mariota's feet, arm, brain and improvisational work.
After the game, coach Mark Helfrich was asked what it is that causes Mariota to get it going.
His answer: "Genetics."
Game ball to Toa Mariota and his wife, Alana.
I don't know what happens to Oregon football after Mariota departs. Right now, I don't care. Because as long as No. 8 is in uniform, as long as he is healthy, as long as the Ducks have time on the clock, Mariota has this thing right where he wants it.
He threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns, including a 70-yard bullet down the seam to track star Devon Allen. He finished with 42 rushing yards. But it was his dancing in the pocket, his spinning out of trouble, the burst into the left flat and the flip to teammate Royce Freeman that became the difference between a death spiral and a victory march.
[The Spartans sacked Mariota again and again. On a third down in the third quarter at about the 5:50 mark, they came after him again. He stumbled through, then scrambled away from three would-be sackers. And that's when he made that gutsy, desperate shovel pass to his freshman running back Royce Freeman that Canzano spoke of above. See it here on the video at about the 1:10 mark.]

[It was at this point that we saw not just Mariota's determination, but the whole team. They all came together, shook off the Sparts and started playing Oregon football.]
"Michigan State had one of the best defenses in the country last season," Frost said. "They're going to be one of the best defenses again this season."
They were fast, and physical, and flew around the field like someone in their old neighborhood had stolen their bicycle. The Spartans are good. They may even compete for the Big Ten conference title. But their playoff hopes are dust. I hardly believe the selection committee will ever forget the sight of Mariota gobbling them up in the second half and spitting them out like sunflower seed shells on the Autzen carpet.
[In addition Oregon keeping up the pressure and the pace, I think the Sparts ultimately started wilting in the second half from the heat and the noise. As the
evening wore on, you could see it in their faces. Hot, worn down, and the Ducks kept coming.]
Oregon's era over?
An awful loss became a 19-point victory. This was like watching Kentucky trail North Carolina or Kansas by 10 in an early-season NCAA basketball game, only to have them come out in the second half and win by 30. Helfrich joked that his halftime speech was, "Gettysburg Addressish."
I'm thinking if Abe Lincoln had a field general like Mariota, he'd have KO'ed the South a couple of months earlier.
The knock on Oregon is that the Ducks can't beat physical teams. The losses in recent seasons to LSU, Ohio State, Auburn and Stanford suggest it. Be sure, the selection committee was watching Oregon-Michigan State to see for themselves. I suspect after seeing Oregon hang 46 points on MSU, Condoleezza Rice went to sleep wondering if there's a defense in America that can hold the Ducks under 35.
"Just because we don't run two backs out there and two tight ends people think we can't play physical," Frost said.
The Ducks played more physical Saturday. But mostly, Mariota knocked the will out of MSU's sideline one big play at a time.
[When they needed it, Oregon's offensive line pushed back Michigan State's big uglies. Yes Virginia, Oregon IS a power team!]

Maybe you talk about Oregon's 22-19 loss to Auburn in the January 2011 BCS title game as if it were the great missed opportunity for the program. The Tigers won on that last-second field goal. Or maybe you look at the one-loss 2001 Ducks team as the one that got away. They might have been the best team in football.
That's nonsense that will never be settled.
Because this season can still be settled. This is the opportunity. There is no more looking back, only ahead. Oregon has everything it needs to run the table and play in the national semifinal for the right to go to the national title game this season.
There will never be another opportunity set up quite like this. There will never be a team as complete. And most compelling of all -- there will never be another Marcus Mariota at Oregon. [OK now he's starting to sound a little like a Boston song. . .

"Don't look back
A new day is breakin'
It's been too long since I felt this way
I don't mind where I get taken
The road is callin'
Today is the day."]
"I should pay to watch him play," Helfrich said.
He will, one day.
Mariota saved the season Saturday. He did it with those good genes. Most of all, he made it look so easy, and so expected, that when the game ended, a 65-year-old part-time security staffer bracing for a wave of Ducks fans charging the field at the end of his work shift was greeted instead by a breeze.

Not to change the subject; but could somebody please tell me what the hell is happening here?

It looks like a high school prank. It looks like the linemen got pissed off at their QB and went on strike for a play. It looks like they bet on the spread. It looks like they heard gun shots.

So let me get this straight. #3 Oregon beat #7 Michigan State 46-27 . . . a full touchdown over the spread. Meanwhile, #2 Alabama beat Florida Atlantic (Isn't that a weather school?) 41-0. So the Ducks passed them. But somehow, Florida State's 37-12 "crushing" of The Citidel (The military academy with the shiniest shoes.) was good enough to keep them in 1st. Where's the strength of schedule factor?

Yes, last week the Seminoles beat Oklahoma State, but only by a touchdown, and Okie State is ranked far lower than Michigan State.

Oh well. All Oregon can do is look ahead. For they can see the dawn arrivin'. They see beyond the road they're drivin'.
It's a new horizon. They're awakin' now.

Next Saturday, 11am on the Pac-12 Network:
WYOMING -- The State of Evil.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is That Big Enough for You?

I was watching Oregon State host Portland State and was stunned how terrible the Beavs played. As The Oregonian's Ken Goe put it:

PSU gave sloppy Oregon State all sorts of trouble, led after a half, and if not for four third-quarter turnovers, the Vikings might have slapped OSU with another in a series of season-opening embarrassments.

Rusty. Unprepared. Like several previous years, they weren't ready to start the season. And not just them. Washington struggled against Hawaii. Washington State lost. I started worrying. What if the Ducks come out the same way? It took them exactly 1 minute, 30 seconds to answer that question.

The Ducks were like a hot rod sitting in a garage all summer, getting tuned, timed, revved, retuned, retimed, until finally they got out on the road. They came out, all pistons firing, not perfectly; but plenty well enough to bury the needle.

And the Coyotes.

Through the off season, I've had a dim view of two key players. RB Byron Marshall and QB Jeff Lockie.

Marshall made one dumb mistake. As he
crossed the goal line he slowed down and
dropped the ball on the 1-yard line. It got
kicked into to the endzone for a
touchback. Marshall was clearly embarrassed
and I don't anticipate him doing that again.
Hey Marshall, it's a finish line, not a goal line.
Run through the tape!
Marshall, I felt, went down on a first hit. Sure he was a thousand yard rusher; but he picked up so many of his yards in scrub time. He never once reminded me of LaMichael James or Kenyon Barner. He never fought through blocks. He would stop, hesitate and get tackled for a loss far too often. I just assumed he would be in the mix of Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman until they showed they were better, then Marshall would start carrying a clip board. Saturday, I was so delighted when he proved me wrong.

Not only did he master the running lanes, but he proved to be the Ducks top receiver as well. The spotlight is on him. He is no longer in anyone's shadow. And he appears to be taking advantage of the moment. As a junior, he is the veteran old man of the running corps. And he did a phenomenal job of showing his protégés how to be solid contributors.

Jeff Lockie got the number two QB spot by default. After the Spring scrimmage, I was disappointed when Jake Rodrigues left the team. I thought he had edged ahead as the better QB over Lockie. When Rodriquez quit, I feared that the lack of competition
Lockie looked great.
would leave Mariota with and unreliable backup. But Saturday, Lockie looked 100 percent better than last season.  Throwing 11 out of 12 for 113 yards and a TD, he showed poise and moxie. He moved the team again and again. He even executed a perfect triple option for a TD.

And then there were the youngsters.

Thomas Tyner rushed 11 times for 65 yards. Freshman Royce Freeman had 10 carries for 75 yards and two scores. But more than that, they fanned out and became receivers. Tyner had three catches, Freeman one. And Marshall led all receivers with eight receptions for 138 yards and two scores. That's three 200-plus pound power runners with a dozen catches.

Again and again I saw the two backs behind Mariota take a fake handoff and then look for the open spot in the field along with the other receivers. And, lo and behold, at that moment, Oregon's run option offense suddenly looked more like a 'run and shoot', with Mariota just looking for the open man.

I'm telling you, I had never been this excited over an offensive setup since Rich Brooks' "Swinging Gate". And all the credit has to go to Coach Helfrich, Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost, and Passing Game Coordinator Matt Lubick. No doubt they sat down over the offseason and decided to get their running backs used to the idea of catching passes.

When it all was clicking, Mariota didn't have to run as much and only needed to allow himself an open space in the pocket to deliver the ball. 


Another nice surprise was the freshman wearing DeAnthony Thomas' old number. Charles Nelson, a 5'9", 170 pound wide receiver from Florida fielded a punt and returned it untouched for a TD. He's so new, he doesn't even have a roster portrait yet. I had to find a pic of him on Google.
Oh Charles. You're such a cut up.

Why sure they are! Why wouldn't they be?!?

All Michigan State did was beat the one team that has beaten Oregon two years in a row. Michigan State is Super Stanford. They can do anything Stanford can do, and better.

An article in USA Today said this:
"Their nemesis, their kryptonite in recent years has been Stanford," [said Fox Analyst Charles] Davis said of Oregon, bringing Superman into the discussion. "What's Stanford's style of play? Heavy-duty running the ball on offense, being extremely physical, excellent tackling team on defense, which makes you run more plays. All those yards after catch, yards after contact, open-field plays that Oregon's used to getting, that hidden yardage, they weren't getting against Stanford.

"So for Oregon to win the Pac-12, they have to beat Stanford. They know that, they have to get past that hump. For Oregon to clearly get into that playoff consideration and have the chance to be an undefeated team, they have to beat Stanford twice this year. And what I mean by that is, Michigan State is Stanford."

The Spartans are coming in confident and looking forward to making the statement that they're for real. The spread has Oregon favored by 12. Autzen certainly has something to do with that. Give the Autzen crowd credit last week when Oregon was up by 49 points with two minutes left in the game. South Dakota was in the red zone and trying to score once more for pride. The fans were still in the stands and screaming loud. The 'Yotes failed to score.

There is one more factor that the oddsmakers mention only in passing, but I think is very important. Oregon has lost to Stanford twice. In 2012, they beat a freshman Mariota. In 2013, they beat an injured Mariota. This year let's see how Michigan State and hopefully Stanford do against a healthy and veteran Mariota.

That is explanation enough for the double digit point spread. But the Wall Street Journal's "Prediction Machine" (Cute) went even farther in this write-up saying that Michigan State simply won't be able to keep up with Oregon through the whole game. We've seen that before.

So more about that Mariota factor. This is what I'm talking about. . . .

Gametime at 3:30 Pacific on Fox.

And don't forget Gameday at 6 a.m. Pacific.