By Anne M. Peterson
The Associated Press
Over the course of Mark Helfrich’s first year as head football coach at the University of Oregon, he dealt with a troubled tight end, a snowball fight, and an injury to his star quarterback that was much worse than anyone thought.
But it all ended with an authoritative win. The No. 10 Ducks finished the season 11-2 and capped it off with a 30-7 victory over Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Helfrich matched USC’s John Robinson (1976) and Stanford’s David Shaw (2011) for most wins as a first-year head coach in the Pac-12 Conference.
While preparing for the bowl, Helfrich had a chance to chat with Mack Brown, who coached his final game after 16 years with the Longhorns.
“There’s not too much time in this business to relax,” Helfrich said. “Spending more time with Coach Brown this week, it’s funny hearing how he talks, after a win, how your emotions go, then how devastating a loss is. You don’t get to celebrate. I’ll take his advice and think about it for 24, 48 hours, then get back to work.”
Helfrich, Oregon’s offensive coordinator for the previous four seasons, took over as head coach when Chip Kelly went to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Helfrich inherited a team that had gone to four straight BCS bowls under Kelly.
Led by quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas, the Ducks were expected to finish atop the Pac-12 North and advance to the league championship. Oregon was ranked No. 3 in the preseason.
The Ducks reeled off eight wins to start the season, despite an ankle injury that sidelined the speedster Thomas for nearly four games.
Helfrich faced a challenge in October, when talented tight end Colt Lyerla was suspended for Oregon’s game at Colorado for an unspecified violation of team rules. The next day, the junior from Hillsboro abruptly left the team, citing his desire to go to the NFL. Less than three weeks later, Lyerla was arrested for cocaine possession. He has since pleaded guilty to a felony possession charge, but he plans to train for the NFL combine.
Through it all, the Ducks climbed to No. 2 in the AP rankings and were seemingly on course for a national championship bid.
Then came Stanford.
It turns out Mariota had partially torn the medial collateral ligament in his left knee against UCLA the week before. Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost said that just two days before the game against the Cardinal, the Heisman Trophy hopeful could not even jog.
Stanford beat the Ducks, 26-20.
Because Oregon’s policy is to not talk about injuries, it was unclear just how serious Mariota’s knee injury was.
The Ducks subsequently defeated Utah, but then fell 42-16 at Arizona. The loss dropped Oregon to No. 12 and skewered the Ducks’ chances of a national championship bid.
Stanford went on to win the Pac-12 North and beat Arizona State in the conference championship to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks wrapped up the regular season with an exciting 36-35 victory against Oregon State in the Civil War. But Oregon’s sixth straight season with at least 10 wins was not enough to get the team into a BCS bowl.
The hiatus between the Civil War and the Alamo Bowl was not uneventful, either.
Junior cornerback Troy Hill was suspended indefinitely by Helfrich following his arrest on misdemeanor charges of menacing and criminal mischief. His next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 21.
Sophomore tight end Pharaoh Brown was suspended for the Alamo Bowl because of his role in an on-campus snowball fight that got out of hand when passing motorists were pelted. Brown and Helfrich apologized for the snowball attack, which was posted on YouTube and went viral.
In the days leading up to the bowl game, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti announced he was retiring after spending 24 years with the Ducks, including 17 as defensive coordinator. His last game was the Alamo Bowl.
“I think the biggest thing was through adversity we were still able to kind of pull through and get 11 wins. That’s hard to do in today’s day and age,” Mariota said following the victory over Texas.
Mariota has already announced that he will stay at Oregon for his junior year. He averaged nearly 282 yards passing per game and threw for 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine scores. His 4,380 yards of total offense set a school record.
“To us, 11 wins, I mean, that doesn’t happen very often. Just to come back out here and to finish the bowl game strong really sets us up for the future, builds a solid foundation for next year,” Mariota said. “Like I say, we’re looking forward to it.”