Over the course of Mark Helfrich’s first year as head coach at 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 Monday with a 30-7 victory over Texas in 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,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said following the victory over Texas.
Mariota has already announced he will stay at Oregon for his junior year.
Helfrich matched Southern California’s John Robinson (1976) and Stanford’s David Shaw (2011) for most wins as a first-year head coach in what is now the Pacific-12 Conference.
Helfrich, Oregon’s offensive coordinator for the past four seasons, took over as head coach when Chip Kelly went to the Philadelphia Eagles. Helfrich inherited a team that had gone to four consecutive 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. No. 3 in the preseason, Oregon reeled off eight wins to start the season, despite a right ankle injury that sidelined 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, he 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 plans to train for the NFL combine.
Through all this, 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 hopeful could not even jog.
Stanford beat the Ducks, 26-20. Because Oregon doesn’t talk about injuries, it was unclear just how serious Mariota’s knee was.
The Ducks subsequently defeated Utah, but then fell 42-16 to the fired-up Arizona Wildcats in Tucson. It dropped Oregon to No. 12 and skewered the Ducks’ national title hopes.
The Cardinal went on to claim the Pac-12 North and beat Arizona State in the conference championship game to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks wrapped the regular season with a 36-35 victory against Oregon State in the Civil War. But Oregon’s sixth straight season with at least 10 wins wasn’t enough to get the team into a BCS bowl.
The hiatus between the Civil War and the Alamo Bowl wasn’t 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.
In the days leading up to the bowl game, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti announced he was retiring after 24 years with the Ducks, including 17 as defensive coordinator. His last game was the Alamo Bowl.