Pac-12: Oregon Ducks

Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as bowl games remain to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- typically unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while making an impact on its eccentric, memorable course.

Here is the final installment, featuring our three top plays from the 2014 Pac-12 season:

3. The play of polar opposites: Kaelin Clay fumble; Joe Walker TD return

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This has to be the ultimate "what if?" play of the Pac-12 season, and that is saying something. Yes, Oregon might have won anyway without Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay's help in early November, but the journey to do so would have been exponentially more difficult. And a Utes' win would have drastically changed the complexion of the Pac-12 South title race and the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Early in the second quarter, Clay hauled in a deep post from Travis Wilson and sprinted toward paydirt. A jubilant Rice-Eccles Stadium shook celebrating what initially looked to be a 79-yard touchdown catch that would have positioned Utah for a 14-0 lead.

But one not-so-minor detail stood in the way of that.

As part of his scoring celebration, Clay had dropped the football -- and he accidentally did so before he had crossed the goal line. So as Utah players were celebrating what they thought to be a touchdown, Oregon defenders were scrambling to recover a fumble. Linebacker Joe Walker eventually secured the ball and ran 99 yards in the opposite direction, scoring to tie the game while creating a signature #Pac12AfterDark moment of mass confusion.

This broke the mayhem gauge: There was a point in time when Utah and Oregon were both simultaneously celebrating 100 yards apart in opposite end zones.

Only the Ducks' party lasted. Instead of trailing 14-0 in the teeth of a ferocious defense playing in front of its electric Salt Lake City crowd, Oregon was suddenly even with the Utes. Walker had sprinted 180 yards on one play -- 80 from the line of scrimmage to pick up the fumble at the goal line, and 100 more to score the other way -- but he was the energized one after the play, while Utah was deflated. The Ducks went on to win 51-27, and the rest was history.

2. The Jael Mary

Before the night of October 4, 2014, we were still oh, so naive. We thought that there was no way a successful Hail Mary could decide a game at the gun more than once per decade. We thought a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining at home against a backup quarterback was ... relatively safe?

But then October 4 happened, and nothing was the same. The practice of expecting conventional finishes in this conference died in the Los Angeles Coliseum on that night. Arizona State and USC played a game which saw Pac-12 end-of-game eccentricity go from being a rare spectacle to a regular occurrence.

Javorius Allen's 53-yard touchdown run gave USC a 34-25 lead with 3:02 remaining and Troy celebrated, unaware that ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici was about to rack up 145 yards over his next three completions. The first was a 73-yard touchdown strike to Cameron Smith. That made this a two-point game with 2:43 remaining.

But the Trojans recovered the ensuring onside kick, and ASU didn't have any timeouts left. So nothing to sweat for Steve Sarkisian, right?

Well, nothing except for the ultimate rip-your-heart-out finish. After a USC three-and-out, ASU took over at its own 28 with 23 seconds remaining. A 26-yard pass to Smith positioned the Sun Devils for a final gasp as time expired. Jaelen Strong plucked Bercovici's Hail Mary heave out of the air and hopped into the end zone, sending the Coliseum into shocked silence, leaving the hometown fans wondering why USC hadn't seemed interested in covering one of the country's best receivers?

As is the case with so many #Pac12AfterDark questions, there is no satisfying answer. There is only a legendary result, and this one is immortalized as the Jael Mary. Arizona State 38, USC 34.

1. The Hill Mary

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The Jael Mary has an ancestor, and it also Hails (pun intended) from the state of Arizona. Two weeks before the Sun Devils snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Los Angeles, Arizona did the same thing against California. The difference: The Wildcats put on their show at home, sending a stadium into delirium, and they did it first. Arizona's last-second heroics also were a determinant in their Pac-12 South championship and Cal's failure to make a bowl game, so they beat out their Tempe rivals on this list.

The climactic play of this game was only the final piece of an absolutely sensational Wildcats' rally. Cal led 31-13 entering the fourth quarter, and it's not as if the Golden Bears suddenly stopped scoring to blow their lead: Sonny Dykes' club actually registered two insurance touchdowns in the quarter. But this insurance policy wasn't big enough to withstand a 36-point Arizona fourth quarter.

The Wildcats scored, and they scored furiously fast. A Casey Skowron field goal. A Tra'Mayne Bondurant interception followed by an Austin Hill touchdown. A Cayleb Jones touchdown. A Terrence Jones-Grigsby touchdown. An onside kick recovery. Another Jones touchdown.

Even after that flurry, Arizona still trailed 45-43. It failed a two-point conversion that could have tied the game with 2:44 remaining. Cal regained possession with a chance to seal the game, but the Wildcats kept kicking.

With under a minute left, Dykes elected to try a 47-yard field goal, but this turned out to be an ill-fated decision. James Langford missed, and Arizona got one final chance with 52 seconds left. Facing a fourth-and-7 from his own 33, quarterback Anu Solomon found Hill for a 20-yard gain that moved the ball to the Bears' 47. He then spiked the ball with only a precious few ticks remaining, setting up our No. 1 moment of truth.

To signal in the obvious play call, Rich Rodriguez and his fellow coaches clasped their hands together in "Hail Mary" prayer fashion.

Cal only rushed three, and Solomon's 73rd and final pass of the night was also its most majestic, a soaring 50-plus yard lob that might have brought down rain had the game not been played in the cloudless desert.

"Halfway, and then three-quarters of way [into the throw's flight], I knew the ball was coming to me," Hill said. "I was just hoping no one bumped into me, or hit my elbow, or jumped on top of me so I could secure the catch."

Mission accomplished. Hill Mary immortalized. Arizona 49, Cal 45.

"Don't ever go home early," a beaming Rodriguez told a TV camera afterward.

Nope, don't do that. Not in this age of Pac-12 football.

Other impact plays

Another wild week in Pac-12 

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
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The Pac-12 and the West region are capable of producing some wild weeks during the lead-up to signing day, with so many prospects in the area waiting until that day to make their commitment and rivals going after so many of the same prospects.

Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual: No. 3 Florida State (13-0) vs. No. 2 Oregon (12-1)

Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California (ESPN)

Key matchup: Oregon RB Royce Freeman vs. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

Why it matters: The battle between the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners will generate the most headlines, but one of the defining factors of this game will be which freshman running back has a better afternoon. Both first-year players are hitting their stride at the perfect time; it’s imperative for teams to run the football well late in the season. Freeman has toppled the 100-yard mark in six of his last eight games, and he ran for 98 and 99 in those other two performances. Cook has ran for 321 yards over his last two games and was named the MVP of the ACC championship game for his 31-carry, 177-yard effort. Adding to the intrigue of this matchup is the difference in running styles. Freeman tips the scales at 229 pounds and sends would-be tacklers tumbling backward. Cook runs through tackles, too, but he also embarrasses defenders with his nifty footwork.

Who wins: The winner of this matchup could determine the winner of the game. It would not be a shock to see both teams light up the scoreboard in the first half, but eventually the running games will need to take control for Oregon or Florida State to win. Florida State (60th nationally) and Oregon (50th) are essentially equally average against the run, so it’s not as if one running back will have a significantly easier afternoon against a porous defense. What could help Freeman is the running threat of Marcus Mariota on option plays. The Ducks will look to put pressure on the Seminoles’ defensive line with the read option, forcing it to make a decision to take away either Marcus Mariota or Freeman. IF the unit makes the wrong decision it could lead to big gains for the Ducks. Freeman will have a productive day and cross the 100-yard threshold in a 35-34 Oregon win.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

All week we've been bringing you the All-America honors as they rolled in.

In total, 14 Pac-12 players were named to a first-team All-America squad. Of those 14, Marcus Mariota, Scooby Wright and Hau'oli Kikaha were unanimous selections. Two other players -- Tom Hackett and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- were consensus selections appearing on at least three of the five recognized teams.

This is the eighth straight year the Pac-12 has had a unanimous selection and the first time since 2005 it's had three in one year (Reggie Bush, Dwayne Jarrett, Maurice Drew). The five recognized teams are the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Here's the final tally among the big five:

Offense
  • QB, Marcus Mariota, Oregon, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • OL, Jake Fisher, Oregon, Sr., FWAA
  • OL, Hroniss Grasu, Oregon, Sr., SN
  • OL, Andrus Peat, Stanford, Jr., SN
  • AP, Shaq Thompson, Washington, Jr., AP
Defense
  • DL, Nate Orchard, Utah, Sr., FWAA-WC
  • DL, Danny Shelton, Washington, Jr., AP-SN
  • DL, Leonard Williams, USC, Jr., AFCA
  • LB, Eric Kendricks, UCLA, Sr., SN
  • LB, Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington, Sr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • LB, Scooby Wright III, Arizona, So., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • DB, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon, Sr., AFCA-AP-WC (consensus)
  • P, Tom Hackett, Utah, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-WC (consensus)
  • PR, Kaelin Clay, Utah, Sr., SN
Game of the year?

Just before the start of bowl season, the folks at Athlon Sports wanted to look back at the chaos that was the 2014 Pac-12 regular season. We've been running our pivotal plays series all week, so be sure to check that out. But Athlon looked at the top 15 games of the season. Here's their top five.
  1. Oct 2: Arizona 31, Oregon 24
  2. Oct. 4: Arizona State 38, USC 34
  3. Sept. 6: Oregon 46, Michigan State 27
  4. Oct. 25: Utah 24, USC 21
  5. Oct. 4: Utah 30, UCLA 28

You'll note that three of their five are from Week 6. We noted last week in our Roadtrip Revisited post that every game that week was unbelievable. If you click the link, they actually rate 30 games. Fairly surprised the Cal-WSU game (also in Week 6) didn't make the top 10. To each their own.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Really great read from our friend Max Olson on the Big 12 blog about the recruitment of linebacker Malik Jefferson. Some interesting UCLA notes in there.
Welcome to the mailbag, where the holiday cheer never stops.

Tyler in Palo Alto writes: When do the bowl predictions come out? Any upsets on the horizon?

Kevin Gemmell: The Pac-12 blog will reveal its bowl game predictions with a 90-minute extravaganza show airing on The Ocho on Friday morning. Ted will spend 45 minutes screaming incoherently about Pitt while Chantel holds her FauxPelini face the entire time. Kyle, David and I will discuss the Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston storyline for about a minute, followed by another 40 minutes on Johnny Manziel and the SEC dominance. We'll close with a roundtable discussion rehashing the Ka'Deem Carey vs. Bishop Sankey debate and why Desmond Trufant wasn't on the 2012 postseason Top 25 list. It’s going to be a blast.

But in all seriousness, the picks come out Friday morning. No problem telling you I’m going full-blown homer. Of course, the league won’t go 8-0. That would be too much to expect. The conference is favored in seven of its eight games, with UCLA the only underdog right now. So if you're going with my picks, then I'm picking the Bruins in an "upset" win.

Someone will slip up. They always do. But on paper, I think the league has a chance to sweep. They say bowl games are about motivation. I see strong motivation for all eight teams in the league.


Mark in Portland writes: If Mariota leads the Ducks to their first ever championship, will he be considered one of the greatest CFB players ever? His stats are up there with the best ever, and he is the first player ever to throw for 30 TD's or more in his freshmen, sophomore and junior seasons. And winning the first ever CFB playoff would be huge and be remembered decades from now.

Kevin Gemmell: I think winning the Heisman automatically puts you in the conversation of one of the greatest college football players ever, doesn’t it? By default, you’re already considered the best player in the game for that year.

But in terms of legacy, Mariota has certainly done some special things that make him part of the discussion. As you note, winning the first ever national championship of the playoff era would resonate. Being the first-ever Oregon player to win the Heisman and the first from the region since Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962 will also stick with folks -- at least on the West Coast.

But even without a national championship, I think what he will best be remembered for are his ball-security numbers. That he has accounted for 53 touchdowns while turning it over just five times is remarkable. Right now, his personal TD-to-turnover margin is plus-48. Only Tim Tebow in 2007 had a better one in the past decade. And chances are Mariota will break that record, too, if he takes care of the ball in the next (two?) game(s).

You also have to look at the fact that of his 372 passes this season, only two have been intercepted. If that percentage holds, it will break the single-season FBS record of quarterbacks with a minimum of 350 attempts.

I think with the numbers and the Heisman, he’s already worked his way into the discussion. Adding a national championship (assuming he has a pair of monster games) would, in my mind, solidify him in the top dozen or so. Time will have to do the rest of the work.


Shonti in Miami writes: Realistically, how does Oregon match up with Florida State in the Rose Bowl? FSU fans seem to be really confident, and although they played many very close games this year, the team has a lot of talent. I'm concerned Oregon's offense could struggle against FSU's athletic defensive line and big defensive backs.

Kevin Gemmell: Much has been written this season about Oregon improving its size across the line. And I think the Ducks use the tempo to their advantage.

Keep in mind, too, that the Ducks have a big back in Royce Freeman who can pound when necessary, but he also has the speed and athleticism to hit the corners. My guess is Oregon’s pace will counter-balance any size issues. Besides, it’s not like Oregon hasn’t seen big or athletic defensive lines this season (Stanford, Washington, Utah etc...).

Also, I wrote this week about Oregon’s success at turning turnovers into points. I think that is going to be a huge factor, since Florida State turns the ball over quite a bit.

Turnovers are one thing. But if you don’t do anything with them and end up punting the ball back, they aren’t much good. Oregon has been especially good at making their turnovers count. That they have scored 120 points off turnovers ... nearly 20 percent of their total points ... is huge.

If both teams stick to their trends -- FSU not taking care of the ball and Oregon capitalizing on turnovers -- I think the Ducks match up very well.

However, the news that broke yesterday that Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is out with a knee injury isn't what you want to hear heading into the postseason. He's got two interceptions and nine breakups this season, and he will certainly be missed. But I think Oregon's secondary is seasoned enough now that it will be able to marginally compensate. I don't think it's a game-changing loss, but it's certainly noteworthy.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as bowl games remain to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- typically unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while making an impact on its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this week. Here's the third installment:

6. Cal’s stand against Colorado in double overtime

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It was one of those “never-say-die” games when it came to Cal and Colorado earlier this year. Jared Goff and Sefo Liufau threw for seven touchdowns each. EACH. How many conferences even have seven touchdown passes in one game? There were 1,200-plus yards, which is either incredibly impressive or unimpressive, depending on whether you’re a fan of offense or defense.

But regardless, this game clearly wasn’t going to be decided in regulation, so, we got some free football.

Cal struck first in the first OT. After the Colorado defense had come up with two stops for no gain on first and second down, Goff found Bryce Treggs for a 25-yard TD. Liufau responded by finding Nelson Spruce on the Buffs’ first down, pulling Colorado even. But then the Buffs kind of stalled. They were able to get two first downs to start the second OT, but when the game was on the line and Colorado was -- almost literally -- on the goal line, the Cal defense came up with its biggest stop of the year. Liufau was tackled on fourth-and-goal for a loss of three yards by Jalen Jefferson and Michael Lowe.

Cal kicked a field goal to win. It was Cal’s first conference win of the year and the Bears’ first since Oct. 13, 2012. Though the Bears only went on to win two more games and fell short of becoming bowl-eligible, it was a good statement moment and statement win for a team that’s clearly on the rise.

5. Marcus Mariota flip vs. Michigan State

Earlier last week, Pac-12 Blog readers voted this play as Mariota’s “Heisman Moment,” which was pretty telling about a few different things. First of all, it’s not a scoring play. In fact, for Mariota’s standards, it was pretty darn near basic. There are no flips, no spins, no hurdles, no nothing. It’s Mariota getting out of the pocket, making things happen and then getting the ball -- at the perfect time -- to someone else who can make more things happen.

Essentially, your typical Mariota.

The play came when the Ducks needed it most. The Spartans had scored 20 unanswered points and Oregon trailed 27-18 in the third quarter on Sept. 6. The Ducks faced a third-and-long following a sack, and everyone knew that MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was going to bring pressure again, and he did. But Mariota was able to avoid sack attempts from Darien Harris, Riley Bullough and Ed Davis before making his way toward his left and sending a shovel pass in the direction of Royce Freeman.

Freeman picked up the first down and more (17 yards) and the Ducks were able to score on that drive, pulling within two of the Spartans, before cruising through the fourth quarter and winning 46-27.

4. The fumble heard round the Pac-12

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And we move from one of Mariota’s best plays to one of his worst, thanks to eventual Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner Scooby Wright.

With the No. 2 Ducks trailing by seven at home to unranked Arizona with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Mariota took the snap on a first-and-10 at the 35-yard line. Oregon needed to score on this drive in order to keep itself alive on Oct. 2, but then the unthinkable happened.

Wright seemingly came out of nowhere, stripped Mariota and recovered the fumble.

The play was one of a handful that really sealed the upset victory for the Wildcats. It was the Ducks’ only blemish on their schedule and it certainly created some questions for the playoff committee (at least at that point in the season) regarding Oregon. As the conference season played on and the Wildcats earned more respect, and eventually a spot in the Pac-12 game, the loss became less questionable, though a loss nonetheless.

Mariota and Oregon were able to avenge the fumble in the Pac-12 championship game, but it certainly was one of those very, very rare moments this season in which the unflappable and unstoppable Mariota looked human.

Other impact plays:

Pac-12 bowl season: Most to prove

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
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Bowl season for Pac-12 contenders begins this Saturday with Utah's clash against Colorado State. How much does each conference team have to prove during this postseason opportunity? Here's our list.

1. Oregon

Every year, one of the big questions out West revolves around the Ducks' chances of finally grabbing that national championship. Oregon boasts Superman this year, and it's almost certainly Marcus Mariota's last campaign in Eugene. Though their defense suffered a major blow with the loss of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks have their man under center. They can't take this chance to win it all for granted: A playoff appearance is a golden opportunity for this powerful Oregon program to prove that it can finally bring home college football's ultimate hardware. Florida State, the defending champs, await in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual.

2. UCLA

This, likely Brett Hundley's final season in Westwood, was supposed to be year the Bruins surged from "good" to "elite." But they slipped too often, and the timing of their last fall -- a 31-10 finale loss at the hands of Stanford -- couldn't have been worse. Now, the narrative has shifted back to the old "they can't win the big one" theme, and that's the exact perception UCLA wanted to avoid. They have a chance to make a cleansing statement versus a good Kansas State squad, also 9-3, in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

3. Utah

The season started magically for the Utes -- aside from that 28-27 road bump at home against Washington State, of course. But after kicking 2014 off at 6-1, Utah dropped three of their last five games. They narrowly squeaked by Pac-12 bottom feeder Colorado to close the regular season, so it's fair to say that Kyle Whittingham's club stumbled to the finish line. An 8-4 record is nothing to scoff at, but the Utes could use a good stomping of Mountain West opponent Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. It would go a long way toward maintaining that "we've arrived as a force in the Pac-12" tone over the offseason.

4. ASU

The Sun Devils' season trajectory had some similarities with Utah's, though ASU lost one fewer game late in the season. Still, they were a one-loss team until a rough November knocked them out of the conference race. A Hyundai Sun Bowl date against fellow 9-3 competitor Duke has become ASU's consolation price, and that is quite the step down from the Rose Bowl aspirations Todd Graham's club harbored followings its November 8 win against Notre Dame. So it's important for the Sun Devils to reverse trajectory heading into the offseason, and they would also like to prove that they are better in December than last season's 37-23 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.

5. Arizona

The Wildcats were peaking at the right time ---- Oh wait, there was red-hot Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, and there were 24 yards of total offense for Arizona in the first half. Suddenly, Rich Rodriguez's club wasn't peaking at the right time. But the Wildcats can take solace in the fact that the Ducks have the ability to make good teams look foolish. They can also comfort themselves knowing that this VIZIO Fiesta Bowl is a prime chance to deliver a positive closing statement against a 10-2 Boise State team that loves that big stadium in Glendale.

6. USC

Steve Sarkisian really needed that blowout victory over Notre Dame in the finale to dump the "seven win" moniker that online trolls gleefully tossed around following the Trojans' loss to UCLA. Sark got the powerful performance he was looking for, so he's 8-4 heading into a National University Holiday Bowl matchup against Nebraska. Sure, a postseason win would be nice for the Trojans, but they are lower on this list because there is not all that much for them left to prove this season. Regardless of whether they win or lose on December 27, we know who USC is: a very talented, somewhat flawed, and ultimately thin team that's excited about getting a clean slate in 2015.

7. Stanford

There is very little the Cardinal can prove in their Foster Farms Bowl clash with Maryland on Dec. 30. Stanford capped a disappointing 7-5 regular season with a resounding 31-10 thumping of UCLA, and that performance made it very clear the Cardinal had underperformed in their games leading up to the finale. Now, David Shaw's team is a two-touchdown favorite against the Terrapins in a game 20 minutes away from campus, so there is really no chance to prove anything more than what the Cardinal already accomplished against the Bruins -- even in the case of a lopsided victory.

8. Washington

The Huskies managed eight wins in the first year of the Chris Petersen era, and they fought through some turmoil, too. The team delivered a strong finish following the dismissal of star cornerback Marcus Peters. So, the season has served as a solid foundation for Petersen to work with as he tries to assert himself in Seattle moving forward. It's hard to see the result of the TicketCity Cactus Bowl against 6-6 Oklahoma State swinging the vibe too far in either direction.
Students at O'Hara Catholic School Chantel Jennings/ESPNStudents at O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene offered their thoughts on Oregon's playoff chances.


EUGENE, Ore. -- Twelve-year-old Charlie Papé recently became internet famous when he asked Oregon coach Mark Helfrich during a postgame news conference if he had any insight into quarterback Marcus Mariota's future plans.

Papé explained to Helfrich that there were four things that mattered at his school, O’Hara Catholic School in Eugene, Oregon, just three miles from Autzen Stadium: Jesus, Girls and Marcus Mariota.

But there was one problem. He only named three.

"The fourth thing was how bad we’re going to beat the next team we play," Pape´ clarified on Wednesday.

It was a minor gaffe in an otherwise spotless delivery of one of the best lines in college football this year.

On Wednesday, Papé and 13 of his fellow schoolmates gathered in the library to discuss a few important topics including what they consider to be the fourth most important thing at O’Hara, any advice they might have for Mariota on whether to go pro or stay for his final year of eligibility, and their thoughts on Florida State.

The answers ranged from incredibly insightful to bizarre, which is what one should probably expect when questioning a group of elementary school students. Now, we give you the wisdom of O’Hara Catholic:

Henry, 9

Fourth most important thing: Beating Oregon State.

Advice for Mariota: “I want him to stay because he’s a great player.”

Breakdown of FSU-Oregon: “I just think that Oregon is going to win because I think they’re the better team because Florida State always wins by a field goal and if Marcus doesn’t throw a pick in the fourth quarter I think we’ll win, because that’s normally how [FSU] wins.”

Luke, 10

[+] EnlargeO'Hara Middle School
Chantel Jennings/ESPNStudents at O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene do their best Heisman pose in honor of Ducks QB Marcus Mariota.
Fourth most important thing: Did I do my homework or not

Advice for Mariota: “I think he should go pro because he won the Heisman. If he hadn’t won the Heisman I’d say he should come back.”

Oregon wins if ... : “If Mariota doesn’t throw any picks, the Ducks play their hearts out and the Ducks beat them.”

Stella, 10

Fourth most important thing: Service.

Advice for Mariota: “I’d like if he stayed because he’s really good but I want him to go pro also.”

Davis, 6

Fourth most important thing: Being kind.

Advice for Mariota: “That he doesn’t care about the Heisman, he cares about beating Florida State.”

What’s the key to the game: “Not throwing any picks and scoring more touchdowns than [FSU].”

Thoughts on FSU: “Their uniforms look like ugly sweaters.”

Sam, 11

Fourth most important thing: Food (specifically, the cafeteria’s French toast and chicken nuggets -- together -- covered in syrup).

Advice for Mariota: “Run the ball but don’t get hurt. And slide, because he never slides.”

What Oregon needs to do to win: “Play hard. Play fast. Do tempo.”

Ryan, 10

Fourth most important thing: Friendship

Advice for Mariota: “I don’t want him to [go pro], but I think he should because he’s a good role [model] and he’d make the NFL’s image better.”

Thoughts on the FSU matchup: “I think Oregon will win because Jameis is overrated and I think the defense will play well and the offense will have a spark in the beginning. They’ll score first and they’ll keep scoring.”

Sandhya, 10

Fourth most important thing: Being helpful to people and being kind.

Advice for Mariota: “I think he should go pro. I’m pretty sure he’ll be a first-round pick. I want him to go to the Eagles, because I’m hoping Chip Kelly will rebuild the Ducks there because they already have Josh Huff.”

What Oregon needs to do to beat FSU: “I think the defense has to be a little stronger, covering receivers more.”

Andrew, 10

Fourth most important thing: Sports.

Advice for Mariota: “Go pro. If he comes back he has more to lose than he has to gain. He could risk things like injuries. But if he goes, I think it’d be a good year to finish on because he already won the Heisman and his team is in the first-ever college playoffs.”

What Oregon needs to do to beat FSU: “Lock down Jameis Winston and be dominant on defense and keep Mariota mobile.”

Max, 14

Fourth most important thing: “A toss up between how bad Charlie Pape´’s fantasy team is and how much cooler the Ducks’ uniforms are than Florida State’s.”

What does Oregon need to do to beat FSU?: “Show up.”

Rather face Ohio State or Alabama?: “Alabama, because college football has an East Coast bias. Everybody -- but USC -- on the West Coast doesn’t really get any respect.”

Advice for Helfrich: “Go for it on fourth-and-short and take the right chances.”

Luke, 11

Fourth most important thing: Fantasy football (the sixth grade class has a league. Luke’s team, Luke’s Ballers, lost in the first round of the playoffs).

Advice for Mariota: “I want him to stay but he has accomplished everything so I think he should go pro.”

Why does the defense not matter as much? “I don’t think Jameis Winston is that good, so I don’t think we need to worry about that.”

Jordan, 12

Fourth most important thing: That the SEC is overrated

Why the SEC is overrated: “There are a couple dominant teams and then the rest are like Vanderbilt, Arkansas -- they’re so-so.”

Advice for defensive coordinator Don Pellum: “I think they should blitz them a lot because they have an OK line, great wide receivers and a great quarterback, so I just think they should blitz.”

Cooper, 10

Fourth most important thing: Winning a national championship

What does Oregon need to do to win a national title: “In the first game they have to stop Rashad Greene and Nick O’Leary, which will slow down Jameis Winston and force Dalvin Cook -- their freshman running back -- to win the game for them.”

Final score prediction: 56-28, Oregon

Will you be a fan of whatever NFL team drafts Mariota? “Not if he goes to the Jets.”

Jackson, 12

Fourth most important thing: football (apparently this and Mariota fall into two separate categories of importance)

Advice for Mariota: “I think he should stay for his senior year and take us to another national championship.”

What’s the key to Oregon’s defense playing well: “Play strong. Get a lot of turnovers.”

Pac-12 morning links

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
8:00
AM ET
If you use more than 5 percent of your brain you don't want to be on earth.

Leading off

Another day, another round of All-America teams. Three more to catch you up on. You should know the names by now.

First up is The Sporting News:
  • First-team offense: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon; Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford; Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon;
  • First-team defense: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington; Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona; Hau’oli Kikaha, LB Washington; Erick Kendricks, LB, UCLA.
  • First-team special teams: KR Kaelin Clay, Utah.
  • Second-team offense: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State.
  • Second-team defense: Nate Orchard, DE, Utah; Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon;
  • Special teams: Tom Hackett, P, Utah.
Next up is the AFCA FBS All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota
  • First-team defense: Leonard Williams, DL, USC; Wright; Kikaha; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon.
  • Specialists: Hackett
And here's the Football Writers Association of America All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota, Jake Fisher, OL, Oregon
  • First-team defense: Orchard, Kikaha, Wright III,
  • Specialists: Hackett
  • Second-team defense: Williams, Kendricks

The Sporting News also named Mariota its player of the year.

Ifo out

No doubt, you've heard the news that Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, whose name appears on some All-America lists above, is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. It's not an apocalyptic blow to the Ducks. But you don't want to be facing Winston down one of your best defenders, either.

Here's some reaction: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

A couple of ASU alums are already benefiting from the new Adidas deal. All together now ... awwwwwww
videoSo much for Oregon, injury riddled much of the year, getting healthy for its Rose Bowl matchup with Florida State in the College Football Playoff. So much for the A-list matchup between Ducks All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee Tuesday, and Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene.

So much for the Ducks hitting their earnest preparation for, potentially, the program's first college football national title with positive momentum.

Oregon doesn't talk about injuries, but we do and this is a bad one. Oregon, when it does at least acknowledge that a key player might be hurt, reverts to the mantra, "Next man in," and that will be the case here. But the Ducks next man in at cornerback won't be anyone close to Ekpre-Olomu, a consensus All-American. While Oregon will don all-green uniforms for the Rose Bowl, the guy who steps in for Ekpre-Olomu might as well show up in highlighter yellow -- an actual Ducks uniform option! -- based on how the Seminoles and quarterback Jameis Winston are going to view him.

[+] EnlargeOregon defense
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a severe knee injury during the Ducks' practice Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season.
It's likely senior Dior Mathis will get the call. The fifth-year senior has seen a lot of action but he has been unable to break into the starting lineup. Or the Ducks could go with promising youngster Chris Seisay, a redshirt freshman who was listed behind Ekpre-Olomu on the depth chart in advance of the Pac-12 championship game. At 6-foot-1, Seisay, who started against Wyoming in place of Troy Hill, brings better size to field than the 5-foot-9 Mathis -- or the 5-10 Ekpre-Olomu for that matter -- but it's not encouraging when the laudatory remark next to his name on the depth chart is "has tackles in five straight games."

Ekpre-Olomu, a senior who has been a starter since midway through his freshman year, has 63 tackles and nine passes defended, including two interceptions, this season. While he's been notably beaten a few times, there were whispers that he was playing through some bumps and bruises that were slowing him down. He was one of many Ducks who were expected to greatly benefit from nearly a month off.

Suddenly losing a star like Ekpre-Olomu is about more than a starting lineup, though. It also takes an emotional toll on a team, both during preparation as well as the game. The Ducks secondary loses its best player -- a potential first-round NFL draft pick -- and a veteran leader, a guy everyone counted on. Think Mathis or Seisay will have some butterflies when they see Greene, who caught 93 passes for 1,306 yards this season, coming his way? Think Oregon's safeties will be asked to play differently than they have all season with Ifo in street clothes?

The Ducks secondary will be less talented and less confident without Ekpre-Olomu.

Injuries? Oregon's had a few. It lost offensive tackle Tyler Johnston, a 26-game starter, and No. 1 receiver Bralon Addison before the season began. It saw emerging tight end Pharaoh Brown go down on Nov. 8 against Utah. It's been without All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu for three games. It's seen several other key players miss games, including offensive tackle Jake Fisher, running back Thomas Tyner and defensive end Arik Armstead.

Yet the general feeling was the Ducks had survived. And, in fact, thrived, scrapping their way to the No. 2 seed in the CFP. By scrapping we mean winning their last eight games by an average of 26 points since suffering their lone loss to Arizona.

That, in itself, will be something the Oregon locker room will look at and point to as it gets ready for FSU. This is an elite program, one that can overcome adversity, even an injury to perhaps the team's second-best player behind a certain guy who plays behind center.

But there is no changing the fact that Oregon is worse without Ekpre-Olomu, and against a team like FSU, the defending national champions and winners of 29 consecutive games, you don't want to be at anything but your best.
Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesMarcus Mariota will try to use his accuracy to hand Jameis Winston his first career defeat.
The College Football Playoff already has epic storylines leading into its inaugural season.

Headlining the No. 2 Oregon-No. 3 Florida State matchup in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual is the quarterback pairing of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, creating what has the potential to be one of the best showings of quarterbacks that college football has seen in recent memory.

The strengths of these two quarterbacks are evident in the statistics (which we’ll get to in a bit), but the main thread that runs through both is that they know how to win. Criticize Florida State’s play (specifically in the first half) all you want, but one thing is for sure -- late in a game Winston has been a QB worth having and he has proven that time and time again.

The same can be said for Mariota. Though the Ducks haven’t had as many tight games as the Seminoles -- and they do have a loss, which FSU doesn’t -- Mariota has shown the guts needed in crucial situations to make something out of nothing.

And the numbers back that up. Of active FBS quarterbacks (with at least 15 starts under their belts), Mariota and Winston have the highest career winning percentages -- Winston is 26-0; Mariota is 35-4.

But what is it about these two guys that makes them such winners?

We analyze …

MARIOTA’S STRENGTH: He’s clean.

Mariota’s biggest strength is his accuracy. He has attempted 372 passes this season and only two of those have ended up in the hands of opponents. His 0.5 percent interception rate is the lowest among qualified FBS quarterbacks and his TD-interception ratio of 19-1 is more than double that of the nation’s second best (Cody Kessler, 9-1) and 13 times better than Winston (1.41-1).

Mariota is highly accurate when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers. He has gone more than 300 pass attempts against this kind of pressure without throwing a pick, and guess what … Florida State sends four or fewer pass-rushers on 67 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks.

Additionally, 27 of Mariota’s 38 passing touchdowns this season have come when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers.

WINSTON’S STRENGTH: He’s clutch.

Yes, his statistics aren’t as impressive as they were last year. But, as Oregon coach Mark Helfrich pointed out on Tuesday, that can’t always be a very accurate portrayal of how effective any given quarterback is during a game.

“We don’t have the luxury of knowing, ‘OK, Clemson played them this way last year and this way the year before and now it’s that much different or leading up to that game how they defended people,'” Helfrich said of Winston.

Winston’s total QBR has dropped from 89.4 last season to 67.1 this season and his touchdown-to-interception total has plummeted (40-10 in 2013, 24-17 so far in 2014), but he is clutch. And not just in late-game scenarios.

Of all quarterbacks who have started at least one year, Winston leads the nation in third-down QBR (91.6) and has converted 51 percent of his third-down pass plays, which is 15 percent higher than the national average.

In a strange way, considering these two teams have never faced off, this sort of feels like a rivalry game in the fact that tendencies and statistics will probably be thrown out the window as we see some really incredible football unfold.

But would anything less be expected when a field plays host to two Heisman winners? After all, this has only happened three times before. And all three times proved to be very exciting games.

Most recently, it was Tim Tebow’s No. 2 Florida Gators facing off against Sam Bradford’s top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in January 2009. Tebow had won the Heisman the year before, but the Gators took this game 24-14 and went on to win the national title.

Four seasons earlier, it was 2004 Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart and his top-ranked USC Trojans who took down the 2003 winner -- Oklahoma quarterback Jason White -- in the Orange Bowl with the national title on the line. Leinart led the Trojans with five touchdown passes as they cruised to a season-high 55 points.

And the only other time it happened was during the 1949 championship season when 1949 Heisman winner Leon Hart and Notre Dame took on Doak Walker and SMU (though to be fair, Walker didn’t play that game as he was sidelined due to an injury).

In each of these instances, whichever quarterback won the Heisman versus Heisman matchup also went on to win the national title. That could certainly be the case when Florida State and Oregon face off on Jan. 1.

If past be present, both of these quarterbacks are going to bring their best play and the qualities that won each of them the Heisman are going to be on full display. For everyone watching in Pasadena, California, or at home, that means this is going to be a really, really fun matchup. Not only between Florida State and Oregon, but also between Winston and Mariota.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 17, 2014
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Because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass.

Leading off

A few more All-America teams were announced Tuesday, and the usual Pac-12 suspects continue to rake in the honors. Here's the latest breakdown.

First up is the Associated Press All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Shaq Thompson, AP, Washington.
  • First-team defense: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington, Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona, Hau’oli Kikaha, LB, Washington, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon, Tom Hackett, P, Utah.
  • Second-team offense: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford, Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
  • Second-team defense: Nate Orchard, DE, Utah, Leonard Williams, DT, USC, Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
  • Third-team offense: Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Nelson Agholor, WR, USC.
  • Third-team defense: Su’a Cravens, S, USC.

Next up is the Sports Illustrated All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Mariota, Grasu, Peat.
  • First-team defense: Orchard, Wright III, Thompson, Kendricks, Ekpre-Olomu.
  • Second team offense: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State.
  • Second team defense: Williams, Kikaha
  • Second team special teams: Hackett

Here's the Fox Sports All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Mariota
  • First-team defense: Williams, Wright III, Kikaha, Ekpre-Olomu,
  • First-team special teams: Hackett, Kaelin Clay, KR, Utah
  • Second-team offense: Agholor
  • Second-team defense: Orchard, Shelton, Thompson, Kendricks

Also, USA Today put together its Freshman All-America team. Included on that list from the Pac-12 are:
  • Offense: Toa Lobendahn, OL, USC, Jacob Alsadek, OL, Arizona
  • Defense: Lowell Lotulelei, DL, Utah, Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC, Budda Baker, S, Washington.

Finally, Bruce Feldman of Fox breaks down the most impressive freshmen. Jackson and Baker are on his list.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

In case you missed it (and it would have been pretty hard to miss it if you follow Pac-12 football), here's the full presentation of Marcus Mariota reading the Top 10 on the "Late Show with David Letterman."
Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Ducks led the Pac-12 in turnover margin while Jameis Winston and Florida State had a penchant for turnovers.

The Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston storyline is a delicious headline/ratings grabber, isn't it? A couple of Heisman winners -- both quarterbacks -- meeting in the Granddaddy, which also happens to be the first-ever national semifinal.

Without question, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State and the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner from Oregon will take center stage on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual. The winner advances to the national championship game to face the winner of Alabama-Ohio State.

And who can't wait for those plays when Mariota will come bursting off the edge on a backside blitz, looking to bury his facemask into Winston's jersey? Or seeing Winston roaming at safety, waiting to pluck a wayward Mariota pass out of the air. Spoiler alert: These things won't happen.

The QB vs. QB storyline, as fun as it is to entertain, simply doesn't play out on the field. Unless, however, you're talking about one quarterback capitalizing off of the other's mistakes. Then, we've got a story.

Turns out that when it comes to making teams pay for their mistakes, Oregon is pretty darn efficient. The Ducks led the Pac-12 in turnover margin, grabbing 14 fumbles and 11 interceptions. Having turned the ball over just eight times (six fumbles, two interceptions) they have a robust plus-17 margin. That's third best in the country behind only Michigan State (plus-20) and TCU (plus-18).

And what do they do with those turnovers? The answer is 120 points. Nearly 20 percent of Oregon's 602 points this season have come after a turnover. When teams turned it over against the Ducks, Oregon taxed them on the scoreboard 72 percent of the time (18 of 25).

This is noteworthy since Florida State has a penchant for turnovers. The Seminoles have given it up 27 times. Oregon, conversely, leads the country with just eight turnovers. Winston has thrown 17 interceptions. Mariota has tossed just two.

Oregon's 120 points off of turnovers ranks sixth nationally, and their points margin of 107 (120 points scored, 13 allowed after a turnover) is second best in the country behind TCU. Again, in this category, Florida State isn't so good. The Seminoles are actually in the negative in points margin at minus-10. They've scored 83 points off of turnovers, but allowed 93. That ranks in the bottom 20 of all Power 5 schools.

This is how we can make the Mariota vs. Winston storyline work. If Winston turns the ball over, there is a good chance Oregon is going to make him pay for that mistake. If Mariota turns the ball over, more than likely, the Oregon defense can course-correct.

Oregon has forced at least one turnover in 12 of 13 games this year (bonus points if you guessed Colorado was the one team that didn't turn the ball over against the Ducks). And in 10 of those 12 games, the Ducks have produced at least seven points off of turnovers. They have multiple scores after turnovers in seven games.

Not surprisingly, in the their lone loss of the season, the Ducks failed to score following a pair of Arizona turnovers back in October. In the rematch, they were 2-for-2 with 10 points off of turnovers. Michigan State, UCLA, Stanford etc. were all victims of Oregon's opportunistic defense and efficient offense.

Granted, Florida State still has the ultimate “scoreboard” argument. The Seminoles haven't lost a game since Gangnam Style was still a thing. They've flirted with defeat plenty of times, but each time they have endured.

No, we won't get to see Mariota and Winston line up on opposite sides of the ball. But how one plays on New Year's Day could dramatically impact what happens to the other. The turnover battle -- and what the other quarterback does with those turnovers -- could end up being the real Mariota vs. Winston storyline.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

December, 16, 2014
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video
It was a busy weekend in the Pac-12, with commitments, offers, visits and awards touching nearly every team in the conference, including Stanford, USC and Washington reeling in big commitments and UCLA hosting impact prospects. Here is a look at some of the more impactful events of the past few days, as well as a glimpse of what this week could hold in the Pac-12.


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Marcus Mariota will finally have time to sleep again now. A Monday appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" was one of the final stops in his grueling three-day New York City stay, the final leg of an arduous journey that also saw stops for awards in Orlando and Baltimore.

A 53-touchdown, two-interception season sure has the ability to draw out the paparazzi and make a college quarterback quite busy in its immediate aftermath.

Mariota read the Late Show's 'Top-10' list to a national television audience. Writers thematically prepared the segment with his busy week in mind, framing the list as the "top-10 thoughts that went through Marcus Mariota's mind when he won the Heisman Trophy."

 

"Don't spike the trophy" made made Mariota's list, as did "I'd like to play in the NFL -- does New York have any professional teams?"

That second thought drew some uneasy laughter from the New York-based crowd, but it was all in good fun. Letterman, the longest-tenured late night talk show host in television history (31 years), wished Mariota luck in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl against Florida State before sending him on his way.

Mariota now returns to Eugene having successfully navigated a media firestorm following his win of the Heisman on Saturday, which only further beefed up an already overflowing trophy case. The Oregon quarterback had racked up the Maxwell, Davey O'Brien, Walter Camp, and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards before that. At this point, some may be wondering if all that hardware was able to fit in the small private jet that whisked Mariota back to Eugene.

 

No worries on that front: Oregon seems well-equipped to transport all the goods in the event of an overflow.

 

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