Mariota, underrated defense propel Oregon to brink of history

PASADENA, Calif. -- As confetti rained down on the hallowed grounds of the Rose Bowl on the chilly first night of the new year, a number of longtime Oregon staffers stood watching their players celebrate a College Football Playoff semifinal win with a smile a mile wide.

Their sense of pride in the Ducks was palpable due to their expressions, but, from a veteran associate athletic director to Eugene lifers like defensive coordinator Don Pellum, there was still a sense of disbelief at what had occurred on Thursday night. Their team didn't just win the Granddaddy of Them All, but utterly and completely destroyed the defending champions -- winners of 29 straight -- to earn a chance to play for the program's first football national title.

Oregon has competed for a national championship before. Former Ducks coach Chip Kelly installed his up-tempo attack and guided the team to within seconds of raising the trophy in the 2011 BCS title game. But for those that looked on at field level and knew just how far the program has come the past two decades, the team's ability to become a consistent winner at the highest level was something those on the outside always doubted after Kelly departed for the Philadelphia Eagles before the 2013 season.



Inside the green bubble, however, the players and those on the tight-knit staff never wavered. The Ducks doubled-down to win the day and now find themselves right where the program could never have imagined years ago -- it has a realistic chance of capturing the sport's ultimate prize.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be around these guys," head coach Mark Helfrich said after the 59-20 throttling of FSU. "This edition has been resilient. They've been tough. They've been smart. They've been kicked in the gut a couple of times and looked it straight in the eye."

Oregon wasn't supposed to get this far. The Ducks should not be preparing to play Ohio State in the Jan. 12 title game, yet that's exactly what they will do. They lost their go-to receiver and left tackle to ACL injuries in camp, saw three other key offensive linemen miss time, are down a tight end and several other starters to boot. The injury gods even came to visit without mercy in the run-up to the Rose Bowl, with All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffering a season-ending knee injury during practice last month.

Such losses would be devastating for some teams, but luckily for the Ducks, they have college football's most outstanding player in quarterback Marcus Mariota and a next-man-up philosophy for those around him. One only has to take a look at how effective the quarterback was coming out of halftime against the Seminoles to understand how he makes the team go. Even on a sub-par night, Mariota still was able to dazzle by lofting a perfect touch pass into the arms of Darren Carrington -- twice -- to put away his opponent with long touchdowns. While Mariota's NFL future will be debated ad nauseam for the foreseeable future, his 23-yard run late in the fourth quarter vs. FSU represented the cherry on top of the win and solidified his place as one of the all-time greats at the collegiate level.

Mariota has the team rolling and nobody, despite throwing the kitchen sink at the Ducks week in and week out, has been able to slow down an offense that has hit 50 points four times in its final seven games.

"Everything we've done this year has been unbelievable," center Hroniss Grasu said. "We should not be in this position right now with all the injuries we had, all the setbacks that we had, all the adversity that we faced. That's what makes this team so special, we were able to handle all that."

The team is not just winning with its trademark offense, either. This is a complete team and that includes a defense that might not seem as stingy when you look at the total numbers, but one that has grown as the season has progressed and limited each of its last four foes to 20 points or fewer. Not to mention the fact that Pellum's unit forced four turnovers in one quarter against a Heisman Trophy winner in Jameis Winston.

"Our defense, we're always overlooked. Going into next week, we'll probably still have people saying we're soft," defensive end DeForest Buckner. "We tried to prove a point tonight and we did a pretty good job."

Through thick and thin, the Ducks believed in what they were doing. Despite injuries that would have sent other teams spiraling downward, Oregon was celebrating in a monsoon of confetti and reveling in what it had accomplished Thursday night

The Ducks are approaching the mountaintop, and few programs look capable of knocking them off now.

You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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