The Theory of Evolution: Four Decades of Oregon Football Lead to Title Shot

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For proof of the theory of evolution, look no further than Oregon football.

The Ducks will play Ohio State for the first College Football Playoff championship tonight, as well as the first championship in program history. Reaching this point is the culmination of a constantly changing dynamic, whether modernizing the offense or improving strength on the offensive and defensive lines.

“The philosophy [of Oregon football is] to…constantly evolve,” Mark Helfrich said before last month’s Pac-12 Championship Game.

And this theory of evolution is ironclad in that there’s no missing link.

The Ducks’ ascent into college football’s stratosphere has been positively meteoric over the last half-decade. Oregon has ridden the most innovative offensive style to set the pace in the Pac-12, complementing it with a swarming, turnover-generating defense that functions like a full-court press in basketball.

Oregon is the face of a new brand of college football. But to label Oregon football with such descriptions as “nouveau riche” is to short-change the four decades that directly contributed to the Ducks’ current success.

“The bedrock foundation of our program has remained the same,” Helfrich explained. “We have the longest-tenured coaching staff in the country.”

Indeed, the evolution of Oregon football has been successful in that, rather than beginning from scratch each time the program needs to take a new step, the Ducks simply add traits to go with what has already worked.

“[There have] been a lot of people committed to getting better, and at the same time, having a bunch of continuity in the coaching staff,” he added. “We just had [running backs coach] Gary Campbell, who has been here 32 years, named the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year.”

Oregon’s championship roots were planted in 1977 when Rich Brooks was named head coach.

Brooks spent 17 years at the helm, in that time turning a program that had just one winning season in the 12 years prior to his arrival into a perennial winner. Members of Brooks’ staff remain in Eugene, including Campbell and defensive coordinator Don Pellum.

Pellum was a linebackers coach in every head coaching regime, ascending this year after longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti retired.

While Pellum maintained successful elements of his predecessor’s scheme, such as emphasizing turnover-creation with fire-zone blitz packages, he also added his spin to continue the Ducks’ evolution.

“I love it,” linebacker Derrick Malone said of Pellum’s renewed emphasis on communication and strength in the 2014 offseason. “Our sense of urgency, our aggressiveness…We’re getting bigger and stronger, and [the defense] will take off.”

Malone’s words in July proved prescient. Oregon improved tremendously against the run in 2014. The numbers are not an accurately reflection — the Ducks only allowed nine yards rushing fewer in 2014 than 2013, while opponents’ point per game averages increased by two — but the Ducks’ evolution has disproved the usefulness of old metrics.

The true gauge of Oregon’s defensive strides can be gleaned in a dominant Pac-12 Championship, when Arizona’s 34.5 point-per-game offense was held to 13 points, or an early-season tilt with Michigan State. The stout Spartans played the kind of physical football that had previously given Oregon trouble.

But with Pellum’s newly placed emphasis on “pushing more weight,” the Ducks bullied Michigan State en route to a three-score win.

Keeping quality assistants like Campbell and Pellum in the fold has been aided by the fact Oregon has opted to not deviate from what made it successful.

The line of succession in the two decades since his departure is about as linear as it gets: Helfrich was an assistant to Chip Kelly, who was an assistant to Mike Bellotti, who was an assistant to Brooks.

And from head coach to head coach, the Ducks have been able to recreate past successes. With Oregon’s 51-13 defeat of Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship on Dec. 5, Helfrich joined all three of his predecessors with a league title.

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Last week’s win over Florida State put Helfrich in company with his former colleague, Kelly, as a Rose Bowl winner.

So Oregon football has maintained much of what made it a success under Brooks, but simultaneously, the game is constantly changing. Programs that fail to adapt accordingly get left behind in a true exercise of survival of the fittest, the very catalyst of evolution.

Oregon football has long been ahead of the curve in this regard, capitalizing on the university’s relationship with Nike mogul Phil Knight to use cutting edge equipment as a recruiting tool and introducing an offensive style that separated it from the pack — or Pac, as it were.

The Ducks’ uptempo spread was Bellotti’s counter in the mid-2000s to the stifling defense USC employed to win seven straight conference championships. The Trojans took over the then Pac-10 after the 2001 season, a campaign in which quarterback Joey Harrington led the Ducks to a league title — and arguably should have won the Heisman Trophy — flourishing in Jeff Tedford’s pro-style offense.

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On Fox Sports Radio’s Petros and Money Show Jan. 5, Harrington talked about the importance of the Bellotti era and beyond in setting the Ducks in motion for tonight’s championship clash.

“He’s a big piece of the puzzle of what you’re watching now…People think of Oregon football and they think of the last five or six years and they think of Chip Kelly and they think of everything that has just exploded that Coach Bellotti set in motion. But…this is 25 years in the making. This goes back to Bill Musgrave, the ’89 Independence Bowl when Oregon was nothing.”

And while Harrington perhaps surpassed Musgrave and Dan Fouts in the annals of Oregon football lore, this year’s Ducks quarterback accomplished goals that eluded even Harrington.

Marcus Mariota’s three years captaining the Oregon offense marked the next step in the program’s evolution. While the Ducks won conference championships with both Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas behind center, neither had the same multi-dimensional game that defines Mariota’s three years at quarterback.

In fact, no Oregon quarterback ever brought everything to the table the program now gets from Mariota.

“I’m more than happy to be considered the second-greatest quarterback in Oregon history,” Harrington said on The Petros and Money Show.

“Happy” is one good way to describe how Mariota makes those associated with Oregon football feel. “Motivated” is another, as Mariota’s head coach explained.

“I’m just such a huge fan of his as a person, first and foremost,” Helfrich said. “Being around this guy every day, he makes me better. He makes everyone in our program better every single day. He challenges you to rethink everything. If I’m the backup left guard, I want to play my tail off for this guy.”

Mariota is the first-round prospect that Harrington was previously, the dangerous ball-carrier that Masoli and Thomas both were and the Heisman contender Dennis Dixon was. It’s the best of all worlds in the last 15 years of Oregon football.

And, more importantly, it may be the final step in literally decades that Oregon must take to finally gain a national championship.