Almost as integral to Oregon football’s success of the last decade as its hyper-speed offense or multifaceted defense is fear. Specifically, few programs invoked fear in opponents quite as effectively before a game even kicked off, winning the mental battle before the physical contest on field.
From 2009 through 2014, the bright yellow in Oregon’s Nike-made uniforms might as well have been the yellow of Sinestro’s fear-powered Yellow Power Ring. (Trust me on this one, it’s a good parallel. The Green Lantern comics were way better than that awful Ryan Reynolds movie.)
But coming off the Ducks’ first single-digit-win season in nearly a decade, the fear Oregon football once inspired is gone. Previews have Oregon pegged third in the Pac-12 North, with Athlon Sports projecting them at a nine-year worst eight regular-season wins.
A big question ahead of Oregon football in the coming season: Can it intimidate its competition again? Or, when the fear is gone, is gone for good, barring major changes?
At its peak, playing Oregon resembled prey in an anaconda’s vise-grip. The Ducks applied a squeeze with a quick score, putting the onus on the opponent to respond.
Pressing to recover quickly and answer often resulted in turnovers — Oregon often ranked at or near the top of college football in turnovers forced — tightening the hold.
Therein lie the fear of Oregon football. Just a few minutes of game time was all it took to turn a competitive game into a three-touchdown blowout.
Autzen Stadium hosted more of these scenarios than any venue. Oliver Luck, whose son Andrew suffered a championship-denying rout like that in Autzen in 2010, explained the difficulty of playing in Eugene.
“I’ve told a few people that I think playing at Autzen is the most intimidating atmosphere that I’ve experienced,” he said in a 2011 interview with The Oregonian. “That’s the only place I’ve ever seen one fan turn to another fan of Oregon and say, ‘If you don’t yell louder, you should leave and get somebody in here who does.'”
Fittingly enough, I attribute Oregon first truly sparking fear in opponents to a game on Oct. 31, 2009, when the Ducks blasted long-time Pac standard-bearer USC.
Since that Halloween night horror, USC’s sought in futility to regain the intimidating disposition that once made the Trojans the most feared program in the West.
Ahead of a season in which Oregon football could face a similar identity crisis, a game at Autzen can again be viewed as the turning point.
Utah’s pasting of the Ducks there last September went beyond mere defeat. The Utes’ performance bordered on disrespectful, with Utah successfully breaking out the kind of trick plays Oregon ran while deluging an opponent.
Now, one can fairly point to the Ducks performing much differently with Vernon Adams in the lineup last season than without him. Perhaps Dakota Prukop will be as effective filling the now-vacant quarterback spot.
However, at its most intimidating, Oregon went from Jeremiah Masoli to Darron Thomas to Bryan Bennett to Marcus Mariota without sacrificing anything that broke down other Pac-12 teams.
The belief that one player can be all the difference in a title contender and also-ran is enough to inspire confidence. Belief is something that Oregon once denied teams from the offset.
Barring Mark Helfrich commissioning a Yellow Power Ring, it’s difficult to envision Oregon regaining the advantage of fear.