Why Oregon has no fear facing Ohio State without key playmakers
DALLAS — Despite the news that Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington has been ruled ineligible for Monday’s national title game — for what FOX Sports reported Friday was a positive NCAA drug test — the Ducks insist nothing changes about their game plan or their mind-set in facing Ohio State.
"It will not be a distraction," coach Mark Helfrich said at Saturday’s Media Day. "Distractions are distractions if you let them be. Having a loss is a distraction, getting guys injured is a distraction, media is a distraction, winning big is a distraction, and how you manage those things is what matters the most. Our guys have managed them, all those situations, very, very well."
The Ducks, 13-1, have managed them brilliantly. Spend some time around the program and you come away thinking the only player who actually is irreplaceable is Marcus Mariota.
In truth, for all of the attention Ohio State has received for making it to the title game despite being down to its third-string QB, the Ducks have had to withstand perhaps even more injuries and attrition. Before the season, they lost their top wideout (Bralon Addison) and left tackle (Tyler Johnston). Then before the playoff, they lost All-Pac-12 tight end Pharaoh Brown and All-American CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Then on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl, they lost their fastest player and most consistent wide receiver in Devon Allen. Now Carrington, a guy who caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the Ducks’ 59-20 win over Florida State last week, is shelved, along with running back Ayele Forde, who also failed a drug test.
"Before we took a snap in fall camp we lost arguably two of our best three offensive players for the season,” Helfrich said. “If all we did was sit around and complain about that and whine about that, we wouldn’t be here. So we will ride."
Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said the Ducks actually played all of 2013 with only a four-man rotation at wideout and talked about how resilient his guys are. On Monday, they’ll still be able to rely on Byron Marshall, Dwayne Stanford, freshman Charles Nelson and senior Keanon Lowe, the leader of the group. Frost emphasized how the nature of the Ducks’ talent and their system have enabled them to have quite a bit of diversity. "Every week, it seems like a different guy has been the go-to guy," he said, as evidenced by the fact that Oregon has had six different wideouts have 100-yard receiving days this season.
“(Carrington) is a huge playmaker for us, but at the same time, that receiving corps has had so many players step up, and Keanon will be the leader out there, and we’ll get another guy that’s ready to go," Mariota said.
Passing game coordinator Matt Lubick said even though the Ducks are down both Allen and Carrington, this still is the healthiest they’ve been at wideout all year, noting that Lowe and Stanford both are finally 100 percent after some nagging injuries and versatile running back Thomas Tyner also has gotten healthy. Addison also has healed up, but the coaches said they don’t expect him to play.
Other options for Oregon if its wide receivers get dinged up Monday night are junior B.J. Kelley, redshirt sophomore Chance Allen, senior Johnny Lloyd and speedy JC transfer Zac "Red Lightning" Schuller, who sat at media day with a stack of flashcards in front of him with plays jotted on them.
One Duck receiver to keep an eye on is Nelson, a dynamic freshman from Florida whom the coaches gush about, saying he’s blossomed as a route runner and yet also has the toughness to lead on an iso play. In the Pac-12 title game, Nelson caught seven passes for 104 yards and added 44 more yards rushing.
"We still know we have a lot of talent out there," Nelson said. "So we just assume the position. Assume the role. We just know we have to play that much better, that much harder, that much smarter. We practice with a sense of urgency.
"We can’t harp on this. We have a lot that are already not with us. It sucks that this is the case, but it is what it is."
As Lubick pointed out, Carrington didn’t even start the Rose Bowl or any other game this season.
"I don’t think our guys feel let down. I think our guys feel bad for Darren," Lubick said. "We’ve had stuff all year long, where a guy has missed, but then the next guy has jumped in and done a great job. We’re gonna be fine. We’re really excited about the ways our guys have prepared. We have great depth there. We’re gonna be just fine."
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.