NEW: What Oregon and Ohio State Can Teach the Trail Blazers
Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Namely, that teams advancing to play for the title in any sport adopt not only a singularly focused “next man up” philosophy throughout their seasons, but even find ways at times to carve out unexpected benefits from their losses.
For Ohio State, the Buckeyes’ season looked lost at the outset when quarterback Braxton Miller went out for all of 2014 before the first game with a shoulder injury. But backup J.T. Barrett stepped in successfully during the regular season. And when Barrett was lost at season’s end with an ankle injury, Cardale Jones came in off the bench to guide Ohio State to huge wins in the Big 10 championship over Wisconsin and then over Alabama in their national semifinal. (Side note: Ohio State seems to recruit an endless supply of great quarterbacks)
While Oregon’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Marcus Mariota dodged serious injury this season, the Ducks weren’t so lucky at other positions.
Starting with the preseason loss of Tyler Johnstone, Oregon offensive line stalwarts Andre Yruretagoyena, Jake Fisher, Hroniss Grasu and others went down like, well, Ducks in a shooting gallery. And yet, backups filled in ably enough, gaining experience all the while until starters made their way back.
A similar process of players like Darren Carrington, Dwayne Stanford and Evan Baylis filling the breach happened at wide receiver and tight end beginning with the loss of Bralon Addison in spring practice and continuing through in-season injuries sidelining wide receiver Keanon Lowe at times, the gruesome season-ending injury to tight end Pharoah Brown and the loss of Devon Allen on the first play of the national semifinal.
And yet after all that, which teams remain to play for the national title? Ohio State and Oregon.
So what’s the lesson for the Trail Blazers from all this? Last season’s Trail Blazers were remarkably healthy en route to making it into the second round for the first time since the Clinton Administration. Four out of the five starters played all 82 regular-season games, with only LaMarcus Aldridge missing 13 games.
No such luck this season even before the halfway mark, with only starters Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews playing every one of the 35 games. Aldridge has missed six games; Nicolas Batum has missed nine; and Robin Lopez 10 and counting since his hand injury on Dec. 15
So far, so good as the Trail Blazers head into Thursday night’s home game against Miami with a 27-8 record. Since Lopez’s injury, the team has managed to go 8-2. But there’s a lot of season left.
While the Trail Blazers’ success in 2014-15 can only truly be gauged by their playoff performance, their regular season can present opportunity – like this season did for Ohio State and Oregon – for younger backups like Joel Freeland (before his injury), Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe to gain invaluable experience and prove themselves ready or not come the playoffs.
Sports should never be inflated into analogies such as “war,” “warriors,” “going into battle” and all too many others (such analogies profane the service and sacrifice of people actually dying and suffering devastating injuries for a lifetime in the military).
But in sports, good teams “survive” injuries to major contributors. And championship teams often find unexpected benefits for backups. That’s what the Buckeyes and Ducks did this season. So could the Trail Blazers.
Related Slideshow: The Twenty Biggest Moments of Mariota’s Career
2004 - Leading his young team mates as a young QB
Marcus Mariota's football career began in modesty. Hawaii, like many other Pacific islands, doesn't have a very structured youth football system.
He was said to have been a natural leader. In his youth, Mariota always played quarterback.
Summer 2010 - Being Named National Underclassman Combine "King of the Combine
In high school, Mariota overcame tremendous obstacles in getting a scholarship. As a high school football player in Hawaii, he was isolated from all but one of the 130+ Division 1 college football programs located at universities on the mainland.
Another added obstacle - Mariota didn't earn a starting quarterback position for St. Louis High School in Honolulu - the alma matter of college quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Timmy Chang - until his senior season. Because of this, recruiters were relatively unaware of the future Heisman frontrunner until the final several months of his highschool career.
High school football fans in Hawaii were most impressed with how Mariota took the reigns of his new job.
Mariota deployed a precise focus and used his Gustavo Fring-like calmness to his advantage.
Consistent and deliberate, Mariota made his gridiron comrades look like all-stars during summer drills.
Mariota's high school has a very competitive football program. In his team's division, it's been common for talented quarterbacks to not start until late in their careers.
It's unikely he would have never gone unnoticed as a prospect if he was riding the bench at a more prestigious school, like Mater Dei High School or Long Beach Poly.
Since Mariota's breakout success, however, the dynamics of recruiting on the islands have changed, according to sources.
Fall 2010 - Bouncing back after losing his first game
The first game of the 2010 season, Saint Louis High School was smashed by defending state champion Kuakua.
Mariota did not seem deterred by the loss, according to sources. His team rebounded from the trouncing and went on to win the rest of their games.
During his senior season, Mariota threw for 2,597 yards on 165 of 225 passing attempts (64.7 completion percentage), including 32 touchdowns against only five interceptions, while leading St. Louis to an 11-1 record and the state title while being named PrepStar Magazine All-West Region and Interscholastic League of Honolulu Offensive Player of the Year.
The nation took notice of the 17-year-old gunslinger.
Fall 2010 - Saint Louis School Wins HHSAA Football Championship
Mariota's team won-out his senior season. The team that ultimately defeated Saint Louis had to forfeit its season due to player ineligibility issues.
Mariota's and his teammates were crowned state champions.
Spring 2011 - Signs LOI to Play at UofO, Earns Full-Ride Scholarship
Mariota signed his letter of intent to play football at the University of Oregon under an athletic scholarship in Spring 2011.
Then-offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich played a significant role in Mariota's singing, according to reports.
Spring 2011 - HHSAA State Track & Field Champion
Very few football players who go on to become all-Americans in college after winning high school championships for sprinting (although it does sometimes occur; see de Anthony Thomas and Brandon Cooks).
Winning first place as part of the 4x100 relay added to Mariota's legend, despite football fantatics on the west coast still believing (incorrectly) that the duck's QB depth chart had been set in stone since Bryan Bennett had been running Oregon's no-huddle offense.
Spring, Summer 2012 - Beating Out Bryan Bennett to Become the Ducks' Starting QB
As a freshman during the 2011 season, Mariota sat out his redshirt year. While Mariota was taking his lumps on the scout team, most fans in Eugene were unaware of him, and instead were excited by Bryan Bennett leading the Ducks' option-run attack.
Columnists and casual fans were both shocked when coaches announced in 2012 that Mariota had earned the starting position.
In his first college start, at 19 years old, Mariota began a college career that resulted in him becoming the winningest quarterback in Oregon football history.
Fall 2012 - Becoming a Household Name - "Eugene Famous"
Mariota's first collegiate start was broadcast regionally. During the route of Arkansas State, Mariota's father was interviewed live while he watched his from the stands in Autzen Stadium.
Mariota's father was wearing a t-shirt with an art pop design that showed his son's last name spelled out two letters at a time.
At the conclusion of the interview, Eugene sportscaster Jerry Allen, the voice of Ducks for over three decades, repeated the only quote that stuck with most viewers while they reread the shirt over and over again:
"...It's pronounce Mair-EE-oh-Taawhh..."
Fall 2012 - Winning 43-21 on the Road @ Arizona State
Until mid October, Duck fans were getting restless.
The cause was unclear - it could a priveledged boredom that came from a lack of competitive teams to challenge the new juggernaut, or perhaps it was a just the fan base's collective craving for attention and mentions on cable sports talk shows.
On Oct. 18, that all changed, when Mariota lit social media ablaze with his highlights. Columnists commented on the versatility and control he showcased while scoring a rushing, passing, and receiving touchdown.
It looke so effortless when he was doing it - unlike when Joey Harrington collapsed into the pylon when he scored his receiving touchdown during his Heisman campaign.
It was clear to anyone watching Mariota that he was having a fun playing the game; Duck fans started having even more fun watching their team.
Fall 2012 - Winning on the Road at 65-51 @ USC
The game at USC during Mariota's Redshirt Freshman year was, at the time, the most crucial win of the Helfrich era.
The memory of the Ducks losing their championship hopes after getting shot down in a shootout by a bowl-sanctioned Trojan team that had choked away away its preseason number one ranking, was still very fresh.
The opinion of most columnists going into the 2012 matchup was that if USC scored more than 35 points, the Ducks would lose the game.
Viewers tuned in to see USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who was named as USC's starter as a true freshman by then-coach Pete Caroll.
As an 18-year-old, Caroll said Barkley was among the most talented quartbacks he had ever seen. The national sports media promptly embraced Barkley as a future NFL legend while he was still in high school.
Not only did Mariota show that he can take-over a game, he also showed his ability to craft long, sustained drives.
During the win, Mariota affectively dethroned Barkley as the prince of Pac-12, in front of the whole nation.
Winter 2012 - Rebounding from an Overtime Home Loss vs. Stanford
by winning the Civil War 48-28 @ Oregon State
Another defining moment during Mariota's freshman season was how he led his team following an embarassing overtime, home loss against an Andrew Luck-less Cardinal team.
The Ducks missed multiple Field Goal attempts in the loss the three-point-loss.
For the tens of thousands of spectators watching the upset live inside an eerilly silent Autzen Stadium, the loss just didn't make sense.
While Mariota reeled off big play after big play against hated Oregon State, it was clear that the Ducks had landed themselves a very special leader.
Jan. 3, 2013 - Winning the Fiesta Bowl vs. Kansas State 35-17
Being Named Player of the Game
The victory of K-State was a huge bowl victory for the Ducks. The game had some of the feel of a national championship because both squads were considered to be the best two best teams for most of the year, before being upset late.
Mariota was named Player of the Game. He threw a touchdown in the first quarter.
Fall 2013 - Perservering After His Team Loses Its Most Talented Player
The most impressive thing about Mariota's redshirt sophomore season was the fact that, against all odds, he consistently played at a high level and inreased the national buzz sorrounding him.
An ironic pairing that may always follow Mariota is his connection with former Hillboro High School football star Colt Lyerla, who played every offensive skill position on the field for the Ducks before being unexpectedly dismissed from the team in the middle of the 2013 season after police allegedly arrested him for cocaine possession in Eugene's Whiteaker Neighborhood.
The legend of Marcus Mariota and the tragic decline of Colt Lyerla came to fruition simultaneously.
Mariota's performance on the field only became more prolific after losing Lyerla.
Lyerla was an NFL prospect. When he played at Hillsboro, he was considered by many coaches and scouts to have been the best high school football player to have ever played in the state.
NFL scouts were impressed with how Mariota responded to losing his outlet, which is commonplace on professional teams.
Winter 2013 - Continuing to Roll
What Mariota continued to do on the field for the rest of the 2013 season was extremely special to watch, fans said.
Mariota stacked up his stats, hoarded his wins and began setting a recod of 353 consecutive pass completions without an interception.
Whenever a QB throws fifty times without someone on the other team catching the ball, it's extremely impressive.
When pick-streaks grow into the hundreds, it shows something profound.
Sometimes when a receiver has a drop, the ball is tipped into the air, toward a defender. Not having any tipped picks shows that Mariota has an untuitive understanding of the game, for his teammates and the infinite number of variables between them.
Forgoes the 2014 NFL Draft
Mariota's football career was almost ruined in 2014.
Not because of anything he did, but because of what would have been waiting for him in the NFL had he left shool that year.
Mariota would have likely been selected in the first round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, in the place of the quarterback Blake Bortles.
And before you look it up, yes, Jacksonville, FL does still have a professional football team.
Since the Jags are notorious for making terrible decisions, there's a chance that Mariota may have been selectd by the Cleveland Browns, where he could have experienced all the luxuries of being a young famous millionaire, while being forced to endure the City of Cleveland.
The biggest bullet that Mariota dodged from forgoeing the draft, however, was avoiding a lifetime of Johnny Manziel comparisons.
"He would have hated that," Kostecka said.
Fall 2014 - Touchdown Drive Early in 46-27 Win vs. Michigan State
"The biggest defining moment of the season during one of the first drives, when MSU had momentum - he pitched it to Royce Freeman for a first down," Kostecka recalled. "A sack there would have ended the drive. He could have ran the ball for the first down, but instead he trusted his teammates. That kind of instinct is what's going to allow him to make so much more plays in the NFL."
Trust and patience are what have set Mariota apart from other Heisman-winning quarterbacks during his era, like Winston and Manziel.
"(Winston and Manziel) are one man shows - and they can do anything," Kostecka said. "So can Mariota, but he makes his teammates look that good too, by trusting them and giving them a chance. That's the kind of player that I would want on my team."
The courage to stay in the pocket longer than most QBs with speed to burn gives Mariota more upside at the next level compared to his two counterparts.
"You would never know if these guys can play or not," Kostecka said.
Winter 2014 - Winning the 2014 Pac-12 Championship vs. Arizona
Mariota's Ducks avenged their only loss of the season when they blew out Scoobie Wright's Arizona Wildcats Dec. 5.
At a certain points in the game, Oregon had more points on the board than Arizona had yards of offense.
Mariota set his official tally as the winningest QB in Duck Football history.
Winter 2014 - Secures a Spot in the First Ever College Football Playoff
The 2014 Ducks secured a spot in the first ever college football playoffs. Oregon will compete with three other teams in a tournament that will begin Jan. 1.
The Ducks will face off against the Florida State Seminoles, led by 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston.
The winner of the Rose Bowl will go on to face the winner of Alabama vs. Ohio State, for the national title.
Winter 2014 - Named Inaugeral Polynesian Football Player of the Year
A point of reference can be seen for how deep of an impact Mariota's legacy will have on the sport, look no further than the first ever Polynesian Football Player of the Year Award being awarded to him Dec. 9.
It's a game changer for the sport, not because Mariota was the most successful Polynesian college football player this year, but because his body of work was so prolific that an award was created to honor other players who come though Pacific Island pipeline that he helped build for years to come.
Before Mariota, recruiting on Pacific was extremely rare, and was usually concentrated to one school.
Mariota changed the game, an gave hope to young footballers from Samoa to Hawaii and every island in between.
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