The recovery began immediately for Oregon, right after the Ducks lost to Stanford last Thursday for the second consecutive year.
Upperclassmen painted a new narrative, telling anyone who would listen that there still was much to play for. Star quarterback Marcus Mariota let out a good cry in a moment with his father then on Monday pronounced himself ready to face Utah on Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium.
If the Ducks are heartbroken over their likely exclusion from the BCS national title race, they are doing an excellent job of masking it after dropping to No. 6 in the BCS standings. Their ultimate goal for this season ended in a thud at the hands of Stanford, which seems to have the blueprint for slowing down one of the fastest offenses in the country.
But Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has been adamant in his message: His team still can make a BCS bowl, win more than 10 games and end the season as a top-five team.
Provided it can stay healthy and keep Mariota upright.
“The leadership of this team really showed after the Stanford game, and it started in the locker room,” Helfrich said. “Everyone wants to have an opinion. But if we make a couple of plays, it could’ve been a different situation. We just didn’t make those plays. And now we have to get ready for Utah, an outstanding defensive team.”
Keeping Mariota, a Heisman frontrunner before the loss, off the training table is crucial.
He’s been playing with a bulky brace on his left knee since the second half of a win over UCLA, and it was clear he wasn’t himself against Stanford. He entered the weekend listed as questionable against the Utes, but he practiced Monday and told media that he will play Saturday.
He declined to talk about the status of his knee and whether he would have full mobility. But Utah is preparing for a healthy Mariota, who has tossed 22 touchdown passes without an interception this season. He’s thrown for 2,531 yards and run for 495 yards.
“It all starts with him,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He’s one of the best, if not the best, in the country. In the Pac-12, we see just one great quarterback after another, and we see them week after week after week. Mariota may be the best of them all.”
Oregon is concerned that the Utes (4-5) possess some of the same characteristics that have made the Cardinal so successful against the Ducks — an outstanding defensive line and front seven, a secondary that’s seemingly improved weekly and a run game that can chew up time of possession.
“In a game where there are limited possessions, everything is magnified,” Helfrich said. “We turned the ball over in the red zone, we missed some throws and dropped some throws. We have to improve there, because Utah has a very talented defense.”
What Oregon has lost
• A shot at the BCS national title
• A top-five ranking
• Needs Stanford to lose to have a chance at the Pac-12 title
What the Ducks are playing for
• A BCS Bowl berth
• A return to a top-five ranking
Utah at No. 6 Oregon
O Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • Fox Sports 1