By Rob Moseley
As each successive hour passed Saturday in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, the tension built. Now, finally, it was time to kick it off.
No, not No. 2 Oregon’s Pac-12 opener against California. For all the time the Ducks had already spent waiting to play the Golden Bears, it was still early afternoon in the new football operations center. There were another five hours or so before things got serious in Autzen Stadium.
About a dozen Ducks spent most of the day in the H-D Complex’s players’ lounge, on the six PlayStation 3 systems all loaded with the “NCAA Football 14” game. And after hours of various head-to-head matchups, Everett Benyard was about to take on De’Anthony Thomas for bragging rights – call it a “king of the console” championship game.
In a break from tradition, the Ducks hadn’t spent the day holed up in a hotel, as they previously have for night games in Eugene. Instead, they bussed over to their own facilities first-thing in the morning, giving them myriad options for passing the time before the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
A survey of the players’ lounge late in the morning suggested Benyard was probably the top “NCAA Football ‘14” player in the room. At that moment, he had been serving Avery Patterson the indignity of a resounding defeat, by Benyard’s Ducks over Patterson and Cal – and Benyard had just forced a fumble using Patterson’s avatar in the game against Patterson.
So you’re the best, Benyard was asked. “I’d like to think so,” Benyard said with a shrug.
Then, from the console opposite theirs, a response from Thomas: “No.”
This one would need to be resolved head-to-head.
IF YOU HAPPENED TO BE DRIVING ALONG Martin Luther King Boulevard on Saturday morning around 9:35, and you had to stop while some 75 guys in sweat suits were led across the street by a small man in a suit, yes, those were the Ducks.
On Friday night, the team assembled at the H-D Complex for a meal, then bussed to a local hotel for the night. They arrived back at their facility around 9:30 a.m., and took a brief walk led by the small man in the suit – strength coach Jim Radcliffe – who took them across the street, a guided tour of the open fields on which the Ducks used to practice every day, prior to the recent facilities boom.
Then it was back across the street for breakfast, where the primary benefit of spending the day on their own turf would be felt. In the past, the Ducks would need catered meals throughout the day at their hotel, and meeting space. By spending most of the day in the H-D Complex, they wouldn’t require a more upscale hotel with lots of meeting space, and the athletic department figures to save close to $10,000 per night game on meal costs.
There were a few players who said they missed the solitude of the hotel. Pretty much the only choice was to lay around in bed all day, relaxing and watching TV. But for most of the players, having the option to watch a movie in the H-D Complex’s theaters, or visit with family in the dining hall, was welcomed.
“I’m not one of those guys who laid around in bed all day,” safety Ben Butterfield said while sitting in the dining hall Saturday. “Here, you can get up and move around a little bit more. And it’s awesome to be able to watch movies on the big screen.”
Once breakfast was over, the movies began. In the primary theater overlooking Autzen Stadium, it was a double feature of “World War Z” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” In the smaller theater, known as the Situation Room, “This Is the End” and “Pain & Gain.” (An unofficial count had about 25 each for the two morning movies. In the afternoon, “Olympus Has Fallen” drew a much bigger crowd.)
A couple of players had the bright idea of importing bean-bag chairs from the hallway outside the theaters. Thus began a mad dash to claim them – later they’d be hidden away to be reclaimed for the second movie. Thus, players used to spending the day of a night game lounging on hotel beds instead spent them lounging on bean bag chairs, not on the theaters’ leather seats but laying in the aisles.
WHILE PLAYERS WERE CONFINED TO the H-D Complex, coaches had the luxury of coming and going. Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood reported for breakfast, but then planned to do yard work. “I’ve got some stuff that needs to be cut back,” he said.
Tight ends coach Tom Osborne also planned to head home. At breakfast, he sounded ready to spend the day in a quiet room, watching football – alone. The last thing they want to do much of is socializing; there were nine hours to kill after breakfast and before kickoff, and the tension of the looming game would never leave them.
At least one graduate assistant coach planned to get started breaking down film of Oregon’s opponent the next week, Colorado. And the recruiting staff was hard at work hosting two recruits on official visits.
When there’s a night game, they try not to have a big group of visitors, to make sure recruits get as much of a personal experience as possible through the long hours before a game. Because of the visitors, running backs coach Gary Campbell and defensive line coach Ron Aiken remained at the H-D Complex all day, and head coach Mark Helfrich did as well, for the team’s first night game at the new building.
Some of the coaches spent the morning and afternoon watching more film of the opponent that night, California. But they didn’t require the players to do so; the option was available, but very few seemed to take it. “I do think it’s possible to overstudy,” linebacker Isaac Ava said. “DP (linebackers coach Don Pellum) tells us all the time, stick to 45 minutes or so at night, but no more.”
Most of the team made for the two theaters. A few went to the back of the rooms and napped, but most seemed to be paying attention to the movies.
For dedicated nappers, each position room was available, some of them with the windows darkened; Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli lounged together in the defensive line meeting room. Cameron Hunt and Thomas Tyner holed up in the family lounge of the facility, Hunt listening to country music to keep himself relaxed. Tight end Koa Ka’ai left breakfast, found a big chair by the pool table in the players’ lounge and -- despite the thumping of hip-hop music -- promptly passed out. “I was crashed,” he said with a smile hours later.
In the dining hall, Marcus Mariota spent time with family around noon. As the pregame meal approached, offensive lineman Tyler Johnstone did the same, with friends and family in town to help celebrate his 21st birthday at the stroke of midnight.
In the morning, there were also very few players paying attention to other college football games around the country. They began to perk up when the LSU-Georgia game kicked off. The Ducks watching on the H-D Complex’s myriad TV screens would call out coverages as pass plays developed, and root for players they knew from their high school days.
It was fun to watch them watching. But for sheer entertainment value, nothing matched the competition on the gaming consoles.
THE DAY HAD BARELY BEGUN AND ALREADY De’Anthony Thomas was up 33-6 on Pharaoh Brown in an early matchup. “The story don’t tell the true story of the game,” Brown insisted, before Thomas tacked on another score for a 39-6 lead.
At one point Brown and Oshay Dunmore were playing. They paused the game and watched a replay several times – a video game replay, mind you – breaking down the route a receiver took and how the secondary reacted. A football player’s eye for schemes can never be turned off, it seemed.
Little did anyone know at the time, receiver Bralon Addison was enjoying what would be a charmed day for him. Hours before he returned two punts for touchdowns against Cal, he proved equally clutch at “NCAA Football 14,” beating both Thomas and Patterson on field goals at the final gun, despite being “iced” by timeouts. Against Thomas, Addison had to score, then recover an onside kick before doing so. “Boy’s been putting in that work on the hands team!” receiver Chance Allen hooted.
Finally, then, it was time for Thomas and Benyard to play. Neither is a very outspoken guy, but when Benyard grabbed an early interception he muttered, just loud enough for Thomas to hear, “That’s how we start the game.”
Thomas connected on a long touchdown pass late in the first half, but Benyard snuck in a field goal before halftime for a 17-14 lead. In the second half he pulled away, and late in the game the two exchanged knowing smiles. “Ready to concede that I’m the champ?” Benyard’s smile said; “yeah, you got me,” Thomas’ indicated.
Benyard would go on to win, 45-33. He led 38-27 before, with his player headed toward another score, turning to Thomas and muttering, “touchdown.”
“Still 50 seconds left,” Thomas answered, on a day when the Ducks had that amount of time and much, much more to kill in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.