by Rob Moseley
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Years from now, as is the case with the 2007 season, folks still may wonder what might have been for the 2013 Oregon football team.
What if Marcus Mariota hadn't suffered a knee injury? What if a couple plays go different early in the Stanford game? What if the Ducks still had a national championship to play for when they went to Arizona?
What the numbers will show, at least, is a team that finished 11-2, with an Alamo Bowl victory over Texas on Monday, 30-7. With a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator, and in the final season for the defensive coordinator, this was a transition year for the Ducks, and one that ended with a flourish Monday.
"Unforgettable, unforgettable, my rookie year," UO coach Mark Helfrich told his team in the locker room. "Thank you."
Monday's performance by 10th-ranked Oregon resembled the team's 8-0 start to the season much more than the 2-2 November. Mariota kept the Texas defense off balance with 133 rushing yards, an Alamo Bowl record for a quarterback, and Josh Huff became the Ducks' single-season receiving yards record holder. Nick Aliotti's defense limited the Longhorns to 4.1 yards per rush, and allowed them just 6-of-19 third-down conversions.
"When people counted us out, the Ducks bowed their necks and finished the job," Aliotti told the team in the locker room. "Remember this: There's no substitute for hard work."
The Ducks won their third straight bowl game Monday despite a host of adversity. Left tackle Tyler Johnstone suffered what he disclosed later was a torn ACL, and Mariota was limited to one rushing yard after halftime due to cramps. The defense played without front-seven backups Tyson Coleman and Jared Ebert due to lower leg injuries.
A few season-long issues continued to crop up in the bowl game, including 11 penalties for 87 yards, and one touchdown in four red-zone trips by the offense. For a new-look offensive staff, those are challenges to be addressed this offseason.
"We definitely know the things we struggled with this year, and we're going to fix them," first-year offensive coordinator Scott Frost said.
Monday's performance was possible thanks to the level of focus the Ducks brought to practices upon arriving in Texas. The team was good in Eugene, prior to a brief holiday break. But they were noticeably sharper after arriving here on Christmas Day, no sure thing for a group that failed to reach the BCS for the first time in five years.
Sophomore running back Byron Marshall said the team's pride was on the line Monday.
"We were just ready to play," he said. "Even more embarrassing than not making the BCS would be losing the Alamo Bowl. You didn't make it, and you can't do anything about that. You just control the next game."
Earlier in the week, conventional wisdom held that Texas would have an emotional advantage, given that this was the final game for 16th-year head coach Mack Brown.
But, as the bowl week wore on, it became apparent at the various team meals and local functions that Oregon was the more focused, motivated group.
"Everybody just realized we're here for business," sophomore defensive end DeForest Buckner said. "We can have fun and enjoy it, but at the end of the day playing the game is a business, and we've got to get things done."
They did come Monday, grabbing an early lead on Avery Patterson's pick-six, then sputtering a bit on offense most of the first half and allowing Texas within 10-7 on a long touchdown drive late in the first half. But that was the only time the Longhorns would score, as the Ducks finished the night with 20 unanswered points.
Afterward they celebrated on the field, before Helfrich finally was able to assemble his team in the locker room for some short remarks.
"All right," he began. "It's 9:20 right now. Bed check's at 10!"
Players showered Helfrich with boos. And yes, he was joking.
He might have been a rookie head coach, but Helfrich knew better than to make a mistake like that, denying his chance the team to celebrate an imperfect but historically significant 11-2 record in this pivotal transition year for the program.