50 shades of green: Ducks achieve domination with image and cool

USATSI_7643561_168380293_lowresAround the country there is a whole generation of football players who have grown up with the Ducks as one of their favorite teams.

Alex Ofodile is one. The slick, smooth wide receiver from Columbia, Missouri, 6-1, 200 and fast, verbally committed to Oregon in June. He told an interviewer this spring, “Oregon kind of recruits itself,” meaning the Ducks facilities, uniforms, video-game offense and on-field success just makes them a brand kids gravitate toward.

No ordinary Joe: Joltin’ Joe Walker draws a bead on Texas quarterback Case McCoy in the Alamo Bowl. When the Ducks met Texas for the second time in the 21st century, Oregon was the premier team with the top-tier image (Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports).

The amazing thing is, Ofodile grew up just a few miles from the campus of the University of Missouri, and his father was a star tight end there.

Three of the country’s top defensive linemen, Josh Sweat from Virginia, Byron Cowart from Florida, and Keisean Lucier-South of California, all have the Ducks in their top five, and all three intend to make an official visit this fall.

The futuristic football-operations center and the 2,000 different uniform combinations are over the top, but they’ve succeeded in creating an image and brand recognition for the Ducks among elite players. Success on the field has made that image credible.

It all started with the Times Square billboard and the mallard green helmets of the Joey Harrington/Wesley Mallard/Keanon Howry/Haloti Ngata era. It reached a new level when in 2007 when they came out in the all-white stormtrooper uniforms and Dennis Dixon pulled off the Fake Statue of Liberty. By the time De’Anthony Thomas scored four blur-fast touchdowns in two BCS bowl wins, the Ducks were the most popular team in EA Sports’ NCAA Football.

Marcus Mariota’s cool-breeze cool and on-field heroics are the culmination of 20 years of image-building and commitment.

The Ducks have succeeded in getting the attention of the entire country. They host ESPN College Game Day and make the cover of Sports Illustrated. They’ve been ranked in the top ten for four straight years and five of the last six, winning games at an .863 clip.

What they haven’t  done is win a national championship, or beat an SEC/Florida State/Ohio State team in a big game. Meanwhile Stanford has become a bugaboo, the anti-Oregon with their physical style and old-fashioned emphasis on the running game and defense.

Expectations are sky-high for Mark Helfrich and the Ducks in 2014, and that’s exactly where they should be. In fall camp his coaching staff have to plug some holes in the roster and coach up some young players for a grueling test. The PAC-12 is loaded with talent and coaching, and Oregon has become the tear-the-goalposts-down opponent around the league. They’ve beaten Washington 10 times in a row, Oregon State and Washington State six and seven times in a row. Those fanbases are hungry to catch the Ducks complacent. In Mike Leach and Chris Petersen, two of the rivals have secured coaches with the ability to scheme and organize and recruit, coaches who have built top ten programs of their own in other stops. The Beavers are always dangerous: Teron Ward ran crazy, and Mariota needed a touchdown in the last 30 seconds to beat them last year.

It great to have the carefully-crafted image and the reputation. Now they have to live up to it. And against Michigan State, UCLA and Stanford in particular, they have to block and tackle better than some very good football teams. Flash, speed and a fancy offense make the Ducks an entertaining product, but to achieve the last level of success, they still have to win the line of scrimmage in physical games against top opponents.

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