EUGENE — The rose is off the bloom.
Oregon is back in the top five, on the fast track to winning a Pac-12 championship and could face an unbeaten Ohio State in a Rose Bowl matchup for the ages.
But there is still an air of disappointment among the ranks.
“I don’t want to play in a Rose Bowl unless I’m playing for a national championship,” senior wide receiver Josh Huff said after Monday’s practice.
Moments later, junior running back De’Anthony Thomas — who also played in Oregon’s 45-38 victory over Wisconsin in the Granddaddy of Them All two seasons ago — also stiff-armed the idea of ringing in the New Year in Pasadena, Calif., if it doesn’t include the BCS title game.
“It’s not a big deal at all. We already won a Rose Bowl, so it feels like whatever,” Thomas said.
Welcome to Mark Helfrich’s world, where nothing short of winning a national championship is quite good enough.
The Ducks (9-1, 6-1) are coming off a 44-21 victory over Utah and preparing for a road trip to Arizona, where the visitors from Eugene can usually expect the unexpected to happen.
On Monday, Helfrich is still being asked about Stanford and to respond to an ESPN talking head stating Oregon is “regressing” this November.
“It’s hard to win every football game. I think if you look around the country, there’s not 50 undefeated teams. A lot of those teams that are up there now weren’t there last year or the year before for the last five, 10 years,” Helfrich said. “I don’t think we’re regressing in any way. Can we play better? Absolutely. Our guys came out committed to doing that today.”
Utah beat Stanford and lost close games to No. 12 UCLA (34-27) and No. 22 Arizona State (20-19) before leaving Autzen Stadium with a deflating 23-point defeat. Many of the students left at halftime before Thomas’ dazzling 86-yard punt return changed the game.
Perhaps the program is a victim of its own success. The only thing Chip Kelly (46-7 at Oregon, four BCS bowl appearances) didn’t do during his four seasons as head coach was deliver a national title.
“We were up 44-14 before all the subs went in. To be up 44-14 in a conference game is not good enough, but other teams will grind out a win and they’re ’workmanlike,’” Helfrich said. “There’s certainly a little bit of an unfair standard.”
Quarterback Marcus Mariota completed 19 of 26 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns against the Utes. The remarkable redshirt sophomore leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency with 25 touchdowns and no interceptions.
But the left knee injury and the loss at Stanford seem to have razed Mariota’s chances of raising the Heisman Trophy in New York next month.
Mariota was sacked three times by Utah’s defense, which leads the nation in sacks, to finish with negative yards rushing for the second consecutive game.
“As an offensive unit, there’s things that we can get better at,” Mariota said. “But we scored 44 points. That’s not too bad.”
Oregon held Utah to 2.8 yards per rushing attempt and limited quarterback Adam Scholz to 13 completions for 181 yards and one touchdown.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s unit leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense (18.2 ppg) and is fourth in total defense (354.8 ypg).
The players understand the importance of turning the page from the strong performance last Saturday, just as they did after Stanford ran the ball 62 times for 274 yards during the Ducks’ 26-20 loss.
Southern Cal’s 20-17 victory over Stanford doesn’t guarantee Oregon will beat Arizona and Oregon State. It just leaves the door wide open for a possible Pac-12 title game at Autzen Stadium.
“That changes things, but for the most part that’s what happened to them. What’s going to happen to us? We still have two games left,” senior safety Brian Jackson said. “A lot of people celebrate and then they’re happy, but what’s going to happen next week if we don’t take care of business? Everybody’s going to be mad at us then.”