Mariota’s stay in college all comes down to one game

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich led the Ducks to the first College Football Playoff title game. But it seems in every interview, people want to know about his predecessor.

DALLAS — Oregon coach Mark Helfrich led the Ducks to the first College Football Playoff title game. But it seems in every interview, people want to know about his predecessor.

On Sunday, Helfrich said that he and former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, text a lot, but it’s not about football.

“I would say zero on the topic of football,” he said. “Just personal stuff.”

Oregon linebacker Tony Washington, a senior, was asked when Helfrich might get out of Kelly’s shadow.

“Who knows?” Washington said after a pause. “Maybe win five national championships or something.”

In a sense, the most important day for the 2014 Oregon football team was Dec. 3, 2013.

That was the day Oregon announced Marcus Mariota would return to school instead of making himself available for the NFL draft. That same day, Mariota’s buddy, star centre Hroniss Grasu, also announced he was coming back to school.

There was no drama. The deadline to decide was still more than a month away. There was little fanfare. No news conference with the school band.

“Yeah, at the time it was very Marcus-like,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.

“He’s like, ’Hey, coach, I think I’m going to come back.”

Good choice. Mariota won the Heisman Trophy and has led Oregon (14-1) to the College Football Playoff national championship game against Ohio State (14-1).

“My family and I, we took Thanksgiving weekend and kind of flesh it out,” Mariota recalled. “When we talked about it and discussed it, we felt that it was best that I come back for another year.”

And what did Helfrich say?

“He just shook my hand and said, ’Let’s do it again,”’ Mariota said. “For me, that says a lot about him and what he means to the program. He’s done so much for us as players. I was excited to come back for another year.”

Grasu, who earned second-team All-America honours, said he didn’t think Helfrich was even surprised by their decision.

“He knows better than anyone that we are all about the team and anything for the team and it didn’t surprise him one bit. I was really happy with the decision and really happy with his reaction because it didn’t surprise him.”

The third key player to give Oregon another season was cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. He chose to return for his senior season last Jan. 6. Ekpre-Olomu was an All-American this season, but suffered a season-ending knee during practice in December before the Rose Bowl.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota faced dozens of questions from reporters before the Big Game, everything from his thoughts on Oregon’s uniforms to the state of his golf game.

But perhaps the best exchange was with a kid reporter who unabashedly posed his questions to the Heisman Trophy winner as he made the rounds for Sports Illustrated Kids.

“What is the coolest thing that has ever happened to you on the football field?” asked Jake Aron, the son of former Associated Press sports writer Jaime Aron.

“Winning the Rose Bowl and winning the Pac-12 are the two things that have been really cool for me,” Mariota said.

“What is the most embarrassing thing?” Aron asked.

“Embarrassing?” Mariota responded.

“Oh, man. Actually, against Cal, I dropped a snap. So that’s pretty embarrassing. It ended up being a negative play for us.”

At media day Saturday for the national championship game, Marcus Mariota was asked his favourite Oregon uniform this season. The Ducks, of course, are known for their fashion-forward game attire.

His winner?

“I liked the all greens in the Rose Bowl. I thought those were pretty sweet, with kind of the matte green, kelly green helmet. Those were pretty cool,” he said.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota recalled this week the last time Oregon played in the national championship. It was back in January, 2011, and Mariota was a high school senior at St. Louis High School in Honolulu.

Mariota and a few of his buddies were excused from school to watch the game, which aired in the middle of the school day, Hawaiian time.

“Long story short, the power went out at my house so we had to like go all over the place to find the game. We were able to finally catch the game in the second half. To see that, to watch Oregon play — and unfortunately lose it, I mean it’s tough — but it was fun to watch that game. And now that we’re back in that picture, it’s exciting.”

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