BERKELEY, Calif. - Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, eyes glassy and voice appearing to waiver, appeared to be emotionally drained and a bit choked up Friday night following his team's 52-49 double-overtime loss at California.
Following two weeks of intense team introspection, talk of his job being in jeopardy, many questioning the Ducks' desire and character, and whether Helfrich had lost their respect, the Ducks put forth a gutsy effort at Memorial Stadium.
The team showed heart, no quit, and flashed a glimpse of what could be a bright future. Ultimately, however, the Ducks fell short once again, losing their fifth consecutive game and third by three points to fall to 2-5 on the season.
This defeat, players and Helfrich say, hurt the most because of all the team had gone through in the two weeks after losing 70-21 at home to No. 5 Washington before the bye week. Oregon desperately needed a win Friday. Not just to help its chances of becoming bowl eligible, a seemingly impossible task at this point, but to validate all they had strived to achieve as a team from the neck up since the debacle against the Huskies. But it wasn't meant to be.
That fact sunk in for Helfrich, who only expressed admiration and pride in how his team played and has grown.
“Love ‘em," he said. "They competed their butts off. But, at the same time, that makes it that much harder. That result and that near miss. But they competed their butts off. Bunch of times over the last couple of weeks they could have splintered. Could have fallen apart. But they didn’t.”
Oregon trailed Cal 21-0 early in the first quarter and 34-14 early in the third quarter. Given the team's four-game losing streak and apparent team strife, the Ducks could have easily gone into the tank and lost 55-21 to the Golden Bears (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12).
But they didn't. Instead, UO adjusted at halftime and found a groove in the second half. The defense began making stops and the offense, led by freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, started routinely finding the end zone. Oregon led 35-34 early in the fourth quarter, lost the lead 42-35 then tied the game to force overtime at 42-42.
The Ducks had a chance to win trailing 52-49 in the second overtime when Herbert, who threw six touchdown passes during his first road start, misread a coverage on a pass over the middle that was intercepted, ending the game.
The loss left the team mentally exhausted but not totally defeated. They found the good in what ended up being a tough night to swallow.
"I think the biggest thing was that we were down in the beginning, and to come back and fight and brawl to the end no matter what showed that we've got some grittiness to us," wide receiver Jalen Brown said.
The Ducks need every bit of that trait in order to win four out of their final five games to become bowl eligible. Oregon (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12) has yet to win a conference game and still faces tough outings against Arizona State, USC, Stanford and Utah before ending the season at Oregon State, which defeated Cal two weeks ago.
"We can get it," Brown said positively of the team's chances of finishing 6-6 to become bowl eligible.
It certainty appears to be that the team hasn't quit despite some outside perceptions to the contrary.
“One of the things about this football team, and whatever you want to believe, those son of a guns have stayed together," Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said. "They’ve fought. They’ve fought with each other. They fought hard. That’s what tears your heart out.”
Said running back Tony Brooks-James: “Everyone gave it everything they had. So, from everyone saying we quit, it’s just lies.”
At the heart of the team not quitting is the very man some have claimed the team quit on. Hoke said that the much-maligned Helfrich has done a great job of keeping the team together during trying times.
“I think it tells you a lot about this football team and also what Mark has done to keep them all going in the same direction," Hoke said.
That effort includes daily communication and encouragement to the team, Hoke said, efforts that Brooks-James said has kept the squad from falling to pieces.
“I would honestly say that without coach Helf, a lot of players would have just lost it,” Brooks-James said. “He’s one of those coaches that can bring you back into the program and not have you just on the outside because he cares about the little things. Any time something goes wrong, he blames it on himself when in actuality there are little things that we could have done better. He just takes all of the pressure off the players and puts it on himself."
"I think every single day he goes out of his way to show that he cares and that he is going to have our back no matter what," Brown said. "It's not all on us, it's also on the coaches and we're all one unit."
Oregon's season, baring a miracle 4-1 run the rest of the way, will likely end at Oregon State in the 120th Civil War.
The good news is that the team's fight appears to have returned, a star quarterback has been discovered and most of the key players are young and will return next season.
That list, and maybe a couple of more victories, might be all Oregon has to cling to the rest of this season.