Tonight’s national championship game is a testament to teams persevering after losing key players — Ohio State made it here without quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, while Oregon lost cornerback Ifo Epkre-Olomu and wide receiver Devon Allen before kickoff of its 39-point win over Florida State Jan. 1.
But at what point does a team lose so many players that it can’t replace them? For Oregon, we may know the answer to that question by late Monday night.
The Ducks will be without receiver Darren Carrington and reserve running back Ayele Forde for tonight’s title bout against Ohio State, with the NCAA levying a drug-related ban to each player. The NCAA’s out-dated and extreme drug policies are a separate issue here, but because those won’t be thrown out in the next 12 hours Oregon has to move forward without a surging pass-catcher and a special teams cog.
Carrington, a redshirt freshman, set a season high with seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown in Oregon’s Pac-12 Championship win over Arizona, then bested it against Florida State with seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns (entering the Arizona game, Carrington had one touchdown and no more than five catches and 79 yards in a game).
Without Allen, who suffered a knee injury during warmups of the College Football Playoff semifinal, Carrington became a favorite target of Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. CSN Northwest’s Aaron Fentress runs down how Carrington’s loss will affect the depth chart against Ohio State and has reaction from the Ducks, but more importantly, offers this insight:
Oregon does not rely on a go-to receiver. The Ducks simply run their system and quarterback Marcus Mariota goes through his reads until he finds the open guy. He doesn’t zero in on a particular player.
That makes the receivers pretty much interchangeable. So while many have viewed Carrington’s 165-yard, two-touchdown performance against Florida State as a reason for major concern regarding his absence, the reality is that the Ducks believe any of their top receivers could have made those plays that day.
Of course Carrington, Allen, Pharaoh Brown — the tight end who suffered a season-ending injury in November — and last year’s second-leading receiver Bralon Addison, who tore his ACL during spring practice, are talented players. But consider this: Since Chip Kelly took over in 2009, Oregon has had one wide receiver selected in the NFL Draft — last year, when Kelly’s Eagles took Josh Huff in the third round.
Oregon’s offense is predicated on running an explosive, effective system that’s stocked with players who are the perfect fit for it. The Ducks have had one top-10 recruiting class since 2009 and yet have made two title games and been in the championship conversation nearly every year since.
So when Mariota turns to Byron Marshall (66 REC, 834 yards, 5 TDs), Dwayne Stanford (39 REC, 578 YDS, 6 TDs), Keanon Lowe (25 REC, 359 yards, 4 TDs) and Charles Nelson (21 REC, 306 yards, 5 TDs), there may not be a significant dropoff.
And that’s the mark of an elite program, one that deserves to play for the first College Football Playoff Championship.