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Jason says: Longhorns might just hook them Ducks

To me, the Alamo Bowl boils down to one thing:

Has Oregon coach Mark Helfrich prepared and motivated his team — players and coaches — to play its best game against Texas?

If so, the Ducks should keep the game close or win, which would be a positive ending to a season that showed such promise. If not, the Longhorns could blow out the Ducks, ending an era for Oregon, as the program would enter the offseason struggling and dropping from the country's elite with their young head coach.

Helfrich doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt, yet, because of the Ducks' shaky November. So, I'll go with the Longhorns to win the Alamo Bowl (3:45 p.m. PT Monday, ESPN), and send out coach Mack Brown victorious.

The Brown factor cannot be overlooked, and neither can the fact that it's just one game.

The Longhorns will be motivated to play hard and not quit for their resigning head coach. They'll also be spurred on by what figures to be an overwhelmingly pro-Texas crowd in San Antonio. And, it's not like 8-4 Texas, which has flaws (including QB play), has been preparing to play a schedule — the Longhorns have been preparing for one game against a nationally ranked, 10-2 foe.by: COURTESY OF MICHAEL WORKMAN - Oregon Ducks coach Mark Helfrich has his work cut out for him, taking his team to the Alamo Bowl against Texas, but a fast start in Monday's game would help, Tribune beat writer Jason Vondersmith says.

It's hard to say whether the Ducks have more talent than Texas; it's safe to say the offense, led by QB Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff and Bralon Addison, certainly possesses many more playmakers and, thus, figures to be much more dangerous.

But, again, it's just one game, and the game will be decided in the trenches. Behind its offensive line, Texas will want to keep the ball and control the game with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron; with its defensive line, led by all-everything Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed, Texas will want to penetrate UO's offensive line and contain Mariota and playmakers on the edge.

I don't see Texas beating the Ducks in a shootout. If we see Mariota completing passes for touchdowns and Thomas running for long scores and the Ducks churning out the yards and points early ... it's over. The Longhorns have to keep the score in the 30s — no higher. Texas has to keep the ball and not throw picks and fumble, and QB Case McCoy has to convert some third-down plays.

It sure seems like many people have put Oregon's November struggles on the knee of Mariota, when, in reality, the Ducks' fall from the national consciousness with losses to Stanford and Arizona and near-loss to Oregon State had more to do with other things — including losing the line of scrimmage, failing defense under Helfrich and coordinator Nick Aliotti and lacking winning spirit at Arizona. Helfrich whipped out the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" quotes after both losses; and, if not for Mariota's last minute, game-winning drive against the Beavers, another loss would have happened and the season would have been deemed catastrophic.

The Ducks shouldn't make any excuses after the Alamo Bowl. The team should be healthy and ready to go.

Tribune sports editor Steve Brandon picks the Ducks, 34-33. He says the Ducks would have won by nine points or more at Autzen Stadium during the regular season but the Longhorns are scarier now because of the Brown situation, the desire to impress an incoming coach and the huge Texas crowd. Mariota has to run effectively, sideways and forward, he says, and clearly be the best quarterback on the field Monday. The concern is the health of Oregon's running backs, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, and the UO run game -- but Texas hasn't been great in stopping the run, so if Oregon can average 4.5 yards or more per carry and get a few big, creative plays out of Thomas, the Ducks will come through, as they did against the Beavers.

Our other Duck reporter, Stephen Alexander, believes the Longhorns will beat the Ducks, 35-27. "Texas is basically playing a home game, which is a big deal," he says. "Bowl games also can come down to a coach's ability to inspire his players during the (post-season) break. I give the coaching advantage to Mack Brown, both with how he prepared his players and what he'll do inside the game."

The Alamo Bowl may be a referendum on Helfrich and his program, but he'll have the most significant player in the game on his side — Mariota, whose knee should be better, thus allowing him to run away from Jeffcoat and Reed and other defenders or perhaps allowing him to run the ball with effectiveness.

I think the Ducks will play decent football, offensively, but the Longhorns (who face spread teams in the Big 12) will make enough stops to keep the game close, and the Texas offense will keep the ball for significant chunks of time with its run game, convert third downs and score in the red zone. The Texas players will carry Brown on their shoulders after the win, and the Ducks will walk slowly back to their locker room, having lost their bowl game to an unranked, four-loss team.

THE PICK: Texas 38, Oregon 30