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Return of left tackle Jake Fisher puts Oregon back in the playoff race

The return of left tackle Jake Fisher (75) was "huge for us," said Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

PASADENA, Calif. -- Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The NFL smart guys talk about him as a first pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Both of those dreams may come true. But if you saw the No. 12 Ducks on Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl, it's pretty obvious that Mariota is not the most valuable player wearing Uncle Phil's designer unis.

It may be deductive reasoning to say that honorific should apply to Oregon left offensive tackle Jake Fisher. But the facts are clear: (a) When Fisher played the first three games of the season, the Ducks went 3-0, averaged 52 points and Mariota was sacked four times; (b) when he missed the next two games with a left leg injury, the Ducks went 1-1, averaged 31 points and Mariota was sacked 12 times; (c) when Fisher returned to the lineup, the Ducks defeated No. 18 UCLA 42-30, Mariota accounted for four touchdowns and he never got sacked.

"He really had an awesome game," Mariota said of Fisher. "He anchored those guys. To have that guy back is huge for us."

Pardon the expression, but this was vintage Chip Kelly football. Through three quarters, the Ducks had scored five touchdowns and gained 404 yards while possessing the ball all of 17:12. It always sounds like alchemy, but it looks like pure gold. Three plays into the fourth quarter, Oregon scored again to lead 42-10.

The rest -- UCLA scoring three touchdowns in seven minutes -- really was bookkeeping, although it may have provided a smattering of sustenance to the naysayers who have chirped about Kelly's successor, Mark Helfrich.

His record of 16-3 is tied for fourth best in Pac-12 coaching history through 19 games. Helfrich is tied with Kelly and Stanford coach David Shaw. But after the 31-24 loss to Arizona on Thursday, Oct. 2, a lot of Oregon fans applied deductive reasoning to Helfrich: (a) Chip Kelly was a great coach; (b) Mark Helfrich is not Chip Kelly; (c) Mark Helfrich is not a great coach.

The loss had less to do with Helfrich being Helfrich than with what Fisher's absence did to an offensive line already thinned out by injury. Fisher should be playing right tackle as he did the past two seasons. But he moved to left tackle in August when the bodies began to pile up. Once Fisher got hurt, Oregon had to resort to true freshman Tyrell Crosby, whose play reflected both his potential and his level of experience.

"He's a little bit of a calming factor over there on the left side," offensive line coach Steve Greatwood said of Fisher. "… Jake gives us some leadership back there that I think was missing the last couple of games."

Fisher, a 6-6, 300-pound senior, is a prime example of how Kelly transformed the Ducks from a Pac-12 contender into a national power. Fisher is from Traverse City, Michigan, 2,400 miles and three time zones from Autzen Stadium. That he is not wearing maize and blue is a prime example of why Michigan has signed a long-term lease in the college football wilderness.

At the end of the 2010 season, the Wolverines fired head coach Rich Rodriguez, who had gotten a commitment from Fisher months earlier. Fisher decommitted from his state university, and Kelly pounced. Four days later, on the day that Oregon played Auburn for the BCS championship, Kelly and Greatwood called Fisher to invite him to visit Oregon.

"After everything happened with Coach RichRod," Fisher said of Oregon, "it was definitely a blessing. I couldn't have wanted anywhere else."

Fisher wanted to play against Arizona. Had the game been on Saturday, offensive coordinator Scott Frost said, he might have been ready. Maybe the College Football Playoff Committee will chew on that variable come December.

"I tried to do everything I could on the sidelines from a leadership standpoint," Fisher said. "But I wasn't able to play. I had to take the loss and move on."

Fisher began practicing with the starters on Monday. His presence helped, and so did the set of the line's jaw after the beating Mariota had taken in the past two games. Frost said his unit returned to what it has always done well. The zone-read running game worked well, which moved the chains, which provided a rhythm, which kicked in the up-tempo pace.

"Having Jake back is huge. I think he's one of the best offensive linemen in the league," Frost said. "He played like it today."

Fisher even gained 15 yards for the offense. He put sophomore defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes on his back in the second quarter, so infuriating Vanderdoes that he punched Fisher right in front of an official. The personal foul penalty moved Oregon to the UCLA 32. Four plays later, Mariota threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Tyner to move Oregon ahead 15-3.

Mariota will continue to be the face of the Oregon program, not to mention the arm. But with the return of Fisher to the field, the Ducks returned to the playoff race. They look like Oregon again.