oregon-v-usc

Don’t Be Fooled: Oregon Is A True Title Contender

At last count, my “man crush” count tallied somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,221 across the sports landscape. That number isn’t official and always subject to change (not to mention plenty creepy), but on this afternoon, the date of November 5, 2012, that’s where things stand.

And of every man on the list, one guy who has firmly supplanted himself in the Top 10 (if not Top 1 or 2) is Oregon football coach Chip Kelly.

For starters, I love Kelly’s attitude; Chip is a no-nonsense, “stop wasting my time with dumb questions” New Englander, the same kind of no-nonsense, “stop wasting my time with dumb questions” New Englander I grew up around. Crap, I knew 100 Chip Kelly’s growing up, so while you may find him surly and unpleasant, I find him charming and refreshing. Every time Chip Kelly looks at a reporter sideways, scowls, ignores the question and turns the other way, it basically just reminds me conversation I ever had at Thanksgiving dinner between the ages of 12 and 25.

Of course if Chip Kelly was just a sharp-tongued New Englander I wouldn’t be writing about him today. Instead I’m writing about Kelly more because of the football stuff, and because the man is an offensive savant, a guy whose teams score touchdowns as effortlessly as you and I put on pants in the morning. Currently, the Ducks rank No. 1 nationally in points scored (52 a game), and haven’t ranked lower than fourth nationally in scoring in any of his four years as a head coach. In a sport where there’s a new “offensive genius” crowned every day, Kelly is a genius in every sense of the word.

Now those stats aren’t news to anyone reading this, but still worth repeating, and are reason alone to tune into Oregon’s games every Saturday. I once compared watching Oregon’s offense to some kind of religious experience, and frankly I don’t think that assessment is that far off. It’s literal poetry in motion, football porn, whatever you want to call it. As my buddy Dave (a huge Oregon fan) once said, “My only disappointment about this team is that they only play once a week.”

 

Beautifully said Dave, but I’m willing to take it one step further. After seeing Oregon in person Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum, I can definitely say that not only were the Ducks impressive, but blew away any preconceived notion I had about them. In the process I’m willing to call them a true title contender, ready to take on any challenger the BCS throws at them.

 

Now granted, I understand I’m not kicking over any new rocks by calling the Ducks a title contender. Even before Saturday Oregon was 8-0 overall and 5-0 in league play, without a single one of those losses by less than 17 points. The Ducks were ranked no worse than No. 4 in any meaningful poll, with most agreeing that they would only move up as their schedule got tougher.

At the same time that schedule was still a concern, and did lead many to wonder just how good Oregon actually was. Entering Saturday, six of the Ducks eight games had been played at Autzen Stadium, and a grand total of one of them came against a ranked opponent. That one ranked opponent (Washington) went on to lose the next two games immediately following that game against Oregon, meaning that it’s not exactly like the first three quarters of the Ducks’ season was exactly a trip through the SEC. If you know what I’m saying.

Meaning that there were still plenty of questions entering Saturday’s showdown with USC, many questions which the Ducks answered in their 62-51 win over the Trojans. It came on the road, against a talented (if not erratic) opponent, in an environment that I’d put against pretty much any one in college football. It was definitive. It was authoritative. At no point in the fourth quarter was there any doubt Oregon would win. It was also the Ducks’ best claim yet to be mentioned amongst the nation’s elite.

Really though, this column isn’t about the fact that Oregon beat USC, because, to be blunt, you already knew that. Instead it was about how they won. The devil is in the details, and it’s the details with Oregon which make me believe they’re ready to challenge any comer in the BCS title chase.

Starting with the how, let me begin by saying this: Seeing Oregon in person is completely different than simply watching them on TV. You’ve just got to trust me on this one, and promise me that if the Ducks ever roll into your citayyyy you’ll do yourself a favor and go watch them yourself. Do that and you’ll also pick up on a million little things you might not have noticed on TV, mostly involving the running game. To put it a different way, the Ducks are ranked No. 2 nationally in rushing yards. Yet after watching them with my own two eyes, I feel like they are somehow underrated.

Understand that like many of you, after watching Oregon on TV all these years, I always just assumed that all their success was based on their speed. Their players were faster than yours and when their fast players beat your fast players to a spot, it was going to result in a 60-yard touchdown run every single time. Simple physics, right?

Not so much, and after seeing them Saturday I can tell you that Oregon’s backs are about much more than speed. Yes Kenjon Barner, Marcus Mariota, De’Anthony Thomas are fast, but they’re also quick, agile, athletic and powerful too. Everyone who carries the ball for Oregon is a “complete” back in every sense of the word.

Watching them Saturday, the first thing I noticed with Oregon’s backs was their agility, that side-to-side shiftiness and cutting ability that seemed to leave USC’s defense one step behind on every play the entire night. My buddy Josh Guiher (who I attended the game with) commented that watching Oregon’s backs reminded him of that one Reggie Bush punt return against Fresno State a few years back where Bush caught the ball, sprinted directly to one sideline, stopped on a dime, then sprinted in the exact opposite direction all the way to the end zone.

Well with Oregon, it was like that with every back, on every play. Kenjon Barner would take a handoff, sprint straight to the line of scrimmage, and then violently cut the ball to the outside before a USC defender could even lay a hand on him. Eventually he did it so often, and with power and fury that you half expected his ACL’s to pop right out of his knees every time he carried the ball.

I also couldn’t help but notice that when you play Oregon, no play is ever dead. No, it wasn’t in the Trent Richardson, “No play is ever dead because I’m going to carry all 11 defenders + three water boys down the field on my back,” kind of way, but in a different sense. With Oregon, it was more like you’d force their running backs to the sidelines, then right when you think they’re falling out of bounds, they’d keep their feet chopping, tip toe the sidelines and pick up another four or five yards and get a first down. Understand if that’d happened once, I wouldn’t bother to mention it. But when it happens seven or eight times, with three or four different backs, you realize it’s much more than a coincidence. Oregon might not run a traditional offense, but “never stop chopping your feet” is Football Coaching 101. And apparently it’s something Oregon takes pretty seriously. Then again, nobody ever accused Oregon of not being a well-coached football team.

As a matter of fact, the more I think about Oregon, the more I realize that they’re much more of a traditional rushing attack than most give them credit for. They may look different, they may run the offense at a pace foreign to most, but the same edicts that make LSU and Alabama and Florida State successful rushing teams apply to the Ducks as well. In essence, Oregon gets a running back to the outside, and tries to get the same number of blockers in front of them that you have trying to tackle them. Again, what Oregon does looks different; rather than the offensive guard chipping out to the linebacker like they might at LSU, Oregon’s wide receivers are blocking cornerbacks on the outside. But it’s still hat-on-hat power football.

And if anything, Oregon did prove to me that when they needed to turn to the “power” running game, they were plenty able to. The most obvious example came in the third quarter, with the Ducks just barely ahead 34-31 and USC closing in. At that exact moment it really did feel like if USC could just get one stop, they could take control of the game… but unfortunately for ‘SC fans, it just didn’t happen. Instead, Oregon went on a 14-play scoring drive, highlighted by two separate fourth down conversions, conversions which came with the Ducks’ backs running straight at USC’s defensive line. There were no gimmicks, just power football. It might not look the way most “traditional” power football does, but it was plenty effective none the less.

Of course while this column is all well and good, I’m sure most of you are much more concerned with Oregon’s defense than anything that happened offensively. Believe me, I get it. And I know that any time you give up 51 points against anyone it’s going to raise concerns.

At the same time let’s remember that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to win a football game. So for those who are sitting here on this Monday afternoon saying, “Well, Oregon gave up 51 points and Alabama gave up 17, which means that by transitive property Alabama would crush Oregon,” please, just stop. You’re better than that.

Again, it’s about context and it’s important to note that when it comes to Oregon, everything they do on offense is so extreme, that you really can’t use any common logic or normal statistics to define them. In other words, Oregon scores so many points, so quickly that the only conceivable outcome of it is that the opponent is going to run more plays, and in all likelihood score more points because of it.

That’s why it’s also misleading just to look at Oregon, see that they rank 40th nationally in points allowed and say their defense is “bad.” It’s also misleading to take the normal statistics which define a “bad” defense and judge Oregon by those either. If you do that, you’ll see that the Ducks rank just 101st nationally in time of possession and 106th nationally in number of plays allowed (698 total), numbers which rank them with some of the worst defenses in college football.

Again though, those numbers are misleading, and if there is any one stat to define Oregon it might be this: For all the plays the opponent runs, Oregon is still ranked in the Top 30 nationally in yards allowed per play.

So in other words, while the other team has the ball a lot, and while they run a lot of plays, they aren’t getting very much yardage on those plays. The 4.91 yards per play Oregon allows is less than Ohio State, Georgia, Oregon State and Louisville, four teams which have a 36-2 combined record, and each of which could be a National Championship contender in their own right under different circumstances (Georgia I suppose, still hypothetically is). That number is also better than Kansas State, a club which is considered to be the most “SEC like” of all the undefeated title contenders.

And while we’re having fun with numbers, let me throw one more thing at you: On the season, Oregon has faced five of the Top 35 offenses in college football (Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas State, Fresno State and USC). For comparison’s sake, Alabama and Notre Dame have faced one of the Top 35 offenses in college football each (Tennessee and Oklahoma respectively). I’m not saying that it makes Oregon’s defense better than the Crimson Tide or Irish’s, or frankly, anywhere close. Just that it’s not totally fair to judge them solely on stats either.

Now please understand that this column isn’t intended to be a “you know what” measuring contest between Oregon and the rest of college football. Like Alabama, Kansas State, Notre Dame and all the other one-loss contenders, the Ducks have strengths, weaknesses and faults just like everyone else.

All I do know is that after seeing Oregon in person I do believe they can hang with anyone.

Nope, Oregon isn’t who I thought they were.

Instead, they’re bigger, faster, stronger and just plain better than anything I could’ve ever imagined.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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