November 27, 2007
Kelly forced to face future now
Against the backdrop of National Championship discussion and clear signs of a juggernaut offense, the Ducks demanded national attention for themselves this season by repeatedly beating highly regarded teams in spectacular fashion. Such attention was the last thing the Ducks wanted against UCLA in Pasadena on Saturday. Because the offense dropped jaws this season with the highest of highs, even an average unit would be a stark contrast. The Duck offense was far worse than average against the Bruins; it was historically futile in Saturday's game in Pasadena.
The Oregon offense clearly found its rhythm with Dennis Dixon this year, while Dixon found his rhythm as a college quarterback at the same time. At the end of last season and through the summer, some voices were calling for Dixon to be benched in favor of Nathan Costa or Brady Leaf. Their evidence was a sporadic 2006 campaign and a summer of baseball instead of voluntary conditioning with the team in Eugene. Soon after the start of fall camp, it became obvious to experienced practice observers that Dixon was sharp, and not long after the start of the season everybody knew.
The offense rolled, and ranked near the top of the national statistics in most categories. Opponents could not stop the Oregon offense, nor could injuries. Brian Paysinger went down, then Jeremiah Johnson, followed by Cameron Colvin. Still, even with three of the Duck's top skill position guys on the sidelines for the season, Dennis Dixon was able to steer the Duck offense to yards and points and wins.
New offensive coordinator Chip Kelly was of course a hero, and rightly so. His coaching of Dennis Dixon on the fine points of being a college quarterback is what really separated Dixon from last season. His arm-strength and accuracy was more-or-less unchanged from 2006, but every other aspect of his game had become finely honed. National pundits raved about Dixon as he rose to the top of the list of Heisman candidates. This all came crashing down on a benign-looking play in the ninth game of the season as his ACL took too much direct strain for whatever reason.
Brady Leaf is not Dennis Dixon, but he has other strengths that help compensate. Leaf could have been effective running the offense, but of course fate sent him to the sidelines a few plays after Dixon. With Nathan Costa recovering from a scheduled surgery, two redshirt freshmen were what Chip Kelly had to choose from, Cody Kempt and Justin Roper. These two youngsters rounded the charts at fourth and fifth string coming out off fall camp.
People are of course quick to point fingers following the offensive debacle in Pasadena. The Ducks were shut out for the first time since 1985, before most of these Ducks were born. Chip Kelly is the most prominent of the finger-pointees, because aside from the results, he called a game similar in formula to that which old-school Duck fans hate, run-run-pass-punt. Reviewing the game transcript that is not what happened, but the game itself did have that feel.
So Coach Kelly has fans grumbling based on one game. This is the same Chip Kelly who was a consensus spread-guru but weeks ago. Coach Kelly and I had joked about this phenomenon a number of times in the past, about how he will be a genius until something goes wrong, so he has known it was just a matter of time. Surely something was more than just wrong on Saturday, but it's not difficult to explain why.
Chip Kelly's genius is not just calling plays. He is very good at this, but still learning as we all do as we perform our jobs. Kelly's genius is in teaching quarterbacks and refining an offense, both of which take time. Quarterbacks especially are not simply interchangeable regardless of offensive scheme, and the spread is more quarterback-intensive than most others. Let's face it, the fourth and fifth string quarterbacks don't get as much coaching as the others in any school's camp. When a redshirt freshman in the spread splits one week of snaps with the first team prior to the eleventh game of the season, it's going to be a rough day. Regardless of the plays called, you are extraordinarily limited in what you can do, and execution is sporadic at best.
Going forward, the Ducks have much to hope for. With a second week of practice with the first team, both redshirt freshmen should get more comfortable. At the same time, Coach Kelly will get more comfortable with the size of their playbook. If he had all last spring and this summer to work with those two with the first team, the Duck offense would have been far more effective than it was against the Bruins. Going forward the Ducks have two winnable games left, particularly given the resolve of the defense. The Ducks also have a jump-start on the 2008 season that never would have been possible had fate been fair to Dixon.
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