Tuesday, January 6, 2015

No Doubt: These Ducks Are Tough

By Ross Lancaster

In just about every sport there is, fans know that there's going to be a fairly wide variance in playing styles. We don't expect the Warriors and Grizzlies to try to win games the same way in the NBA. We don't think that the Seahawks and Patriots will have the same blueprint to win their first playoff games this weekend. The list can go on and on.

In college football, we don't quite expect that either. However, when a program is responsible for throwing past conventions against the wind as Oregon has done in the better part of the last decade, there's perhaps some pushback to be expected, especially in a sport where so much tradition carries the day like it does in college football.

But in the media, over those past years, the pushback against the Ducks and their lack of "toughness" has been excessive. Regardless of whether Oregon takes home the first College Football Playoff title next Monday, it's time to bury all those misconceptions.

If I had a dollar for every time somewhat said or intimated that Oregon's team was soft, finesse, had no physicality, or didn't play any defense over the last few years, well, I'd have a couple extra thousand dollars to my name.

When Chip Kelly came to Oregon as offensive coordinator in 2007 under Mike Bellotti, his brand of ultrahigh-tempo, read-option spread offense was unlike anything high-level college football had ever seen in the days when the read-option and the Wildcat were becoming the trends of the day.

It's worth mentioning that Oregon is not quite the nouveau riche program it's made out to be sometimes. Bellotti had four 10-win-plus seasons and two major bowl games during his tenure. But under Kelly and successor Mark Helfrich, the 10-win seasons and major bowl games have become a minimum expectation. If you haven't figured it out by now, the Ducks have as much or more staying power as any big-name program in the country. Not only should they never, ever have to answer to any questions about their toughness or big-game prowess, they might be the "toughest" team in the country.

When we talk about constructs like toughness in sports, we're more or less using a moving target as a definition, but many fans could probably come to a consensus. For football, I would imagine we'd say defense, ability to control the line of scrimmage and the ability to make big plays at big moments.

With Oregon, none of those characteristics are in question.

For starters, for years now, Oregon has been dominating the line of scrimmage on offense. You just don't put up the kinds of ridiculous rushing statistics or executive read-option blocking schemes with out having a dominant offensive line. You also better believe that Marcus Mariota wouldn't have only thrown his third interception in 408 pass attempts during the Rose Bowl if his protection wasn't so outstanding.

For the defense, sure, the Ducks have had games throughout the years like their contest in October against Cal in which they conceded 41 points and 560 yards of offense. But since that point, Oregon, has only allowed about 17 points a contest. When you consider that the Pac-12 average is almost double that, and that half of the six wins since then were against ranked opposition, the "Oregon doesn't play defense" argument is simply a talking point without any support whatsoever.

And with timely plays, you don't need to look any further than the past two games Oregon has played, the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl.

Against Arizona in Santa Clara, California, which was a rematch of the Ducks' only loss, Oregon was looking sluggish and mistake-ridden against an even more sluggish and mistake-ridden Arizona team that looked a lot like the December and January Arizona Cardinals' offense. At 13-0 late in the second quarter, Oregon was facing a 3rd-and-15 deep in its own territory, when Mariota connected with Charles Nelson for 73 yards. The Ducks scored a touchdown, and the game was well on its way to a 38-point clobbering.

Generations will forever see the 59-20 score in the Rose Bowl, and think that it was a start-to-finish masterclass. In the first half, Florida State nearly cut Oregon's lead to 2 at the half, when the nation's best kicker, Roberto Aguayo, narrowly missed a 54-yard field goal. At that point, with all the comebacks the Seminoles had successfully pulled off in 2014, one could be forgiven if they thought Florida State would comfortably win and head on to North Texas.

Instead, after the teams traded touchdowns in the early portion of the 3rd quarter, college football fans saw a 34-point blitzkrieg against a team that had won its previous 29 games. And yes, some of Florida State's turnovers were absolutely careless, but Oregon still had the killer instinct to score 5 touchdowns in about 11 minutes of game time. If that's not "tough," I seriously don't know what is.

I'm convinced that some of Oregon's bad rap over these past few years is not only because it's not a traditional big name, but also because their playing style and appearance is so different from the rest of what the classic, conservative sport of college football has been.

After all, Alabama has now lost consecutive Sugar Bowls by giving up a combined 87 points in the two games. However, you'll probably still see them on ESPN and CBS all next year being touted as a "strong defense that shows up in big games" in the "best conference in the country." If Oregon had lost back-to-back Rose Bowls in that fashion, they'd be getting trashed worse than when they lost to really, really good Stanford teams the past few seasons.

Make no mistake, the Ducks' championship test against Ohio State will be an incredibly tough one. I understand why Oregon is a touchdown favorite, but I think the game will certainly be closer.

Ohio State's offense, no matter the quarterback, has been only marginally worse than Oregon's this season. And like Oregon, the Buckeyes have many playmakers on defense that line up against spread, read-option offenses every day in practice. But no matter the result, any questions about the Ducks' toughness should never be asked again.

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