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Oregon flops on another big stage
Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s hesitation was hardly the first hint.
After his third-ranked Ducks were dominated in a season-opening 40-27 loss to No. 4 Louisiana State on Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium, he was asked if there was a step his team needed to take to win games against elite opponents.
The normally confident, quick-replying Kelly paused several seconds before answering.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “Yes.”
Asked if his team hadn’t reached that elite tier yet, Kelly paused again.
“Yes,” he said.
The exchange was a rare publicly sobering moment for the usually cocksure coach, who seldom admits flaws. But after losses against Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl, Auburn in January’s BCS title game and now LSU, he acknowledged the obvious about each of those defeats.
“They’ve got a little bit different athlete running around out there,” said Kelly, who is in his third season as Oregon’s coach and has a 22-5 record. “They don’t look like a lot of guys we see. That’s a common trait.”
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It’s a painful truth for Kelly, who is already embroiled in an NCAA investigation involving Oregon's relationship with scout Will Lyles. It’s why he looked closely at LSU’s bigger, stronger and faster defensive linemen as they walked past him and off the field after the game.
“Our defense played a spectacular game,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “They played with an intensity and a speed to the ball.”
While Kelly’s frenzied-paced Blur offense puts up video-game numbers against Pac-12 foes, it’s now misfired in two straight losses against SEC teams. In both of those defeats, the quick-strike scoring slowed and the big offensive plays disappeared.
Most importantly, Kelly’s supposedly revolutionary offense couldn’t do the simple things in either game, such as rush for a first down in short-yardage situations, despite having star tailback LaMichael James, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing last season with 1,731 yards. He rushed for just 54 yards on 18 carries against LSU before limping off the field late in the game.
Instead, Oregon turned into a predictable, one-dimensional passing attack. It’s all made Kelly look like a dunce on college football’s biggest stages rather than an offensive genius.
Against LSU, Kelly admitted his team never got in rhythm offensively. He blamed penalties (12 for 95 yards), turnovers (4) and dropped passes (too many).
“A lot of it was self-inflicted,” Kelly said. “It’s something we obviously have to clean up.”
But if it were only that simple, Kelly wouldn't have admitted his team's glaring shortcoming.
Before Saturday’s game, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas told reporters it would be a “done season” if the Ducks lost to LSU. But Kelly insisted after the game he wasn’t at all worried about his team rebounding for the rest of the season.
Even without that different caliber of athlete, he knows his team has a good chance of once again cruising through the mediocre Pac-12 this season.
Thomas tried to distance himself from his season-ending comment after the loss. Just like he tried to discount the impact the size of LSU’s menacing defensive line had on Oregon’s offense.
“Not at all,” said Thomas, who was just 31 of 54 passing for 240 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
But Kelly knows better. He knows a literally bigger issue remains.
Oregon doesn’t have the size, speed and athleticism at all positions needed to beat the SEC and Big Ten’s elite teams. And as close as the Ducks were to winning a national championship last season, they are still far away from actually doing so.
That’s plenty of reason to make Kelly pause.