CORVALLIS, Ore. -- It's OK for Oregon to be just OK.
The nation's No. 1 team had torched another opponent and somehow it wasn't enough. It wasn't altogether right.
College football's pinball wizards, who break angles and records, were in the process of scoring 37 and winning by 17 over their Civil War rivals to get to their first national championship game in 115 years of football. Sensing the moment, some subversive Ducks had snuck a Gatorade jug within dousing distance of coach Chip Kelly at the end of the biggest day in Oregon history. Sensing another more profound moment, they stopped and put it back down. The time wasn't right. Oregon State had scored its final touchdown with 78 seconds left in a 37-20 Oregon win that pushed the Ducks to their first national title game.
Kelly eventually got his Gatorade bath, the Ducks got their win and, like that, it was over. On days like Saturday, this column space calls for a fawning ode. But the Ducks didn't cooperate.
"How did we play?" Kelly asked. "We had about a 17-point victory, that's about how we played. We were up and down."
Sheesh, even during the biggest moment in Oregon history, Kelly can be a buzzkill. That's his style, which is crazily 180 degrees opposite of the way his high-flying, high-stepping team plays. That it fell 13 points shy of its average, turned the ball over twice, had a kick blocked and missed a field goal, well, those are genuine concerns 37 days removed from the BCS title game.
"We're not going to play a national championship right now," Kelly said, "we're going to prepare for one."
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That's OK, because 15 months ago this program was left for dead on a Thursday night in Boise. In his first game as a head coach, Kelly, a fast-talking offensive wiz from New Hampshire, was dealing with his best running back (LeGarrette Blount) punching Boise linebacker Byron Hout on national television. During a tumultuous offseason following that first year, Kelly had to kick his starting quarterback off the team (Jeremiah Masoli) and suspend another tailback (LaMichael James) after the player's dustup with his girlfriend.
It's OK because the Ducks rebounded from Blount's punch, won 10 games and went to the Rose Bowl. It's OK because James replaced Blount and became a breakout as a redshirt freshman in 2009. It's OK because Darron Thomas replaced Masoli and the offense got better. It's OK because Kelly responded to critics who said his program was spiraling out of control by smacking all 12 opponents in the mouth this season.
"One game doesn't define you," Kelly said, reflecting back from Boise to the present. "I think people put too much stock into one football game whether you win or lose."
"We weren't concerned, really," Thomas said. "We were going to get LaMichael back on the team eventually. Jeremiah told me to keep my head up. It was going to be my team now."
James became the nation's leading rusher despite sitting out that opener, a 72-0 skunk job over New Mexico that was a foreshadowing of the Ducks' offensive punch. After two more against the Beavers on Saturday, Thomas has thrown for 28 touchdowns, 13 more than Masoli in 2009. It's strange the disgraced Masoli and heroic Thomas -- at least to Oregon fans -- talk all the time from thousands of miles away. ("I've probably got a text waiting," Thomas said as he left the interview room.)
Masoli could have wrecked this team's psyche after being accused of stealing a laptop -- where have we heard that before? -- and eventually getting booted after being cited for marijuana possession. It's also strange that Thomas did not have a single rush for the first time this season. Oregon State's defensive look convinced Thomas to stick the ball into the belly of James and backup tailback Kenjon Barner a combined 43 times. The two blurs rushed for a total of 267 yards.
|Head coach Chip Kelly hugs QB Darron Thomas, one of the many bright spots on his unbeaten Ducks team. (US Presswire)|
"That's how complete we are," said Clay, a former high school fullback. "It's not just that we have a high-powered offense and stingy defense, we have great special teams. Coach Kelly has about 3,000 fakes in but we have a set one each week."
Clay was still out of breath at the end of the game. Those fakes are practiced with him stopping after 20 yards to save time for the rest of Oregon's drills.
"These aren't things we crazily dial up," Kelly said. "We sat in our pregame meeting and said, 'We're going to do it on our first punt. I don't care if we snap it on the 1, do it.' "
It's more the body of work for Oregon that is now tied for the nation's second-longest winning streak at 12. The Ducks will meet the team with the longest such streak (Auburn, 14) in Glendale, Ariz. Fitting? Ask TCU, which is headed to the Rose Bowl also with 12 straight victories.
As the postgame ended, the Ducks promised to keep the straight-ahead focus that Kelly has taught since that dark night in Boise -- until James broke ranks.
"I want to celebrate this win," James said turning to Thomas. "I don't know about him. I'm going to feel this one for about three days. I'm going to enjoy this win. This was a big one."
For a day, one game did define Oregon.