|Ducks' coach Chip Kelly has launched Oregon Football to an elite brand. (Getty Images)|
PASADENA, Calif. -- What exactly did Oregon's 45-38 win over No. 10 Wisconsin Monday in the Rose Bowl mean for the Ducks? It is a complicated answer for a program that, quite frankly, has been known as much for its space-age uniforms as for its frenetic offense.
Just one year ago, Chip Kelly's program came within a last-second field goal of winning a national title. The heart-breaking loss to Auburn was the Ducks' second in so many years in BCS bowls. (The other loss was against Ohio State here at the Rose Bowl.) Those defeats bookended a pair of season-opening losses to Boise State (three years ago) and LSU (this season), which had added to the speculation that if an opponent has added time to prepare for the Ducks scheme, it isn't quite so overwhelming.
But on Monday afternoon, against the nation's No. 6 defense, Oregon sure did look pretty special. The Ducks rolled up 621 yards, averaged nine yards per carry and almost double the passing yardage output the Badgers usually surrender. More importantly, the Ducks made key plays at crucial times. Junior linebacker Kiko Alonso had 2.5 TFLs and a diving interception. Lavasier Tuinei, a 6-5, 216-pound senior, who had never had a 100-yard receiving game in his career at Oregon, caught eight passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns and also made a clutch grab on a fourth-and-six in the fourth quarter on what proved to be the game-winning drive.
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"This is awesome," Kelly said of the Rose Bowl victory. "When they [his players] had to make a play, they made a play. So many different guys contributed to it, and it's truly a team win, and we're just proud that we can say that we are Rose Bowl champions."
It's been 95 years since an Oregon team can say that. According to some longtime Ducks staffers, this probably ranks as the second-biggest win in the program's history behind the Ducks hammering Colorado, then No. 3, 38-16 in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl.
Kelly, not surprisingly, downplayed the historical significance of the win: "Personally, I'm just proud of our guys and how they represented our school," he said. "None of us were around 95 years ago, and we never talked about it. We didn't talk about last year's game against Auburn or being here two years ago. We just talked about we're a forward thinking operation.
"We're always looking ahead. We can learn from our past experiences, which I think we did when we played here two years ago and we played against Auburn last year.
"But I never once -- did I, guys? We don't talk about that stuff. We don't meet for very long because we don't talk about much."
In some ways, you could make a strong case that this win is even bigger, more significant than the one in the Fiesta Bowl a decade ago.
Oregon football is in a bigger place these days. The Brand of Oregon Football has vaulted into a lofty perch, thanks in part to Kelly's system and Nike maven Phil Knight's creative apparel choices to give this team some added, um, flair. Lord knows recruits, like former blue-chipper De'Anthony Thomas have taken notice of the Eugene, Ore., program. The 5-9, 175-pound blur of a freshman from Los Angeles, who had been committed to USC for a very long time before opting to sign with the Ducks, again, showed his worth by burning Wisconsin for 314 all-purpose yards, highlighted by a pair of long TD runs.
It's more important because Oregon football now is a legit powerhouse. That Ducks team from a decade ago had only been ranked in the top 15 once before under then coach Mike Bellotti. The following season the Ducks fell out of the top 25 and finished below .500 in Pac-10 play. Those next three seasons following the Fiesta win, they had a record of 20-17. This bunch is 34-6 under Kelly and 25-2 in conference play. They figure to be a serious contender for a national title in 2012. They only started four seniors on offense and four on defense. LaMichael James, their superb running back, is only a junior.
The 190-pound James was one of the last Ducks to leave the field after the celebration. He stayed behind to do a TV interview, while a bunch of Ducks fans chanted "One More Year!" Before heading into the tunnel, James detoured towards the railing to slap hands with as many of the Oregon faithful as he could. If he does in fact return, he'd team with junior QB Darron Thomas and De'Anthony Thomas for a spectacular offense, but even if James doesn't return, you'd have to think the Ducks still may be preseason top-five team because they're still going to be very, very dynamic. James' understudy, junior Kenjon Barner is quite a weapon too. On top of all of that, Oregon's recruiting pitch has gotta that much better and is drawing more talent to Eugene.
For as much as Kelly and some in the program wanted to downplay or dismiss that there was any sense of "relief", several Ducks acknowledged the bigger meaning. Jerry Azzinaro, the Ducks grizzled D-line coach, talked about how when you're trying to sell what the program sells, you still have to answer the question, 'Did you win or did you lose?' And Kelly, Azzinaro added, is very big on 'What's next'. The 50-something year-old Azzinaro said this win was more about validation than anything else as he pointed to the stage that had been moved onto the middle of the field, where dozens of Oregon players celebrated while a confetti machine shot rectangular clips of paper into the Southern California sky. "That," he said, nodding towards his players, "is what this is really about."
Steve Greatwood, Oregon's offensive line coach, said there is that awareness of winning that first big BCS bowl, and yeah, maybe silencing some of the critics. "It is validation and relief and that sense of pride," he said, while praising Kelly's ability to keep the program focused on the present, not drifting back into the past through the coach's "Win the day" mantra.
The Ducks will celebrate this Rose Bowl win, but prepare for what is next. De'Anthony Thomas, who figures to be ready for an even larger role, said he plans to pack on another 10-15 pounds to his lithe 175-pound frame. The kid from L.A. must've said how this was "just another game for us" a half dozen times in a three-minute window while sitting on a stool in front of his locker room.
But it is too tempting not to think about what this team could do next season.
"We do feel like there is a lot more for us to accomplish," Thomas said. "A lot more."
The Ducks have won a big one. Now they need to win THE Big One.