We’ll miss you, but we’ll get along without you

One man’s carefully considered speculation and observation is another man’s uninformed blather.  Here are a couple of impressions after Oregon’s 5th straight victory over Oregon State and the end of the regular season:

Chip Kelly and his staff have ramped up the speed and athleticism on Oregon’s roster in the last four years, and it’s a big reason why the defense has become such a turnover machine. All four of the interceptions (Jackson, Dargan, Olomu and Alonso were athletic plays, with the defenders showing great hands, especially for that side of the ball. A four star recruit like Keanon Lowe has a pivotal role on special teams, and he scoops up two fumble recoveries.

The most beautiful sight in yesterday’s game? Reser Stadium three quarters empty with six minutes to play in the game. The Beavers have had a nice season and a wonderful turnaround, but those empty seats illustrated how stark and how wide the gap is between these two teams in terms of talent and support.

The most improved player on the Ducks might be receiver Josh Huff, who was a pretty good player already.  He’s worked hard to improve his hands, and over the last several games of the season, Huff has been absolutely nails, both with big blocks and dependable hands. Now at the end of his junior year and eligible for the NFL draft, if Huff returns he could have a huge senior season, having established a trust level with quarterback Marcus Mariota and shed the injury jinx that marred his sophomore season and spring ball last year. He seems more settled, focused, and ready to harness his terrific ability.

The consensus all over the internet is that Chip Kelly is a lock for the NFL next season, and Mark Helfrich is his likely replacement. Jon Embree just got fired at Colorado, and Helfrich is a former assistant for the Buffs. Helfrich is a hot commodity as the OC of the nation’s most prolific offense. Nick Costa and others have remarked that it’s often understood how big a role the former Southern Oregon quarterback plays in its design and implementation, with many people falsely assuming it’s all Chip Kelly.  Should the Ducks lock up Helfrich now? Kelly’s gone, probably to the Jets, Eagles or Redskins (imagine Kelly coaching Robert Griffin III).

Oregon’s staff is due for an overhaul in the coming years with coaches Greatwood, Aliotti, Campbell, Radcliff, and Pellum all nearing retirement. All of them will be hard to replace, each with over 20 years at Oregon and a long resume of accomplishment. It will be interesting to see how the identitiy of the program changes and what direction it takes. Do the Ducks go for Helfrich, or try to make a splash hire? By now Oregon has become an attractive job, and coaches like Chris Peterson and Gary Patterson would at least listen.

Any chance the ultra competitive and stubbornly independent Kelly gets irritated at all the pronouncements and speculation and decides to derail it by announcing he’s decided to remain a long term coach at Oregon? No, probably not. But it’s a nice thought.

It’s also unclear what, if any impact possible NCAA sanctions will have. In a recent investigation Tennessee was found to be in violation for having used Will Lyles as a intermediary in funding Lache Seastrunk’s visit to the school during his recruitment. Their probation was extended and recruiting visits reduced, but they avoided a bowl ban or vacating wins. It’s not a precedent for the Oregon case, because the scope was different, but it’s at least interesting to note because it also involves Seastrunk and Lyles.

Oregon’s recruiting is down this year in terms of visits and verbal commitments, although they’ve always been slow starters in the recruiting derby, using a thorough and more deliberate approach in evaluating prospects. Usually they close strong in December and January, and the Nike connection, facilities, and high-powered offense, along with a winning tradition and high-energy style, have allowed them to land some great talents like Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas. Establishing a line of succession and resolving the lingering, festering NCAA issue might make for a stronger finish.

Speaking of lingering and festering, what is it with PAC-12 officials? Instant replay and official reviews can be a wonderful tool, but one offshoot of the practice is that it seems to have rendered on-field officials incapable of making any kind of decision without delays, hesitation, second guessing and a lengthy conference. Making the call and placing the ball has become an agony, and it’s time they called a false start penalty on themselves.

Annoying too is the interpetation of the helmet-to-helmet contact rule. Player safety is absolutely important, but anymore it seems that any hard football play (at least on the West Coast) is a 50-50 shot to draw a 15-yard flag. A player can lead with the shoulder and make a clean hit and still be penalized.

Intent is important. The defender is reacting in real time at the speed of an elite athlete, and often it’s impossible for him to calculate where the ball carrier’s head will be at impact. If the offensive player ducks down and creates the contact, sometimes it’s pretty hard to avoid.

Spearing and targeting certainly have to be avoided, but it isn’t supposed to be two-hand touch either. It seems pretty clear that unless there are some advances in protective equipment, football’s future is at risk, given the growing concern over the long term effects of brain injury and other safety concerns.

11-1 is a great season. Objectively, given the fact Oregon started a redshirt freshman quarterback and lost two key veterans early in John Boyett and Carson York, it’s close to a miracle they did this well. This was not a dominant offensive line, and there wasn’t much of a pass rush. Special teams play was poor all year, with chronic trouble covering kicks or making them. A go-to receiver never materialized, and Colt Lyerla hasn’t quite developed into the rock solid productive tight end the Ducks have enjoyed in the past in players like Paulson and Dickson.

It illustrates how hard it is to win a national championship, even a conference championship. They had one bad slipup, an off night against a good team that played inspired football. Blocks were missed and kicks were gagged and a special young quarterback had a night he seemed to feel the pressure a little. A replay review went the other way, and on a key fourth down conversion, the officials missed a Stanford lineman starting two beats early. All that happened, Stanford played better, and Oregon forfeits the opportunity to control its destiny.

This time Notre Dame had the magical season. They rode a stout defense and just enough offense and dodged a couple of bullets, and now they are 12-0. They earned their trip to Miami, but it will be a great surprise if they’re able to stand up to Alabama or Georgia. The Ducks didn’t play well enough to earn that chance, and if we’re being honest, their genius, soon-to-be-rich head coach got badly outcoached during their one loss. At 47-7, he hasn’t been outcoached very often.

A trip to the Fiesta Bowl with the opportunity to face Kansas State or Oklahoma is a great reward and consolation for this football team, particularly for the seniors who have given Oregon fans four of the most marvelous years imaginable after so many years of disappointment.

Oregon football has never been like this, and it may never be again. For a delicious while now college football fans in this state have been treated to the most entertaining team in the country, and been allowed to dream the biggest dreams possible.

Thank you, Chip Kelly. We’ll miss you, but we’ll get along without you.

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