In possible finale for Kelly, Oregon wins Fiesta Bowl his way
Chip Kelly is perpetually in a hurry, and on Thursday night he very nearly fled the field at University of Phoenix Stadium too quickly. As Fiesta Bowl officials furiously corralled members of the Oregon Ducks for a postgame trophy presentation, Kelly took off and booked it toward a section of fans in the opposite corner end zone. Five extremely nervous-looking officials chased after to retrieve him.
Once on stage with his No. 4 BCS team following its 35-17 victory over No. 5 Kansas State, thousands of neon-clad Ducks fans serenaded him with a pair of appreciative chants -- "WE WANT CHIP! WE WANT CHIP!" -- and, more cleverly, "FOUR MORE YEARS!"
Despite their hopeful pleas, Oregon's punctuating finale to its third straight 12-win season and fourth straight BCS bowl trip under Kelly seemed in every way like a de facto send off to its transformative coach. Kelly did not hide from the fact he'll soon be entertaining NFL suitors (reported to be Philadelphia, Cleveland and Buffalo). He insisted he had not interviewed with any teams yet ("I was getting my hair cut on Wednesday and saw my name at the bottom of ESPN, which I thought was funny because I haven't talked to anybody," he said), but he said he'd talk to his agent, David Dunn, that night or the next day.
"I've said I'll always listen. That's what I'll do," said Kelly, who, if this was indeed his last Oregon game, finished his tenure with a staggering 46-7 record. "... The success of our football program has always been about our guys. It's an honor that someone would say they want to talk to me about maybe moving on to coach in the National Football League, but it's because of what those [players] do. So I'll listen and we'll see.
"... I want to get it wrapped up quickly and figure out where I'm going to be."
On the field after the game, Oregon mega-booster Phil Knight -- who said he last spoke with Kelly about the NFL following last year's Tampa Bay Bucs courtship -- seemed to almost accept of the inevitable. "Chip will make up his own mind," said the Nike founder. "I won't have much to say about it."
Meanwhile, Kelly's players paid him the kind of tributes usually reserved for a farewell toast. "He's meant the world to us," said linebacker Michael Clay. "We bought into whatever he said. "What Coach Kelly brought to this program has taken it to another level. It's set the tone for teams to come and for the future," said running back Kenjon Barner.
If this was in fact his swan song, the Ducks sent off Kelly with an appropriately fitting performance. While Kelly's program is synonymous with its frenzied tempo, zone-read offense and endless uniform combos, many of his 46 victories took a form similar to this one. An opponent might hold the Ducks down for a quarter or two, as Kansas State did late into the first half. But with one mistake, the game can change in an instant.
In 2010, a 31-31 deadlock against Andrew Luck and Stanford turned into a 52-31 Oregon blowout following a fumble by Cardinal receiver Chris Owusu. Earlier this season, Arizona State missed a field goal that would have put the Sun Devils up 10-8, and about five commercial breaks later, they were losing 43-7.
On Thursday night, Kansas State's fatal mistake was a false start.
After falling behind 15-0 early thanks to a pair of De'Anthony Thomas touchdowns (a 94-yard kick return to open the game and a 23-yard catch-and-run late in the first quarter), the Wildcats thoroughly dominated the Ducks in the second quarter. In the first 14 minutes of that period, K-State had run 22 plays to Oregon's seven. It had made up 10 points and had lined up to go for it on a fourth-and-one at the Ducks' 18-yard line that could well have set up a go-ahead score.
But following a confusing sequence in which Klein tried to change the play, left tackle Cornelius Lucas jumped early. With the ball moved five yards back, Wildcats kicker Anthony Cantele attempted a 40-yard field goal -- and missed.
Five plays and 46 seconds later, Barner ran untouched into the end zone on a 24-yard reception to put the Ducks back up 22-10. They would not be threatened again. The Ducks raced ahead by three scores less than halfway through the third quarter. Barner, held largely in check in the first half (seven carries, 23 yards), would finish with his usual 143 yards on 31 carries; MVP Marcus Mariota threw for 166 yards, ran for 62 (on just eight carries) and accounted for three touchdowns. And the Ducks' perennially underrated defense hounded Heisman finalist Collin Klein in the second half, holding him to 151 passing yards and 30 rushing yards and intercepting him twice.
"The end of the first half was huge," said Kelly. "We were off a little bit there early. We're always trying to get that first first down. We don't like three and outs, it kind if throws us off balance a little bit."
That last first-half possession -- which consisted of a 23-yard Mariota completion to tight end Colt Lyerla, a 13-yard Barner run, an incomplete pass, a 17-yard throw to Lyerla, and finally, Barner's score -- marked Oregon's 23rd touchdown drive this season lasting one minute or less. The Ducks' defining trait -- their explosiveness -- swung the 2013 Fiesta Bowl. The question is whether Oregon can maintain the same formula come the 2013 regular season if Kelly no longer dons an Oregon visor.
The Ducks may well continue to operate just as quickly under Kelly's presumed successor, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. They may well keep trotting out a never-ending assembly line of burners like Thomas, Barner and Mariota. But it will be awfully tough to bottle up that intangible killer instinct that Kelly seems to infuse like an I.V. straight into his players' veins.
"For us, our record kind of validates how we go about things," said Kelly. "We do have a different approach than some other people."
Kelly-coached games also carry a high quotient of weirdness, and this one was no exception. For instance, following Thomas' game-opening kick return, Oregon not only went for two but put the ball in the hands of a defensive end, Dion Jordan. In the second quarter, it faked a punt (unsuccessfully) in which the holder optioned to lumbering punter Jackson Rice. And in a play so rare it required a special explanation from official Ron Cherry (beginning with the words "We've got a unusual ruling"), the Ducks scored a one-point safety to go up 32-10 when, after a K-State block of an extra point, the ball wound up in the hands of Allen Chapman, who was tackled in the end zone. It was believed to be only the fourth one-point safety in FBS history.
If this was indeed Kelly's last college game, 70,242 spectators will be able to say they were there to see it -- and that they witnessed the college football's equivalent to Big Foot.
The truth is, there have been a lot of "Did that just happen?" moments during Kelly's four seasons. He wasn't the first college coach to run a hurry-up offense or employ the shotgun-spread almost exclusively, but he bundled those elements together to produce what many consider the most unique and exciting brand of football in the country -- a source of such curiosity that normally buttoned-up NFL types are now tripping over each other to make it their own.
Obviously, his tenure was not flawless. Even with Thursday's win there will remain skeptics that point to Oregon's inability to compete against nationally-elite foes. The 2012 team was arguably Kelly's most potent yet, but the one time it stumbled, it managed just 14 points in an overtime home loss to Stanford, costing the Ducks shots at both the Pac-12 and national titles.
There's also the pending NCAA investigation (now nearly two years old) into Oregon's recruiting practices under Kelly, which many will assume might push Kelly to the NFL even though he maintains that, "I feel confident in [that] situation."
Ultimately, it's hard not to look in awe at the fact that Oregon -- once a decades-long West Coast doormat -- is now the only program in the country to reach the BCS in each of the past four seasons. And it did so with a captivating flare and style that countless other programs have since tried to emulate. Now the Cleveland Browns or Philadelphia Eagles may be next.
Before he does or doesn't make that move, Kelly notched one more milestone on Thursday night. As he got up to leave following an exhaustive question-and-answer session covering both the game and his future, Kelly joked: "We just set a record for my longest press conference."
And then he was gone, exiting through a back door to return to his locker room, and, most likely, exiting a level of football he revolutionized.