It was a solideffort by the hecklers. As the Oregon Ducks congregated in the tunnel beforespilling onto the field at Washington's Husky Stadium last Saturday, atwenty-something fan sporting a purple bead necklace and an O? NO! buttonleaned over the railing and did his best to hurt their feelings. "BoiseState!" he shouted, over and over.
"No punchestoday!" added his buddy in the purple Jake Locker jersey.
You couldn'tblame them for trying to remind the visitors of their disastrous debut thisseason, a 19--8 defeat at Boise State made worse by an ugly postgame incident.Taunted by Broncos defensive end Byron Hout, Oregon running back LeGarretteBlount buckled Hout's knees with a right to the jaw. Blount then ensured hisYouTube immortality by exchanging some adult words with Boise fans on his wayoff the field. A day later first-year Ducks coach Chip Kelly suspended Blountfor the season.
After that,things had to get better for Oregon, for the simple reason that they couldhardly get worse. One of the major surprises of the season is how much betterthe Ducks have been since essentially throwing up all over Boise's blue rug.Oregon's 43--19 dismantling of Washington last Saturday improved its record to6--1 (4--0 in the Pac-10), bumped its BCS ranking to 10th and set up one of thebiggest showdowns the conference has seen in years. Eight weeks after theirno-show in Idaho the Ducks will welcome No. 5 USC (6--1, 3--1) to AutzenStadium on Halloween night, and the winner will gain the inside track to theRose Bowl.
November 2, 2009
Making this runall the more remarkable is the fact that the Ducks are doing it largely withdefense. After finishing last season 83rd in the country in total D, Oregon is19th this year. On offense, meanwhile, dual-threat quarterback Jeremiah Masoli,god-awful in the opener, improved to merely erratic in Oregon's wins overPurdue and Utah before turning in a virtuoso performance in the Ducks' 42--3beatdown of Cal, during which he completed 21 of 25 passes for 253 yards andthree touchdowns. To be fair, the stocky junior's early-season struggles weredirectly related to a green offensive line and to the fact that he lacks amarquee wideout.
Blount, who ranfor 1,002 yards as a junior last season, is toiling on the scout team."He's making our lives hell," says strong safety Javes Lewis. "Somedays we just have to tell him to calm down." But Blount's absence has ledto the discovery of redshirt freshman LaMichael James, a smaller, speedier backwho broke loose for 154 yards and two TDs against the Huskies.
Cheering from thesideline, on crutches, was Oregon's best player, cornerback Walter ThurmondIII, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Cal. His backup, WillieGlasper, was lost for the season when he blew out a knee in practice 10 dayslater. They commiserated in the training room with starting free safety T.J.Ward, who missed five games with a bum ankle. But even with a secondary thatcould well be nicknamed the Replacements, Oregon leads the Pac-10 in passdefense.
These Ducksembrace their identity as a resilient band of no-names, unconcerned with whogets credit. "All the superstars went to USC," says middle linebackerCasey Matthews, younger brother of former Trojans linebacker Clay Matthews, nowstarting as a rookie in Green Bay. "We're just a bunch of guys workingtogether, all on the same page, all playing for each other." An example ofthat egalitarianism on the turf: In Oregon's rout of California no defender hadmore than five tackles, but 19 Ducks had more than one and fewer than five."You never know who it's going to be," says tight end Ed Dickson,"but there's always some guy who makes a play when we need it."
On Saturday itwas onetime walk-on and special teams commando Rory Cavaille (kuh-VIE-aye),whose blocked punt early in the second quarter resulted in a touchdown androused Oregon from its early torpor. In keeping with this team's ethos ofanonymity, a postgame radio interviewer thanked the hero for his time, thenreminded his audience, "That was Rory Cavaille.... I think I pronouncedthat correctly."
The announcer gotit right, just as Kelly had gotten it right two nights earlier when he said ata team meeting, "We have a huge advantage in special teams, and it's goingto pay off for us, and it's going to be the difference in the ball game."This was after he had exhorted the defense to "play one inch out ofcontrol—don't blink," and before he paid the team this compliment: "Youguys prepare better than anyone I've ever been around, and that's where yourconfidence comes from. I've told you before: Pressure is what you feel when youdon't know what you're doing." Kelly wrapped it up with a quote fromAristotle—"not the Big Aristotle: This ain't Shaq, boys. This is the realAristotle, Greek philosopher, 384 to 322 B.C. 'We are what we repeatedly do.Excellence, then, is not an act, it is a habit.'"
Before succeedingMike Bellotti last March, Kelly, 45, served for two years as Oregon's offensivecoordinator. Having scavenged elements from a score of offenses earlier in hiscareer, he melded them into his own, distinctive pyrotechnical spread system.In both his seasons as coordinator Oregon led the Pac-10 in scoring.
But how would hefare as a head coach? Kelly, a native of Manchester, N.H., has a slight edgethat Oregonians attribute to his roots. He was not bashful about putting hisstamp on the program. It's most evident at Oregon's practices, which start at8:50 a.m. and are conducted, as Kelly says, "at hyperspeed."
What's the pointof the haste? "When the game finally gets here, it seems to slow down forour players," says defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. And by running somany plays in practice—when everything's clicking, the Ducks will knock out 25snaps in a 12-minute stretch—Kelly creates reps for second- and third-teamers,who are then better prepared to fill in when a starter is injured.
At the end oflast Thursday's practice the Ducks took a knee around Kelly, who congratulatedthem on another strong performance. "But it's just the first half of theday," he added. "You've got to finish. Win the day!" Kelly leadsthe Pac-10 in sayings and slogans. In his program, "proper planningprevents piss-poor performance," and the importance of "winning theday" is matched only by the need to "start fast, go hard, finishstrong"—but never at the expense of developing "habits, discipline,structure."
Kelly is parthead coach, part headmaster. Following an interview last Thursday he headed tocampus in order to, he said, "check classes." That is, he standsoutside the door of a classroom to make sure his players show up."Sometimes," says linebacker Spencer Paysinger, "he'll go to ourstudy hall and sit at a table where we won't notice him, then pop his head outand say, 'Surprise!' It's actually pretty funny."
Less amusing isMonday Night Football, the punitive running sessions Kelly conducts for thosewho miss class. "Everything we ask of our players—to be on time, to takepride in their work—is meant to apply to everything they do, not justfootball," Kelly says. His devotion to molding well-rounded young men seemsgenuine and earned him the benefit of the doubt when it came to his handling ofthe biggest crisis of his career.
Fifteen hoursafter Blount went berserk, Kelly suspended him for the season, a penalty he hassince considered reducing. Later that day Blount called him at home. "Heasked me if we could call [Boise coach] Chris Petersen and Byron Hout 'so I canapologize to them,'" Kelly recalls. It was this display of "trueremorse," he says, that first made him consider giving Blount the chance towork his way back onto the playing field.
Kelly consultedKermit Washington, Tony Dungy and sociologist Harry Edwards, who flew to Eugenetwo weeks later to meet with Blount and the team. Together, Kelly and Edwardscame up with a series of mandates that Blount must meet in order to beconsidered for reinstatement. "I said to LG, 'You will never expunge thatincident from your résumé,'" Edwards told SI. "'What you can do iscreate alongside it a record of activities and involvements and commitmentsthat show you are a better human being for having gone through it.'"
Thus Blount'sletter of apology to Oregon's student paper, The Daily Emerald. Thus hiswritten apologies, supplementing the phone calls, to Petersen and Hout. Thusthis recent headline in Eugene's The Register-Guard: LEGARRETTE BLOUNT VISITSAT-RISK YOUTH. If Blount stays on this path of rectitude, Kelly will considerallowing him to return for the Ducks' Nov. 7 game at Stanford.
"I'm excitedto see the two-headed monster come out," says Dickson. "LaMichael willcome in with speed and finesse, then LeGarrette will go in and beat 'em up. [Hewas speaking figuratively, we trust.] Stanford, watch out."
USC need not fearthe two-headed monster, which is not to say this Ducks offense won't poseserious problems for Pete Carroll's defense. Playing for the first time sinceOct. 3, when he injured his right knee against Washington State, Masoli seemedto gain confidence in his ability to run the ball as the game againstWashington wore on. The more of a rushing threat he became, the more spaceopened up for his receivers and for James, whose 56-yard touchdown burst earlyin the fourth quarter put the Ducks up 43--12.
Masoli completed14 of 22 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown; he rushed for 54 yards andanother two scores. If healthy for the USC game—he described himself as 70% to75% on Saturday—he will be leading an attack similar to the one that confoundedthe Trojans in Autzen Stadium two years ago. Oregon won that game 24--17.
It will not haveescaped the Ducks' attention that Oregon State, despite losing to the Trojans42--36 last Saturday night, outgained USC 482 yards to 429. For long stretchesCarroll's defense had no answer for Beavers quarterback Sean Canfield, whocompleted 30 of 43 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns. On a bad leftankle Beavers sophomore running back Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 113 yards.
Aliotti's defensewon't be daunted by highlights of Trojans tailback Allen Bradford gashing theBeavers for 147 yards on 15 carries. The Ducks go up against a ruggedscout-team running back four days a week. They've also bought into thephilosophy of a coach who says, with a straight face, "All I ask is thatyou practice better than anybody, ever."
Even the Duckswho have the most reason for concern... aren't concerned. Cliff Harris is atrue freshman cornerback who, due to Oregon's plague of injuries, finds himselfon the field at critical times. On Saturday this 160-pounder had aninterception, broke up two other passes and had five tackles. Nervous? No, hewasn't nervous. "Nervous is how you feel when you don't know what you'redoing," Harris says. "At least, that's how I see it."
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"There's always some guy who makes a play when weneed it," says Dickson.
Kelly is part head coach, part headmaster. He makessure his players show up at class.