Behind its hyperfast, high-scoring zone-read offense, Oregon steamrolled Stanford and entered the discussion of national title contenders
This is an article from the Oct. 11, 2010 issue
Oregon fans don't like having their intelligence insulted. Or maybe they just despise bad acting. That would explain the thunderous boos directed at Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas at Autzen Stadium in Eugene last Saturday night. Six minutes into the third quarter of the No. 4 Ducks' Pac-10 showdown with the ninth-ranked Cardinal, Thomas was unable—or unwilling—to stand. Onto the field dashed a quartet of Stanford medical personnel who eventually helped the sophomore to the sideline. Thomas's limp was dramatic at midfield. By the time he reached the bench, however, it had mysteriously disappeared, like Keyser S√∂ze's at the end of The Usual Suspects. When Thomas trotted onto the field after missing exactly one play, he was razzed with gusto by the observant Autzen partisans.
Thomas may not have been injured, but that didn't mean he wasn't in acute distress. The Ducks had run seven plays in about 1:45—one play every 15 seconds. He and his teammates were flat-out gassed. "It's great when you see a team start to break," Oregon center Jordan Holmes would recall later. Trailing 21--3 in the first quarter and 31--24 at halftime, the Ducks pitched a shutout over the final 30 minutes and won going away, 52--31. Slow-starting Oregon has now outscored opponents 114--7 in the second half this season, a testament to the devastating effectiveness of coach Chip Kelly's hyperspeed zone-read offense.
As early as the second quarter on Saturday, the Cardinal's "hands were on their knees, and their tongues were hanging out," recounts Holmes. In the third quarter, "they were getting frustrated and confused. They couldn't get their calls in, they were yelling at each other."
Give the Cardinal credit: They resorted to only one fake injury. In Oregon's 41--32 win over Arizona State a week earlier, there were Sun Devils swooning all over the place. "We'd get going, and [opposing defenders] would start cramping up or maybe roll an ankle," says Holmes. "But then they'd miss only one snap. I guess they were getting really quick cramps, or getting their ankles taped really fast."
Against Stanford's 11th-ranked defense, Oregon rushed for 388 yards—257 of them from the smallest power back in America, 5'9", 185-pound LaMichael James. Challenged by his coaches after the Arizona State game to stop "dancing" (to spend less time running sideways), James gouged out the bulk of his yards against the Cardinal between the tackles. Case in point: his fourth-quarter coup de gr√¢ce, a 76-yard burst up the middle with 70 seconds left to play. That touchdown, James's third of the night, "was a blur," effused Kelly, who was less enthusiastic about divining the significance of his team's biggest victory of the season. "It means we're 5--0," he kept saying.
It means more than that, of course. It means that, following a turbulent off-season during which the coach booted his star quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, for serial violations of team rules, the Ducks are looking like the best outfit not just in the Pac-10 but possibly this side of Tuscaloosa (see box). While Oregon was amassing 626 yards of total offense against the highly touted Cardinal, No. 2 Ohio State needed a late touchdown drive to nail down an artless 24--13 win over unranked Illinois. And Boise State's 59--0 drubbing of overmatched New Mexico State was not enough to prevent it from being leapfrogged by the Ducks for the No. 3 spot in the AP poll.
In his fifth start and his first appearance on a truly grand stage, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas completed 20 of 29 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 117 yards on 15 carries, allaying fears in Duck Nation that he lacked the intellectual wherewithal to run Kelly's signature zone-read option. "We can put that rumor to bed," the coach proclaimed. Indeed, against the Cardinal, Thomas ran the zone-read with a maestro's panache, evoking memories of Masoli.
Considering how good Thomas already is, and Kelly's track record of improving his quarterbacks, it's not a stretch to say that the Ducks haven't just replaced Masoli. They've upgraded.
Darron Thomas was bayou-bound. The quarterback from Aldine High in Houston had relatives in Louisiana. His mother, Latina, wanted him to play in Louisiana. He'd gone to LSU's camp two summers in a row and committed to the Tigers as a junior. "He was an LSU guy all the way," recalls Bob Jones, who coached Thomas at Aldine. But Thomas's affections were not completely requited. Even after he pledged his allegiance to Les Miles, the Tigers' head man continued to recruit quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Thomas saw his position on recruiting websites change from quarterback to athlete.
On Nov. 23, 2007, Jones and Thomas were guests of LSU for the Tigers' game against Arkansas—a triple-overtime 50--48 win by the Razorbacks. "Greatest game I've ever seen," says Jones, "but Darron couldn't enjoy it." Before the game, Jones had delivered a friendly reminder to Miles: "Remember, whatever you do, don't call Darron an athlete." Among The Hat's first words to Thomas that day: "Darron, you're a great athlete. You can do a lot of different things."
"I don't want to go to LSU anymore," Thomas told Jones soon after that. "I'm a quarterback."
Chip Kelly agreed. Kelly, Oregon's offensive coordinator at the time, had earlier told Jones, "We love that kid."
"He's solid LSU," came the reply. But upon hearing from Jones that Thomas had soured on the Tigers and was interested in Oregon, Kelly was succinct: "I'll be there tomorrow."
The kid was a natural playmaker, but Kelly also liked his resolve, his discipline. Determined to graduate early from high school so that he could take part in spring drills in 2008, Thomas took night classes during the fall of his senior year. He would rush from football practice to a nearby Target, where Latina worked and where he had a job wrangling shopping carts in the parking lot. From there he'd go to night school.
When Masoli was knocked out of the Boise State game two years ago, then Ducks coach Mike Bellotti burned Thomas's redshirt. It nearly paid off, as the 18-year-old completed 13 of 25 passes for three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes of a 37--32 loss. "Honestly, when he came off the bench against Boise," says Kelly, "he didn't know what he didn't know. He was just throwing the ball right and left...."
Redshirted a year ago, Thomas went into camp in August locked in competition for the starting job with senior Nate Costa. Based on Thomas's improved passing and grasp of the zone-read option, his ability to escape the rush and make something out of nothing, plus his knack for taking care of the ball, the Texan got the nod.
"He doesn't get rattled," says Kelly. Thomas was imperturbable in Oregon's come-from-behind 48--13 rout of Tennessee, its come-from-behind win over Arizona State and its rally on Saturday. Following his second interception—a diving pick by Stanford free safety Delano Howell in the second quarter—Thomas went to the sideline and simply told Kelly, "I need to read the safety."
"Yeah, you do," came the reply. End of conversation.
What would Thomas's focus be following the win? "Making sure the team's not overwhelmed by this big victory," he replied. "Coming in Monday, going to work."
He's young, talented, resilient and a leader. Since Thomas uncommitted to LSU three years ago, "Les Miles and I have never talked about it," says Jones. "But I gotta believe they wish they had him there at LSU. Playing quarterback."
There was Nick Aliotti on the field during pregame warmups, looking for Stanford offensive tackle James McGillicuddy. A 24-year-old graduate student known to his teammates as the Old Man, McGillicuddy was of special interest to Aliotti, Oregon's high-energy, upbeat defensive coordinator.
"He's worn a different number every game," Aliotti says. "He's been 80. He's been 70-something. Last I saw him he was 41. I've gotta figure out his number before the game." When Aliotti finally spotted McGillicuddy on the field, he was wearing number 74. Emerging from the tunnel after warmups, he had changed into number 80.
Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh is fond of moving the 6'3", 307-pound McGillicuddy around: tackle one series, tight end the next, fullback the one after that. "He even lines up outside as a wide receiver," says Aliotti, "then comes back in and tries to hammer you."
That minidrama was but one of the problems presented by Stanford's power-based offense. In the defensive meeting room two days before the game, Aliotti did his best to explain for a visitor the columns of numbers and figures on the grease board behind him.
On the left side of the board were columns under the heading 11—plays Stanford runs out of a formation with one tight end and one back. Beside it was 12 (one back, two tight ends). There were many more plays on the right side of the board, under the columns 22 and 23.
The Ducks are quick, relentless and opportunistic—they forced seven turnovers against the Sun Devils—but they are also a bit undersized up front. Harbaugh, who played quarterback for Bo Schembechler at Michigan, has designed an offense that doubles as an homage to his deceased coach. Stanford goes into each game intending to mash and tenderize opposing defenders, then to go over their heads with quarterback Andrew Luck's play-action passes.
On Stanford's first drive, the Cardinal mashed and tenderized the Ducks, then Luck threw over their heads for an 18-yard touchdown. A fumble on a kickoff return, followed by an interception on a screen pass, gave Stanford two consecutive short fields, which the team converted into 14 more points.
While Stanford's 21--3 lead temporarily turned down the volume at Autzen, it failed to dent the confidence of the home team. Kelly did not raise his voice at halftime, he insists. All the Ducks had to do, he told them, was be themselves. "What an exciting game to be a part of," he told the team. "Now let's go out and finish!"
"I have to give credit to our defensive coaches," said Kelly. "They made some great adjustments." Asked to tick off some of those tweaks, Aliotti could not tell a lie. "The bottom line is," he said, "we just played better."
It's not easy playing defense for a team with an offense that scores as quickly as Oregon's. This season, 23 of the Ducks' 31 touchdown drives have taken 1:49 or less off the clock. Twelve of those took less than a minute. To keep bodies fresh, Aliotti rotates guys in with much more frequency than most other defensive coordinators. He uses eight linemen, six linebackers and 10 defensive backs. "It's like hockey players coming over the railing," he says.
One of the upsides of such heavy substituting is that it builds depth. Arguably the most talented defensive back in the stadium does not appear on Oregon's two-deep roster. Sophomore cornerback Cliff Harris, a third-stringer, could cover a firefly over a city block. In Oregon's opener against New Mexico, he returned two punts for touchdowns, a feat last performed in the Pac-10 by USC's Mike Garrett, in 1965.
On Stanford's first offensive snap following the touchdown set up by safety Eddie Pleasant's fumble return, Harris climbed the ladder to pick off a long Luck pass down the middle of the field. The sophomore ball hawk intercepted Luck again with 2:14 remaining, sealing Stanford's fate.
What of Oregon's destiny this season? If you're around Kelly, don't ask. The coach's primary concern following the win on Saturday was that the Ducks might pull their shoulders out of their sockets "patting ourselves on the back."
Oregon plays next at 1--4 Washington State. "Super Bowl in Pullman" is what the Ducks are saying to each other, presumably with straight faces. If these guys figure out how to put two halves together, they'll be dangerous.
And the Cougars might be in for an epidemic of cramps.