That Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks had a Fiesta Bowl to play against top five ranked Kansas State was a media afterthought. Fortunately for UO, it’s not the job of football reporters to prepare a team for games.
While seemingly everyone with an opinion had Kelly with one foot out the door for the NFL, the Ducks handled business on the field. An injury ravaged defense dictated the pace, which allowed Kelly’s fast-strike, spread offense to eventual do what it does. Oregon rushed for 100 yards more than K-State’s defense was allowing coming into the Fiesta Bowl, including 143 yards from senior running back Kenjon Barner.
The narrative that Oregon would be distracted by the omnipresent Kelly-to-NFL rumors were quickly put to bed. De’Anthony Thomas’ opening kickoff return for a touchdown stated that clearly, and ensured the Ducks would not trail once en route to their 35-17 victory. But now, the narrative shifts to Kelly exiting on a high note.
The question seems to be less if Kelly is NFL-bound, but rather where. His name has been rumored in conjunction with the vacancies at Philadelphia, Cleveland and Buffalo. The Associated Press reports Kelly will interview with various team officials. Things are serious enough that Oregon reportedly has contingency plans in place for the coach’s departure.
But while the allure of NFL fame and the opportunity to excel on a bigger stage might prove too tempting for Kelly to turn down, the Fiesta Bowl shouldn’t be his college swan song.
With all due respect to another Pac-12 Conference program, Kelly and Oregon have unfinished business. Yes, the Ducks went to a BCS bowl for the fourth consecutive time and won their second straight. Oregon’s 12 wins marked three straight seasons reaching that plateau.
Oregon is on the cusp of winning a championship. Few coaches get the chance to lead a team to that greatest heights, at any level — particularly teams whose fingerprints so prominently cover them. Predecessor Mike Bellotti built on the work of Rich Brooks in the 1990s, so Kelly was hardly building a program from scratch. However, his vision of the spread offense elevated the Ducks to unprecedented levels.
The mountaintop is close. What changed for UO in its past two BCS appearances is that opponents are not gaining the same schematic edge from additional weeks to game plan. Oregon’s offense is maturing, adding new elements to the arsenal. Take the bowl game performances of Thomas these past two seasons. Having that added dimension to back up LaMichael James last year and Barner this was one facet bolstering Oregon’s offensive look.
Kelly also has a quarterback uniquely qualified to excel in his system. Marcus Mariota’s rushing ability is another dimension to that ground game, but the redshirt freshman also has an NFL arm and size. His truly dual style mirrors that of 2009 Duck quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, only Mariota has the tools to exceed Masoli’s production.
But the most striking improvement of the Duck program is on the defensive end. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti showed off his acumen in the Fiesta Bowl, shutting down Kansas State’s methodical offense. More impressive is that UO did so despite an injury-ravaged secondary.
Kelly and staff have beefed up the defense without sacrificing speed. Defensive end Dion Jordan will take his talents to the NFL, but his emergence is the shining example of Oregon’s transcendent style translating to the opposite side of the ball, as well.
Oregon is right there, the championship in fingertips’ reach. In the NFL, regardless of his landing spot, Kelly has a reconstruction project. There’s no promise he’ll ever come as close to claiming the most coveted of sports prizes as he is now. If he returns for another college season, the NFL will still be there a year from now.
…But then, if NCAA sanctions loom, consider the above null and void.