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Duck and cover: It's just a matter of time

CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Extra days, or weeks, of preparation are key to beating Oregon and its high-speed offense.

January 01, 2012|CHRIS DUFRESNE
  • Oregon Coach Chip Kelly talks to running back LaMichael James before the start of the Pac-12 championship game against UCLA at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.
Oregon Coach Chip Kelly talks to running back LaMichael James before the… (Steve Dykes / Getty Images )

This isn't a myth or a theory or conjecture or a hypothesis -- it's the inconvenient truth.

Five of Chip Kelly's six losses as Oregon's head football coach have come when his opponent has had more than a week to prepare for the Ducks' rapid-waddle offense.

"It's an annoying little fact, isn't it?" Oregon guard Carson York said last week in advance of the Rose Bowl on Monday.

The exception was USC's victory in November at Eugene, a week after the Trojans' home win over Washington.

Two of Kelly's defeats were in season openers, in 2009 at Boise State and this season against Louisiana State. Two defeats came in the postseason, against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl two seasons ago and versus Auburn in last season's national title game.

Kelly's other loss was in 2009 at Stanford when the Cardinal, coming off an open date, outlasted Oregon in a crazy 51-42 game.

This glaring historical football note has not stopped oddsmakers from favoring Oregon over Wisconsin in the 98th Rose Bowl.

Could it be, though, that the key to beating a Chip Kelly team is a calendar?

With months to prepare in 2009, Boise State swallowed Oregon's offense whole in a 19-8 opening-night victory on the blue turf. Oregon did not pick up a first down until the third quarter and finished with 152 yards.

Oregon recovered to win the Pac-10 title, averaging 412 yards and 36 points per game.

Rebuttal: It was Kelly's first game as coach against a top-tier program that almost never loses at home.

Later that season, with weeks to prepare, Ohio State held Oregon's offense to 260 yards and three yards per carry in a 26-17 Rose Bowl victory.

Rebuttal: Ohio State had a stout defense and Oregon had a legitimate chance to win until LeGarrette Blount's game-turning turnover. "The key to that game was the fumble," Ducks running back Kenjon Barner recalled. "We just didn't execute."

With weeks to prepare for last season's Bowl Championship Series title game, Auburn's defense held Oregon to 19 points in a three-point victory.

Oregon's offense averaged 530 yards and 47 points.

Rebuttal: Did you see the size of Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a one-man wrecking crew? The guy was a beast in that game, and Oregon still managed 449 yards and squandered several key chances in the red zone.

"You watch the Auburn film and it's really frustrating," York said of all the missed opportunities.

In this season's opener, Louisiana State held Oregon's offense to 27 points in a 13-point win.

Rebuttal: "And oh, by the way, LSU's pretty good," Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said last week.

Also, it was a 16-13 game at halftime until consecutive turnovers by freshman De'Anthony Thomas, playing his first college game, led directly to two LSU touchdowns.

Oregon finished with four turnovers.

"You can't turn the ball over against anybody, let alone the team that's playing for the national championship," Helfrich said.

Helfrich says there is no underlying trend in the five defeats. "They're different games and different situations," he said.

Oregon might also be disadvantaged in marquee games by excessive stoppages of play for television. That seemed part of the problem in the title game against Auburn. The last thing Oregon and its fast-paced no-huddle offense want is to be ticketed for loitering.

Helfrich said the team actually has to prepare for all the idle time during a game. "It's something we have to deal with," he said.

Teams playing Oregon see a huge benefit in having extra time to prepare. It just makes sense. Oregon's offense is predicated on speed, deception and driving opponents to the brink of exhaustion.

"I could only imagine if we only had a week," Wisconsin defensive back Aaron Henry said. "They present so many things on offense. One week they're doing all this crazy stuff and the next week they're pretty standard."

Extra time allows Oregon opponents time to conduct mini-boot camps to get in the shape necessary to combat the Ducks' tempo.

"We have been doing a lot of conditioning, a lot of conditioning," Henry said.

Henry said Wisconsin's defense was ragged in early practices against the scout team mimicking Oregon.

"Real sloppy," he said. "It was nothing we were used to. Now, guys are flying to the ball."

Charlie Partridge, the Badgers' co-defensive coordinator, said it took his scout team more than a week to get somewhere close to approximating Oregon's tempo.

Partridge also got bonus time to figure out what's real about Oregon's spread and what's illusion. "They have a lot more window dressing than they do actual plays," he said.

What should worry Oregon's offense most is that Wisconsin's defense, like Ohio State's two years ago, is not easily suckered.

"They are unbelievably disciplined," Helfrich said. "We try to exploit teams that are misaligned, but they don't do that very often."

Wisconsin has had the luxury of focusing on Oregon since defeating Michigan State in the Big Ten title game Dec. 3.

Every second helps.

"The first time you put the film on, the butterflies hit your stomach," Partridge said. "Then the competitor part of you sinks in. And then you're thankful you have the extra time."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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