By Winston Shi
Repeat after me: Oregon is not toast.
Oregon is not toast.
Yes, Oregon is 6-3, and even if the Ducks win out, a three-loss season would be their worst regular season performance since Chip Kelly took over. Yes, they lost 62-20 to Utah in Autzen Stadium. Yes, I laughed my guts out watching that game. This has not been a good season for Oregon football. I don’t think any Oregon fans would say that they are delighted.
But I’m seeing more and more complacency on the part of the Stanford fanbase, and before the Ducks come to town, I want to make some points for the record.
In the short run, the Ducks are looking good. They have plenty of great skill position players, and star transfer quarterback Vernon Adams is back. Remember when everybody was making fun of Oregon last year because half its offensive line was injured? When it got its star left tackle Jake Fisher back the difference was night and day. Oh, and the Ducks proceeded to drop 45 on Stanford. Please note that prior to that game, Stanford had the highest-ranked defense in the entire country.
This Oregon offense is functional. It’s not dominant like past Oregon offenses were dominant, and it’s not like it’s threatening to hang 70 week in and week out. But it can score.
More to the point, Oregon is still one of the few teams that has a good chance of scoring on every play. It also has a good chance of doing something boneheaded on every play, too, but don’t you have The Fear? Don’t you worry that maybe Royce Freeman rips off a couple 40-yard runs, Adams hits a guy down the field and Stanford’s in an early hole?
The answer: yes, I’m worried. The story of Oregon’s defense the last two years has been that of a unit which used to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes weakening into a squad that relies on opponents’ mistakes in order to succeed. Well, what happens if Stanford is pressed? I still think Stanford is the favorite in this game. But Stanford fans shouldn’t expect a Utah-esque beat down, and I think they should be ready for a loss.
Just as important, the reasons that Oregon doubters always cited when they said the Ducks would decline also don’t hold water.
Oregon has a great coaching staff that has kept and will keep Oregon going strong. I completely reject the idea of the “Chip Kelly window.” Chip Kelly is a wonderful coach, and he helped build Oregon to a truly terrifying level. But he was not the Oregon program. Oregon’s amazing coaching continuity predates Chip Kelly and – more to the point – is still around today. The retirement of longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was a big loss, to be sure. But assistant coaches Steve Greatwood (offensive line) and Gary Campbell (running backs) have been at Oregon for a combined 60 years. Strength and conditioning head Jim Radcliffe has been at Oregon for 30. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum’s no slouch, having clocked in 22 himself.
And come on… this Mark Helfrich chap isn’t half bad at the whole football thing. He only came up with a perfect gameplan for the Stanford game last year. Not a big accomplishment or anything.
So if it’s not necessarily the coaches, is Oregon getting worse players? Sure, recruiting isn’t everything – Marcus Mariota was barely recruited and flew completely under the radar, after all. (As the story goes, even Oregon wasn’t really interested until Mariota personally flew to Eugene and blew the doors off at the Oregon prospect camp. Stanford had preferred to chase Kevin Hogan and Johnny Manziel; Cal and Oregon State, Cody Kessler; Washington, Brett Hundley. Even Mariota’s native Hawai’i didn’t extend him an offer.) Nevertheless, most of the players Oregon is going for are courted by other top programs and, because of that interest, scouted and evaluated by the rating services – services that in aggregate do a pretty solid job. According to 247Sports, Oregon’s last ten recruiting classes have been ranked 45, 14, 23, 28 (Chip Kelly’s first class), 13, 12, 13, 19 (Mark Helfrich’s first class), 21 and 16. Solid. Particularly dangerous when coached up.
And last but not least, Phil Knight and Nike still pour lots and lots of money into this program. No program embodies glitz and glamour quite like the Ducks, even today, because the Ducks know the fun things money buys and they’re not afraid to spend. The uniforms might be gimmicky (like I care when they’re awesome enough to put the Oregon Duck on a helmet with Lewis and Clark), but the buildings will last, and they are glorious. You can’t walk around the Jaqua Academic Center or the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex (Oregon’s football headquarters), as I did last year, without thinking, Man, why can’t we have nice things?
Even I was thinking that. I attend Stanford. Stanford just spent $112 million on an 842-seat concert hall. That’s the Oregon effect. That’s the essence of The Fear. Maybe Royce Freeman will run for 400 yards. Maybe Oregon will rack up five picks because they’re jumping every route in the history of ever. Maybe Phil Knight will figure out a way to build a Death Star and take Oregon football intergalactic. (YODA’S KNEE WAS DOWN!) Oregon distorts the fabric of reality. It might do that again on Saturday.
Tell Winston Shi about some of the nice things he doesn’t have, as he gets to watch from the Stanford Stadium press box as No. 7 Stanford takes on Oregon this Saturday. He can be reached via email at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.