Oregon football and the art of asking the right questions

Otto Greule Jr - Getty Images

Every week, it seems like the Ducks are on upset alert at halftime before roaring away. Oregon head coach Chip Kelly ponders, probes, asks some questions, then hits the accelerator.

Like many, I have fallen head-over-heels in love with English soccer announcers over the past few years, since ESPN and Fox Soccer have given me the opportunity to listen to Ian Darke and Martin Tyler on a weekly basis. (And it really is week-to-week -- I swear, the soccer season has about a three-day break in early-June, and then the next season starts.)

The expertise, the wit, the accents … all of the predictable factors play into my appreciation of men like Darke and Tyler; but really, what I appreciate most is simply the conversational, practical tone they bring to the game. You have to make points very quickly in a sport with no timeouts, so instead of breaking down how or why a team missed a scoring opportunity in which the numbers were on its side, just say they "made a mess of it" instead. Darke, Tyler and others also bring a much wider array of adjectives to the office as well, from "seductive" to "thrilling." Watching the 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday Premier League matchup before settling in for 12 hours of college football announcers is incredibly jarring. It's like going to a concert, immediately getting the show-stopping encore, then sitting through hour upon hour of B-sides.

Soccer is, in essence, a sport of constant failure, more than even baseball. It is probably why a large portion of Americans will never enjoy it. Chances are, you will make a mess of almost all of your given scoring opportunities in a given game. Thinking of soccer possession in football terms, over the course of a 90-minute contest you might turn the ball over 17 times, punt 28 times, miss three field goals and score but a single touchdown. But the more soccer you watch, the more you see the goals coming. You begin to pretty clearly notice how a team begins to zero in on an eventual score with tighter, more purposeful possessions; suddenly, the team doesn't lose possession as much, the passing penetrates the defense a little more, and a goal becomes nearly imminent.


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Or, as a soccer announcer would put it, the team has begun to "ask the right questions." This turn of phrase is one of my favorites, and when it comes to college football, no team does a better job of asking the right questions than the Oregon Ducks.

Two years ago, Oregon rolled through an undefeated regular season and reached the BCS title game. Chip Kelly's Ducks constantly put together gaudy box scores -- 72 points and 720 yards versus New Mexico, 69 and 668 versus Portland State, 60 and 582 versus UCLA, 53 and 599 versus USC, 53 and 522 versus Washington, 52 and 626 versus Stanford, 48 and 537 versus Arizona, 48 and 447 versus Tennessee, 43 and 556 versus Washington State -- but one of the stranger aspects of watching that team was that it sometimes took the Ducks a while to get rolling. The Tennessee game was tied, 13-13, at halftime before Oregon exploded for 35 second-half points. Arizona State led, 24-14, late in the second quarter, then got outscored, 28-7. Stanford led, 21-3, late in the first quarter, then got steamrolled, 49-10. A rather awful Washington State team trailed just 22-17 last in the first half before Oregon pulled away. USC took a 32-29 lead early in the third quarter, but Oregon scored the game's final 24 points. Arizona led, 19-14, at halftime, then Oregon won the second half, 34-10.


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Even in the BCS title game, a contest that supposedly proved that Oregon couldn't hang with the big, fast front sevens of the SEC, Oregon struggled for the first three possessions (3.9 yards per play), then found a high level of success the rest of the way (6.6 yards per play). Yes, an Auburn line led by Nick Fairley came through at key times (a safety and a goal line stand), but even against the eventual national champions, Oregon indeed began to ask the right questions.


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The trend has continued well into 2012. In both of the Ducks' Pac-12 contests thus far, a 49-0 home win over Arizona and a 51-26 triumph over Washington State in Seattle, Oregon took a step back for every step forward on offense and allowed a few scoring opportunities early before surging in the second half. Against Arizona, Oregon scored just 13 points on its first nine possessions, turning the ball over on downs once, losing two fumbles, and punting three times. Meanwhile, thanks in part to the offense's troubles, Oregon allowed Arizona inside its 30 on each of the Wildcats' first five possessions. After 38 minutes, the Ducks led just 13-0; after 46 minutes, it was 35-0. Oregon scored on drives of three plays (37 yards) and two (57) and scored on the first of two interception returns for touchdowns. After 60 minutes, what seemed like a solid, competitive game ended up an Oregon laugher.


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The script remained similar against Washington State. Oregon scored on its first two possessions, needing just 12 plays to gain 126 yards. But over their next seven possessions, the Ducks scored just twice, and in taking advantage of a long kickoff return and an interception, Washington State was able to keep the halftime gap small: after 30 minutes, Oregon led just 23-19. Just 20 minutes later, it was 51-19 Oregon.

Because of Oregon's tendency to move very quickly from play to play, it would be very easy to simply chalk up these late surges with a "The opponent gets worn out and collapses" narrative, and quite often it seems announcers do just that. But honestly, that does the Ducks a disservice. To be sure, there is a stamina issue involved, but it is likely more mental than physical. To stop an Oregon offense that gives itself so many different ways to move the ball in a given play, you must do everything right; and then you must do everything right again, and again, and again. This is trying, and over the course of 80-100 plays, you are probably going to suffer some costly breakdowns. But even if you do manage to play well early, Chip Kelly, the witch doctor on the other sideline, is taking notes.

Oregon's gameplan versus Washington State was interesting. In redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota's first road game (technically speaking, anyway -- it wasn't on the opponent's home field), Kelly decided to see what the youngster was made of pretty quickly. Mariota threw passes on the first three plays of the game (he completed all three for 28 yards), threw a couple of horizontal balls on the next possession (one yard to De'Anthony Thomas, five to Keanon Lowe), then found Kenjon Barner out of the backfield for a 30-yard touchdown late in the first quarter. In all, he completed seven of his first eight passes for 93 yards. Accordingly, Washington State began to adapt. On the final play of the first quarter, Mariota was forced to scramble to his left and threw a misguided interception across his body to Deone Bucannon. Following the pick, Oregon rode Barner and De'Anthony Thomas on the ground a bit more, but on the first possession of the second half, Chip Kelly went back to the short passing game.

Up just 23-19, Mariota threw passes on six straight plays, completing five for 35 yards. Oregon scored, then scored again on a pick six, and with the Ducks up 37-19, Mariota passed some more. On the seven-play, 41-yard scoring drive that effectively turned the game into a laugher, Mariota completed three of six passes for 14 yards, then handed to Barner for a 10-yard touchdown.

Over the course of an entire game, Oregon's statistics usually tell the story of a run-first team that can pass relatively well and does whatever it takes to get the ball into its playmakers' hands. And that is, basically, entirely true. But throughout the course of a given game, Kelly tinkers. He experiments. He seems to sacrifice some early possessions in the name of figuring out what he can get away with later on, and when it is time to hit the accelerator, Oregon does it with panache. Suddenly, almost everything begins to work. The passes are open, the running lanes are wider, and once the offense has built a bit of a lead and the opponent has to start taking chances, the defense gets more aggressive and almost inevitably starts scoring, too. Oregon has returned three interceptions for touchdowns in the last two weeks, and six different Duck defenders have returned an interception for at least 25 yards so far this year.

Watching Oregon is a lot like watching a genius solve a Rubik's Cube. He spins some things around, asks some questions, figures out the lay of the land, then wreaks havoc. And in 2012, despite youth at the quarterback position, despite the loss of former Heisman finalist LaMichael James, Chip Kelly truly might have his best, most well-rounded, most dangerous team yet. As it seems to each year, the Oregon defense has gotten better again, currently ranking second in Def. S&P+. And the offense has its widest variety of skill position talent : De'Anthony Thomas is perhaps the fastest skill position player in the country, Kenjon Barner is a durable, every-down back, and highly-touted youngsters like big tight end/running back Colt Lyerla and receiver Bralon Addison have begun to take on larger roles. Asking a freshman quarterback to run the table is iffy, but with the weapons around (and, of course, within) him, Mariota might be able to pull it off. Having the country's best asker of questions on the sideline doesn't hurt.

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