The oral history of 2007 Oregon, one of college football's most heartbreaking what-ifs

When we look back, what’s the first thing we think about: the high times or the moment they all ended?

Imagining an alternate universe in which everything goes right for your team isn’t just a part of loving a team. It’s fundamental to the entire experience.

The things we have to daydream away are endless: injuries, questionable penalties or spots, uninspired play calling or bad clock management, coaches or players getting into trouble and missing action, freak plays, etc., etc.

In 2007, easily the most chaotic college football year in memory, the Oregon Ducks managed to file the modern sport’s most heart-wrenching "if only" claim. They crafted a season defined by speed, innovation, and the efficient destruction of traditional powers. They sprinted toward a national championship berth and Heisman Trophy, only to collapse on a November Thursday in Tucson.

Ten years later, SB Nation spoke with three of the leaders from the 2007 squad — head coach Mike Bellotti, offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz, and safety Patrick Chung — to tell the story of a program-changing season; one that never could’ve happened without a symbolic equipment bonfire, a genius from New Hampshire, and a certain minor league baseball player.

Part I: "Some of our managers now had to get their ankles taped because they had to run to place the ball."

Mike Bellotti, head coach: I was very disappointed in the 2006 season. We had quarterbacks alternating and went into a bowl game [vs. BYU in Las Vegas] and got outplayed and outcoached.

Geoff Schwartz, offensive tackle: They kicked our ass. That’s one of the best ass-whoopings I’ve ever received.

Guys weren’t focused. Guys were partying — which is OK. We didn’t have a curfew. We were allowed to go out, if you were 21 — there was a brawl. It was in Old Town Vegas; there was a huge Christmas tree, and everyone went behind there and started fighting. It was a disaster.

Bellotti: I stewed about that game all winter, so I basically kidnapped the team. I told them we were having a meeting, and we loaded them into buses, drove to Camp Harlow [a nearby retreat]. I said, "Write down everything that you like about the program and everything you don’t like," and we put it on the walls.

All the stuff we liked about the program, we kept. All the stuff we didn’t like about the program, we talked about it and then burnt those in a big funeral pyre.

Schwartz: It was really eye-opening. I wonder what Chip [Kelly, the new offensive coordinator] thought about it. It was his second day on the job.

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Bellotti: [Previous OC] Gary Crowton had coached with him and would come into my office and say, "Look what Chip’s doing at New Hampshire," and we would steal plays.

We had a team pledge, but it was too wordy, so "Win the Day" became the phrase to encapsulate all of it.

Schwartz: It changed the program — the clearing of the air, coming up with "Win the Day."

Bellotti: I think Chip was the actual one who voiced those words.

Patrick Chung, safety: We just made a commitment to win games and finish, not like the year before.

Bellotti: One of the reasons I wanted to hire Chip is he had a familiarity with a no-huddle system. I asked my staff if they wanted to go no-huddle. Unequivocally, they all said, "No."

I said, "We’re going no-huddle."

In a 20-minute practice period, we used to run about 20 plays. The first time we ran a drill no-huddle in the spring, we ran 42. Some of our managers now had to get their ankles taped because they had to run to place the ball. They were getting sprains and pulling muscles trying to go as fast as they possibly could.

Following the spring quarter, QB Dennis Dixon tried professional baseball for the summer. He’d been drafted in the fifth round by the Atlanta Braves.

Bellotti: Honestly, I didn’t like it. As the head coach, as your returning starting QB. I didn’t think it showed the kind of commitment that I wanted to see. I was very disappointed, and I told him that. It didn’t send the right message to his teammates.

Dixon returned to Eugene for fall camp and his senior season.

Schwartz: I just remember in training camp, things went well. I was finally healthy. I played 2006 hurt.

Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Chung: Dennis was on fire, and Jonathan [Stewart, running back] was on fire.

Bellotti: Dennis is a great athlete. It was just a question of confidence. He could always throw the ball. Chip helped him get over some things and understand what he needed to look at. Dennis was gifted, with large hands. He became a svengali with the ball.

It got overshadowed because offensively we weren’t as consistent the year before, but we had an excellent defense.

Chung: We had some dogs on our team, some men, some real dudes.

Part II: "We’re faster than them."

Week 1: Oregon 45, Houston 27

Against offensive mastermind Art Briles, the Ducks put up numbers, pulled away, and looked comfortable in Kelly’s new offense. The most notable thing was a surprisingly violent mascot fight.

Schwartz: We had this idea of what our offense was going to be, but until you play a game, you never really know.

Week 2: Oregon 39, Michigan 7

Bellotti: My fear was that [Michigan] got exposed a bit vs. Appalachian State [in one of the biggest upsets ever, from the week prior], and they’re gonna know what they have to do to stop this style of offense.

Chung: The best was how much of an underdog we were. We had no chance — Big House, one of the biggest stadiums. The guys on our team, we liked stuff like that.

Schwartz: I remember meetings with Chip right before the game. Even during the week, he was just so confident. When Brian Paysinger scored on a long touchdown catch early — just blew by — I thought, "OK, we’re faster than them." And then Chip brought out the big plays.

Bellotti: What happened was they got simplistic and played three deep. We literally ran by them.

Schwartz: Going into that week, I knew we had the Statue of Liberty and fake Statue of Liberty, and they told us, "If you can just protect the QB, we’re going to beat them deep," and we did exactly what they told us would happen.

Bellotti: Doing it in the Big House, silencing 100K people, was very exciting.

Schwartz: That’s the most fun I’ve ever had at an away game. We were up 39-7 in the third quarter. We took the starters out.

Chung: You go to a big game like that, you just have to put a little swag on. And little did we know, we had a great team.

Schwartz: We were on the sidelines partying, hanging out, enjoying it. Michigan fans were booing. Half of them left at halftime. They booed when [Michigan QB] Chad Henne got hurt.

Bellotti: We could’ve scored two more touchdowns, if not three.

Schwartz: We kicked their ass. That’s when I realized we were good.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Bellotti and Lloyd Carr

Week 3: Oregon 52, Fresno State 21

Never really in doubt. Oregon’s defense dominated, and Stewart shined.

Week 4: Oregon 55, Stanford 31

The Ducks flew south during Jim Harbaugh’s first season turning around a basement-dwelling Stanford. Leading Oregon WR Paysinger injured his knee in practice beforehand;finished for the season.

Bellotti: We had plays they couldn’t cover, receivers running wide open down the field. We could’ve scored three or four more touchdowns.

Week 5: Cal 31, Oregon 24

After starting unranked, the Ducks sat at No. 11 in the AP Poll. They hosted No. 6 Cal and a national audience via ESPN’s College GameDay. Oregon was outplayed at home but had a chance late. WR Cam Colvin, in an attempt to reach over the pylon, fumbled out of the end zone.

Schwartz: I remember Cal always played us real tough and what they did on defense. They ran a 3-4, which is hard to run a spread offense against.

Bellotti: I felt like we were going to win that game. We hadn’t played well, but we were driving down to win that game. It was a tough way to lose. Cal played well. We didn’t.

Week 6: Bye

In an upset-filled week, Oregon moved back up in the AP poll to No. 9.

Week 7: Oregon 53, Washington State 7

Oregon opened on a 47-0 run, butoffensive skill depth took more hits. The Ducks lost all-purpose back Jeremiah Johnson and WR Colvin to season-ending knee and ankle injuries, respectively.

Week 8: Oregon 53, Washington 34

Schwartz: We go to Washington in Stormtrooper uniforms. First time we wear all whites — white helmet, white shoes — go up and kick their ass for the fourth straight year in a row, whatever it was, rush for a school record.

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Bellotti: We had always run the ball very well with this style of offense, very well against Washington.

Schwartz: When you rush for 460-something yards, you have to be doing something right.

Bellotti: They did not take away the run. They just didn’t stop it. Left the quarterback one-on-none. They made Dennis’ job easier reading the defense.

Schwartz: It was close until the fourth quarter, but that’s what the offense does.

Part III: "If we stayed healthy ..."

Week 9: Oregon 24, USC 17

Oregon was at No. 5, preseason No. 1 USC at No. 12. Assisted by two timely interceptions, Oregon held on to beat Pete Carroll and the deeply talented Trojans.

Schwartz: I remember watching film of USC thinking, "We’re playing 11 pros on defense." Our goal that week was use our tempo because they had bigger players: [Rey] Maualuga at LB, [Fili] Moala and Sed Ellis on the inside. Early on, they had to make a line change on defense because they were tired.

Chung: I love that game. The first series, we stopped a reverse, and from that point on it was go time.

Bellotti: I think[Oregon LB] John Bacon making the play — he was physical, but not the niftiest linebacker — for him to make an open-field tackle on the fly sweep on a fourth down play, that fired the defense up.

Schwartz: When [Oregon safety] Matt Harper intercepted the ball [to clinch the win], that was the loudest moment I’ve ever heard in a stadium. I remember going up to Dennis and my ears, they were just ringing; it was painful. This was finally — we had gone over the hurdle. USC was the big dog.

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Schwartz: There was no one left in the conference who could beat us, if we stayed healthy.

Do you remember life back before Oregon started heaving up 45 points a game? Before the Ducks became the coolest program in the country?

Oregon had had stars on offense, including first-round QBs Joey Harrington and Akili Smith and some ancient Heisman contenders, but its identity was nothing like what it’d rapidly become.

Along with Phil Knight’s Nike influence and a decades-long chain of coaching stability, the biggest key was Bellotti turning the offense and eventually the program over to some dude from New Hampshire in 2007.

  • Oregon’s offense had ranked in the 30s in S&P+ before Kelly took over.
  • In Kelly’s first year, it finished No. 4 in S&P+ despite losing starting QB Dennis Dixon to injury.
  • In 2008, Oregon began an eight-year streak of top-eight scoring offenses.
  • In 2010, the Ducks nearly won a BCS title and had the No. 1 scoring offense.
  • In 2012, his final year at Oregon, his offense averaged a hilarious 49.6 points and ranked No. 2 in S&P+, behind only former Oregon commit Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M.

Oregon didn’t just rack up yards. The Ducks’ signature, seemingly every other week for years: a leisurely first half as Kelly probed for weaknesses, then an Oregon touchdown, a turnover as the panicked opponent tried to catch back up, another touchdown, and an Oregon defensive touchdown, all in a flurry. Every week, the dam held until it didn’t. It was beautiful.

Throughout, the uniforms thing reached its glorious peak. (Everyone got pretty tired of it by 2016 or so, around the time the last of Kelly’s coaching staff washed out.)

Kelly’s NFL career didn’t work. His innovation stalled there, and it’s unclear how ahead of the college game he is at this point, considering Saban’s 2016 offense looked a lot like Oregon’s.

But still. Kelly helped turn Oregon into the funnest team in the world’s funnest sport, and for that, we miss him. Please come home to a college football sideline, Chip.

Week 10: Oregon 35, Arizona State 23

The Ducks won, but Dixon, considered the Heisman Trophy front-runner, left with knee soreness after a hit while carrying the ball in the fourth quarter.

Schwartz: GameDay was there again. Twice in one year is a lot. For Oregon, it’s a huge thing. Our fans love it; 5 a.m., they’re out there in full blast.

Chung: You’re more hyped to play well, but when it comes down to it, it’s just football. The cameras aren’t scoring touchdowns; we are. The cameras aren’t stopping touchdowns.

Bellotti: I remember there was a lot of hoopla around the game. I’m not big into hoopla. Schwartz: I remember thinking Arizona State, even at No. 4 or No. 6 in the nation, there’s no way they’re going to beat us. We’re just going to kick their ass. And we did.

Bellotti: It’s a close game at the end. Dennis is running the ball, he hurts his knee and actually got down in bounds to keep the clock running. He complained about soreness. I pulled him immediately; had the doctors check him out.

He wanted to go back in and was cleared to go back in, and I said, "No, I think we can do this right now. Relax."

Week 11: Bye

At 8-1, Oregon moved up to No. 2 in the BCS, just behind LSU, but uncertainty surrounded the future because of Dixon’s health. Three unranked opponents remained: an ideal path.

Schwartz: Ilockered next to Dennis, and I didn’t know he was that injured.

Bellotti: He was sore but not a lot of swelling. He had a partially torn ACL, but they weren’t sure if he had done it earlier in his career. I said to him, "You’re probably done," but he said, "No, coach, I want to play."

I go, "No, I don’t think that’s going to be the case."

He pleads his case with me and with Chip. We talked to the doctors and they said, "Let’s see how it goes with practice."

We come out and practice, and he’s wearing a brace on his knee and wins the conditioning drill: change of direction and stop-start stuff. I asked the doctors, "How is this possible?" and they said, "Hey, there’s a lot of people playing without an ACL."

I’m still not comfortable. I still don’t think I’m going to play him, and he said, "Please coach, I want to play. Please let me play."

I said, "Talk to your father; talk to your parents. We’re not doing anything until you talk to your parents."

We had conversations with them, the doctors cleared him, and the amazing thing was, he practiced that week as well as any time that year.

Attempts to interview Dixon were unsuccessful.

Part IV: "That’s the only year of my career I have a what-if."

Week 12: Arizona 34, Oregon 24

Oregon came out on fire, but Dixon, wearing a brace on his left knee, collapsed while trying to cut in the backfield. His game and college career ended there. Despite pitching a near-shutout in the second half, Oregon without Dixon simply wasn’t good enough.

Schwartz: I distinctly remember the game plan. We took out the zone read [Oregon’s signature running option play]. That week, we put in a backside tight end, so that meant there was no read, so Dennis would fake like he was gonna read it, but there was no read because the backside was being blocked by that tight end.

All week, I was thinking, "That’s kinda weird. We’ve never really done that this year. Why are we limiting Dennis’ running?"

Bellotti: The first series of the game, he runs for a 40-yard TD and I’m saying, "This is unbelievable, just amazing," and I don’t know that the team knew anything.

Schwartz: It was sort of a broken play on the one in which he scored. Blocked out like I did the entire year, and Dennis pulled it and ran — and wasn’t supposed to. They were bringing pressure, too, and he pump-faked and ran for a 40-yard touchdown on a torn ACL. Then we score on a two-point conversion and go up 8-0. They go three and out, and we start driving the field again. Boom boom boom. Dennis is still in. Boom boom boom.

We throw a slant route, pops off (WR) Derrick Jones’ chest, pops up; they intercept the ball. That would’ve been a touchdown. We would’ve been up 15-0. They end up scoring, and then Dennis gets hurt on the following drive.

I was like, "Shit, here we go again," because Kellen [Clemons, previous Oregon QB] had gotten hurt in Arizona in 2005. That grass they had was awful; it was thick. That place was just horrors.

"All week, I was thinking, ‘That’s kinda weird. We’ve never really done that this year. Why are we limiting Dennis’ running?" — Geoff Schwartz

Chung: It definitely crushed us, but that was for the offense to think about. When we’re in the game, defense is defense. It’s a crushing blow, and we might have to play a little longer, but we just gotta play.

Schwartz: Things didn’t go well that game. The crowd rushed the field, it wasn’t a good feeling, we didn’t play well, and now Dennis is out for the year. We were second in the nation, we were thinking about playing LSU, the teams we have left -- Arizona wasn’t very good, so we’d beat Arizona; UCLA was awful, we’d beat UCLA; we’d beat Oregon State.

Week 13: UCLA 16, Oregon 0

With three injured QBs backup Brady Leaf started and left early, and freshman Nate Costa had been out since camp Oregon turned to redshirt freshmen, who completed 25 percent of their passes. The most explosive offense in the country hit rock bottom. Oregon’s defense dominated UCLA’s woeful offense, but the effort was wasted.

Schwartz: I remember thinking, "I’m the only guy in my cubby area that’s not hurt." The last four games, I dressed by myself for practice every day.

Actually, Dennis is on the practice field in street clothes on Tuesday and Wednesday, and he was dropping back throwing passes to wide receivers. Bellotti threw him off the field like, "Get the fuck off the field. What is this shit? Don’t tempt me. I’m not dealing with this."

You can still drop back fine with a torn ACL. You just can’t cut and move.

Bellotti: I didn’t want Dennis to hurt himself more. Him being out there took some of the focus away from what we were doing.

Had we not ever thrown the ball in that [UCLA] game, we probably would’ve won. We were abysmal, but our defense was unbelievable.

Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Justin Roper being sacked

Schwartz: That was the ugliest game of my entire life. UCLA was awful and couldn’t score either. It was 9-0 going into the fourth quarter.

Chung: That was a tough loss with zero points. We played a good game on defense, but you can’t win with just defense.

Schwartz: My parents are UCLA alums. I remember going to every UCLA home game as a kid. I know their fight songs. I know their history. And I got in the locker room and just cried for 45 minutes.

That was the game I wanted to play my entire life.

Week 14: Oregon State 38, Oregon 31

Redshirt freshman QB Justin Roper provided a spark when new starting QB Cody Kempt sustained a concussion. The Ducks lost in second overtime.

Bellotti: I was pleased that we competed. It was a totally different team than took the field against UCLA. I knew we had chances.

Schwartz: Lost in OT on a fucking fly sweep … fucking fly sweep.

The Sun Bowl: Oregon 56, South Florida 21

Regrouped and a bit healthier, Oregon and Stewart ran by, around, and through USF in a blowout over another team that’d been No. 2 in the BCS. It was so uneven, rumors persist that some Bulls might've been hungover during the game.

Schwartz: We were like, "Ah shit, El Paso, here we go … and by the way, that was then the most fun bowl we had."

We actually changed our offense a little bit. Instead of reading the defensive end on the read play, we read the linebacker, because we didn’t want [All-America DE] George Selvie to make the play, so it put the linebacker in a huge bind. If you watch highlights, there were gaping holes because the linebacker didn’t know what to do because he was unblocked. We outschemed them totally. Chip Kelly did a great job. It was a fun game.

Chung: I wasn’t surprised, even with a fifth-string QB. We had Jonathan Stewart back there. He’s like a bowling ball with muscle.

Bellotti: When it hit on all cylinders, it was as good as any offense … ever. ever.

Schwartz: That’s the only year of my career I have a what-if.

Chung: It was fun the whole season, but at the same time, "what if?"

What if we were fully healthy? Do we get to go to the national championship? Where do we end up?


This story's author and Solid Verbal co-host Ty Hildenbrandt talk the horrible 2007 season of the Fighting Irish, which happens to be Ty's favorite team: