Commentary

Ducks' finish better than their start

Updated: December 28, 2009, 6:23 PM ET
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

On Halloween night, Oregon piled up 613 yards in a 47-20 victory over No. 5 USC. It was the second-most yards ever gained against USC, and the 27-point margin made it the Trojans' worst loss since 1997.

[+] EnlargeLaGarrette Blount
Otto Kitsinger III/Getty ImagesLeGarrette Blount's postgame punch after a loss to Boise State got Oregon's season off to a disastrous start.

On Dec. 3, Oregon slipped past rival Oregon State 37-33 to earn its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1994-95 season.

Both are moments that already rank among the best in Ducks football history.

But exactly three months before they locked up the 2009 Pac-10 championship, Oregon experienced an evening of program humiliation that surely ranks with the program's lowest moments.

On Sept. 3, the Ducks opened the season on national television with an embarrassing 19-8 loss at Boise State. Their touted spread-option offense gained a meager 152 total yards.

Much had been made leading up to the game of how a number of players had talked about exacting revenge on the Broncos for a defeat in Autzen Stadium the previous season, most notably running back LeGarrette Blount, who told Sports Illustrated that the Ducks "owe that team an ass-whuppin'."

Unable to deliver one during the game, Blount produced one afterward, smacking trash-talking Boise State defensive end Byron Hout with a right hand while the teams were supposed to be shaking hands. That punch and then Blount's ensuing meltdown, in which he charged the stands and exchanged shoves with teammates trying to restrain him, was all caught on camera.

If you missed it that night, you surely saw it the next day. And the next. And the next.

That mess was Chip Kelly's first game as the Ducks' head coach.

No, he has not forgotten it. Reporters made sure of that while the Ducks were down, and then during their stunning transformation into the team that will face Ohio State on Jan. 1 in Pasadena.

"We had a bad day," Kelly said. "Sept. 3 was a bad day for this football program. But it didn't define this football program. You dust yourself off, pick yourself up and go out there and see if you can change things. That's what our guys did."

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesChip Kelly immediately got the Ducks back on track following the loss to Boise State, as Oregon reeled off seven straight wins.

Because Kelly has been forced to revisit the Boise State disaster and its aftermath so many times -- both when it was a negative distraction and then a positive one -- it's no surprise that his answers on the matter have become fairly rote.

He will tell you the Ducks played badly at Boise State because they were young, particularly on the offensive line. They got better as the season wore on. And the Broncos, who finished undefeated and will play in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4, aren't exactly a patsy, particularly playing at home.

No, Kelly repeatedly told reporters, they didn't change anything after the game. No, he doesn't have any regrets about how he handled the Blount situation, first suspending him for the season, then allowing him to fully rejoin the team on Nov. 9 ahead of a Nov. 14 game against Arizona State, though he wouldn't play until the season finale against the Beavers.

No, he didn't deliver a pep talk that combined the Gettysburg Address and Knute Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper!" speech with the "Rocky" theme song playing in the background.

He told his team to move on, go back to work and get better. And it did.

"Our players didn't flinch," Kelly said.

Of course, stating a simple message is one thing. Successfully selling it to a group of young men -- over and over throughout a 12-game season -- is another.

"We were definitely heartbroken just from the loss itself," quarterback Jeremiah Masoli said. "For [Blount] to do that after the game as well kind of pushed things over the top for us. Mentally, it was kind of hard to come together. It took a while."

Kelly also never flinched, at least publicly. He set his jaw and cut the figure of a guy who was unbowed. But don't think for a moment he wasn't as stunned by the events at Boise State as anyone else within the program.

The season before, Mike Bellotti was the Ducks' head coach and Kelly was his offensive coordinator. That night, Bellotti, who moved up to athletic director during the summer, and his former assistant experienced their first crisis together in their new jobs. They talked about an hour after the game and then about four or five hours the next day while the aftermath became a national story.

"Yeah, it was very difficult," Bellotti said. "And it was compounded by the poor performance of the team. The combination of the two made it very difficult."

Bellotti also started to hear from some boosters that perhaps Kelly wasn't up for the job.

"Yeah, but I don't think that was fair," he said. "I don't think it was pertinent. I don't think anybody is up to that."

[+] EnlargeOregon
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PresswireBlount's postgame punch feels a long way away after the Ducks beat Oregon State to return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995.

Bellotti gave Kelly advice. Bellotti said Kelly followed some of it and did some things his own way.

It's not that unusual for teams to start badly and then reverse course and produce a great season. Miami lost 28-3 at Florida in its 1983 opener. It went on to win the national title.

Bellotti was the offensive coordinator for the Ducks under head coach Rich Brooks during the last Rose Bowl run. But after a 1-2 start, he recalled fans putting up "For Sale" signs in Brooks' yard and bellowing for the school to "Ditch Rich!" Still, the Blount incident thickened the plot for Kelly considerably.

"I don't think he panicked and changed the structure of what they did. I don't think he pointed fingers or avoided tough questions," Bellotti said. "He just held the line. He stayed focused, he kept his coaches focused and that trickled down to the team."

Oregon meandered through wins over Purdue and Utah. Then No. 6 California swaggered into town. The Ducks stomped the Bears 42-3, with Masoli and the offense rediscovering their rhythm and the defense shutting down what had been to that point a dominant offense.

And away they went.

Particularly Masoli and running back LaMichael James, who stepped in for Blount. Starting with the Cal game, Masoli has completed 63 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns against three interceptions, while rushing for 64.2 yards per game with eight TDs.

James, a redshirt freshman, finished ranked eighth in the nation with 123 yards rushing per game and 14 touchdowns.

"The Cal game really changed the season and really validated for the kids and coaches what they were doing and how they were doing it," Bellotti said. "That was the turning point."

With just three senior starters, Kelly and Oregon's future looks bright.

Of course, you won't get Kelly to look ahead. Really, he's not much for backward glances either -- "We don't talk about anything in the rearview," he said.

Still, he's as aware as anyone that the horrible Point A of 2009 makes the Point B to start 2010 just a bit sweeter.

"It takes a lot of work," he said. "Especially where our season started, it makes it even a little bit more special for us."

Ted Miller covers Pac-10 football for ESPN.com.

Ted Miller | email

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