Chip Kelly is now 24-2 in conference games as Oregon's head coach. That is such an astounding number, especially when considering Oregon's history, that its almost not fair to criticize it. In being asked to write this post, the topic that I was asked to ponder was "How does Oregon avoid a slip-up against Oregon State."
The automatic reaction from Duck fans is "Chip Kelly doesn't allow slip-ups or letdowns." Then I thought about those two losses--extremely similar in nature and fitting the classic definition of a "letdown" game.
In 2009, a week after obliterating #4 USC to effectively end their seven year reign atop the conference, and everyone is feeling really good. Oregon is in the driver's seat for the Rose Bowl, playing a Stanford team that they should beat. But a few interesting things happened in that game. Oregon came out and didn't execute very well on either side of the football. Meanwhile, for Stanford, Toby Gerhart went crazy, and Andrew Luck had one of the best passing games of his career. Eventually, Oregon hit the panic button, started executing better, and nearly came back to win, but all was just a little too late.
Flash forward to last weekend, does the script sound familiar?
I coached five years at the high school level, and one of the big things I learned is that you can't always control your players emotionally. You can talk and shape their attitude, but can't shield them from big highs and lows. Oregon had to deal with two very high highs last week, not only the Stanford win which gave Oregon the inside track in the Pac-12 North, but the high of seeing Oklahoma State win on Friday giving rise to discussion of a return trip to the National Championship Game. That is a quick emotional turnaround for a coach to deal with, much less a 20 year old kid, and, ultimately, it proved too much for Oregon to handle. Maybe they could have hit that panic button against a team like Colorado or Arizona. You can't do that against a talented team like USC, especially with Matt Barkley, Marqise Lee, and their defensive line playing like they were and expect to win. The fact that Oregon almost pulled it out is a major testament, despite how poorly focused they look throughout most of the game, but being able to focus for that game is the difference between a very good team and a national championship caliber team.
Remember, though, back to 2009. Last time Oregon was in this situation, they needed to win three straight, including a road game at a very good Arizona team and a winner take all Civil War, to claim the conference title and the Rose Bowl. This team is far better than that one, and the opponents the next two weeks far worse. Oregon knows what is at stake. Last week seemed to be a momentary lack of focus for a team that has few. We saw them flip that switch midgame, there is no reason to believe that they cannot do it in a week.
Oregon State is a team that isn't very talented. Unlike USC, you can make some mistakes against them and still win the game. The comeback at the end of the SC game gave me all the confidence I needed for this week. If the players are sufficiently humbled by the loss, and determined to execute against the Beavers, Oregon State simply doesn't have the talent to stop them.
We'll know early on whether a slip-up against Oregon State is a possibility, as mindset and focus are evident early on. If this team comes in the Civil War focused, the Beavers will never have a chance.
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