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Tako Tuesdays' Exhaustive Chip Kelly Retrospective, Episode III

in which the author speaks, at length, about balls.

Steve Dykes

Chip Kelly would tell you it's because he trusts his players. He trusts them to execute, even under pressure. He trusts his high-powered offense to be able to pick up 1-6 yards whenever they want or need to. Chip Kelly would tell you it makes complete sense to take the risks he takes. And he might be right. But he certainly didn't earn the nickname Big Balls Chip by being conventional.

Oregon fans grew accustomed to Kelly's offensive bravado in 2007 and 2008, but he became Big Balls Chip as Oregon's head coach, by turning the Ducks into one of the most aggressive, and efficient, fourth-down teams in football. In Kelly's four years as head coach, Oregon converted 71 of 118 fourth-down attempts, a 60% success rate. In those four years, only Air Force and Navy attempted more fourth-downs, and only the Falcons were more successful. Fun fact: Oregon didn't convert a 4th-down for the first three games of the Chip Kelly Era, going 0-4 until Jeremiah Masoli hit Jeff Maehl with a pass in the first quarter against Cal. Oregon converted its next six fourth-down chances.

But a true Big Balls Chip moment is not merely a fourth-down. A Big Balls Chip moment is one of those calls where 99% of all other football coaches would choose to play it safe. The season-extending conversion late in the fourth quarter of the national championship game was a huge play, but going for it there is a no-brainer; Oregon knew that was its last shot with the ball, and any coach in Kelly's situation sends his offense back out there. A Big Balls Chip moment is a second-quarter onside kick, when your defense has already given up three touchdowns. A Big Balls Chip moment is going for it from your own territory in the first quarter, when every other coach would send out the punt team knowing there's a lot of game left. But before we take a look back at the true Big Balls Chip moments of the last four years, let's first examine another eccentricity of the Kelly era: the two-point conversion.

Many Duck fans who follow the team closely know Chip Kelly's two-point strategy: the coaching staff prepares a number of options out of the "swinging gate" formation, and it's up to the holder (Nate Costa in '09 and '10, then Jackson Rice) to identify a possible mismatch in coverage and try to steal a point. If no mismatch exists, the holder simply calls the team to line up in the extra point formation, and they kick. Only twice since 2009 did an Oregon team attempt more than one two-point conversion in a game: the BCS title game, and the 2011 loss to USC. In both cases, at least one of the tries was situational. So you're only seeing the swinging gate once a game. And in every case but one, against UCLA in 2010, the gadget conversion came after Oregon's first touchdown. So, knowing all that, does it work?

  • Total 2-point conversions under Chip Kelly: 17-23 (74%)
  • On tries out of an unconventional set (a fake XP or the "swinging gate" formation): 13-16 (81%)
So yes, it works. In fact, in all of 2009 and 2010, Oregon converted all eight conversion chances off of a fake or a swinging gate. This is simply more evidence that Nate Costa is a wizard. And the variations of the fake extra point were as extravagant as they were unexpected. Some highlights:
  • Costa throws a WR screen to Morgan Flint, who runs it in for the deuce. (Cal 2009)
  • Costa and Brandon Bair hook up on a textbook QB-to-DT slant pattern. (USC 2010)
  • Lining up in the extra point formation, Costa takes the snap and hands off to Rob Beard, who simply barrels up the middle. (Uw 2010)
  • Jackson Rice fakes a run up the middle, stops and throws a jump pass to Alejandro Maldonado. (WSU 2011)
  • Jeff Palmer snaps it sideways to David Paulson, who surveys the field and throws a fade back to Palmer, who goes up and gets it with a defender wrapped all over him. (Stanford 2011)
Yup, normal football behavior right there.

Looking ahead to 2013, the question is: will Mark Helfrich continue this two-point trend, or will Oregon play things more conventionally under the new regime? Truth be told, I have no idea what we'll see this fall. The philosophy is the same, the playbook is the same. But we won't really know until we see it. I hope the first touchdown of the season is followed by Boseko Lokombo dropping down and doing the Worm on the turf as a distraction technique while Matt Wogan and Jeff Lockie run an option to the other side. Hell, for all we know, Helfrich is the mastermind behind the whole Oregon Two-Point Exploding Head technique. But again, we won't know until the fall. OK, on to the main event: the Top 10 Ballsiest Moments in Chip Kelly history.

10. Oregon vs. Arizona 2012, opening drive - Yep, this list starts off with a move that didn't work. It's a list of ballsy moves, not ballsy moves that worked. Deal with it. Oregon began its first real test of 2012 by trying its hardest to hand the early momentum to Arizona. After a DAT rush and two ineffective plays, Oregon faced a 4th and 2 from their own 39. The Ducks chose to go for it, and a big miscommunication in regards to the play call led to Marcus Mariota scrambling right and falling over for a loss of 4. Luckily for the Oregon offense, their defense decided to have its best game of the year, shutting out the Wildcats. And the offense would eventually turn it around, tallying five touchdowns on the night. But going for it in your own zone on the opening drive is always a bold decision.

9. Civil War 2012, third quarter - The 48-24 final score might lead you to believe that this game was a laugher. Not true. A touchdown on Oregon State's opening second-half drive made it 20-17 Ducks, and a score on Oregon's next drive was imperative to take some energy from the Reser Stadium crowd. Oregon moved into the Beaver red zone, where a Jake Fisher holding penalty stalled the drive, leaving the Ducks with a 4th and 3 from the Beaver 15. As shaky as the field goal team was, a 32 yard kick was a definite option, and would put the Ducks up by 6. Chip Kelly had other ideas; Marcus Mariota kept on the read, and Colt Lyerla and Will Murphy held their blocks. Mariota ran it to the 4, and De'Anthony Thomas scored two plays later. The Beavers would fumble the ensuing kickoff, and that was that for the upset bid.

8. Oregon vs. Stanford 2012, first quarter - Three plays after the now-infamous De'Anthony Thomas non-block, it was 4th and 2 from the Stanford 7 yard line. Maybe Kelly was still stewing over the missed opportunity, and was stubbornly wanting a touchdown. Maybe he believed that field goals weren't going to win the game with the quality of offense on the field. In any event, there was no hesitation to the choice. The problem was, Stanford had it sniffed out, and dropped Mariota before he could pick up the first down. In hindsight, Oregon would have loved three points. But this decision was right in line with Kelly's philosophy. It just happened to not work, and maybe have been the difference between a Fiesta Bowl win and a national championship.

7. Oregon vs. USC 2012, third quarter - A heavyweight slugfest from start to finish, the Ducks and Trojans traded punches for four hours, with Oregon surviving with a 62-51 win. After a USC touchdown made it 34-31 Oregon early in the third quarter, the Ducks put together perhaps the defining drive of 2012. After Kenjon Barner somehow squirmed to within a yard of a first down at midfield, the Ducks caught USC confused on 4th and 1, with Mariota finding Daryle Hawkins for a quick hitter and seven yards. Five plays later, after a god-awful spot of the ball following Mariota's third-down scramble, Oregon faced another 4th and 1. This time, it was Kenjon Barner, en route to the Oregon single-game rushing record, lowering his shoulder and pounding out the yard his team needed. KJB would finish the drive in the endzone.

6. Oregon @ Cal 2010, second quarter - I still don't know how Oregon won this game. I was there that night, and I have no clue how Oregon won that game. Both teams looked terrible, and I'd say Oregon looked the worse of the two squads. And yet, in the second quarter, there the Ducks were, down 7-0 and going for it on 4th and 1 from their own 35. LaMichael James gained juuuuust enough for the first down, and as it turned out, the yards gained after the conversion allowed Jackson Rice to pin the Golden Bears deep, which pushed Cal's punt team back, which allowed Cliff Harris to break for a return touchdown that tied it up. Also of note: Oregon converted a 4th and 1 in the 4th quarter, from the Cal 41, while up only two points. Shit don't even make sense.

5. Oregon @ Arizona State 2011, first quarter - This might be the worst idea Chip Kelly ever had at Oregon, including Willie Lyles. Down 14-7 early against Arizona State, Oregon faced a 4th and 10 from their own 40. A no-brainer punt situation, right? Nope. OK fine, but you toss a surprise fake punt at the defense, to try and catch them napping, right? Nope. Instead of either of those, much better ideas, Oregon switched into a strange, swinging gate-esque formation, and attempted to run some sort of pass play with Brian Bennett throwing to god-knows-who. With nobody open, Bennett took off running, and almost made the first down. Almost. Lucky for Kelly, the Oregon defense stepped up and forced a punt. If they hadn't Oregon's undefeated run might have ended much sooner than USC.

4. Oregon @ Stanford 2011, second quarter - The situation isn't the ballsy thing: 4th and 7 from the Stanford 41 is a pretty straightforward go-for-it situation (unless you're a pansy-ass like Jeff Tedford or any coach in the NFL except for Belichick). But the playcall. Oh, the playcall. The most perfect RB screen you could possibly imagine. Calling a screen on 4th down is risky for a number of reasons. It's a high-risk play to begin with, and if the defense drops back and defends it you're stuck with very few options. You're also calling a play where the receiver is catching the ball short of the first down marker, needing to run forward to pick up the first down. So many things need to go right for it to work. And yet, there the Ducks were, running it on a crucial fourth down in the biggest game of the year. And everything went right. Stanford rushed an extra man, Mark Asper picked up a crucial block, the secondary chased the receivers to the wrong side of the field, and Chase Thomas was slower than De'Anthony Thomas. The touchdown made it 22-9 Ducks, who would not trail for the rest of the game.

3. Civil War 2010, third quarter - Rivalry game, on the road, BCS title game in the balance, at your own 28 yard line. Seems like a perfect time for a fake punt. That's what Chip Kelly seemed to think, and he was right. Nobody saw it coming, including Oregon State, who were coming hard off the edges only to watch upback Michael Clay scamper right up the middle for 64 yards. Darron Thomas would finish the drive with a touchdown pass to DJ Davis, and Oregon would go on to finish off the Beavers and clinch and berth in their first national championship game.

2. Civil War 2009, fourth quarter - This was where Big Balls Chip was born, in the fourth quarter of the Civil War for the Roses. Oregon State had gone for it on 4th and 15 and missed, perhaps thinking it was their last shot at scoring. LeGarrette Blount was stopped on 3rd and 2 at the OSU 33, and the Ducks took timeout to talk it over. Kelly dialed up a play with options for his quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli took the snap, felt the pressure of an extra Beaver rusher, and rolled right. He got the corner past the line, but Beaver safety Lance Mitchell stepped up to meet him short of the first down marker. With nowhere else to go, Masoli lowered his shoulder, and lowered the boom. Now, there isn't another quarterback that's ever worn the green and yellow that can make that play. Jeremiah Masoli, even with all his shortcomings, was a once-in-a-while quarterback, and Oregon doesn't win the Pac-10 in 2009 without him. And after all that, Oregon still had work to do. Once again faced with fourth down, Kelly calls for a triple option. Masoli fakes the handoff, rolls out, waits for the defender to commit, and pitched to Kenjon Barner, who easily runs to the corner and picks up the first down. The game was over, and Oregon was Rose Bowl bound. Many coaches would rather try and pin the opponent deep and make them drive the whole field to score. Chip Kelly never gave his opponent the chance to go anywhere.

1. Oregon vs. Stanford 2010, second quarter - After an opening drive field goal, Oregon fell apart, turning the ball over twice and putting themselves in a 21-3 hole. Darron Thomas found Jeff Maehl to make it 21-10, but the Ducks needed a spark to get themselves back in it. They found that in a perfectly-executed surprise onside kick. I'm not sure if Kelly and the coaching staff saw something on tape they felt they could exploit, or just played an in-game hunch, but Stanford was caught napping, and Rob Beard's touch was perfect. Two bounces past the one Cardinal player in the area, and it wasn't close. Beard recovered his own kick, but the closest five players to the ball were wearing green. Seven plays later, LaMichael James cut the lead to 21-17. In the second half, Oregon tied the game, took the lead, and never looked back. To me, this play sums up the Chip Kelly era: nobody saw it coming, it was brazen and aggressive while also being extremely disciplined and well-executed, and it sparked Oregon football to heights unseen. Three months after this game, Oregon came within three points of a national championship. Three months after that, De'Anthony Thomas became a Duck. Nine months after that, Oregon won the Rose Bowl. And Eighteen months after that, a music teacher who pretends to know things about sports wrote 2500 words on how groundbreaking Chip Kelly was for Oregon football.