The date was November 19, 2005 and as the final seconds ran off the clock at Autzen Stadium a flood of fans poured onto Rich Brooks field, their cheers echoing around the foggy stadium. Tostitos chips were passed around and as the Oregon marching band struck up Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water a chant could be heard rising into the chilly night air, issuing from the throng of delirious students hopping up and down on the centerfield O; “B-C-S! B-C-S! B-C-S!”
The whole scenario, having completely dismantled the same archrival who’d run them out of Reser the year before while wrapping up an improbable 10-1 season, was surreal. And I can guarantee there were not many people who thought before the season began that the aforementioned BCS would be an actual possibility for roughly the same Duck squad that had just a year prior completely failed to meet expectations.
The BCS berth unfortunately was not to be, as selection committee favorites Ohio State and Notre Dame got the nod for the Fiesta Bowl Oregon had been hoping for, despite both teams finishing with two losses to Oregon’s one. However, the mere fact that Oregon was eligible for a Bowl as celebrated as the Fiesta a year after sputtering to a 5-6 season was remarkable. And now that Oregon is faced with coming off a bowl-less season for the first time since then, let’s take a look at some lessons that could be learned from 2005’s “Redeem Team”.
#1 Show em’ something new
So how does a team riddled with the same key players from a 5-win season double up to 10 in only a year? One of, if not the, biggest factors was Mike Bellotti’s decision to switch to the spread-option offense, utilizing the QB’s improvisation skills, the running back’s speed on the outside to act as receivers, and the no-huddle fast snaps. The 05’ squad averaged 36.3 ppg after the 04’ team only averaged 25.6. Though a staple of Oregon football nowadays it was new and confusing for Oregon opponents that year who were used to the more traditional huddle-up pro-style the Ducks had presented prior. Not a massive amount is known yet of what Willie Taggart’s offensive scheme will look like at Oregon, although he has mentioned they will be keeping various aspects of the spread. Still, a breakaway from Chip Kelly’s read-option blur that Mark Helfrich also tried to emulate may at this point be a step towards brining something new to the table for Oregon opponents used to seeing that signature offense the Ducks have become known for.
#2 Maestro leadership
Though it may sound painstakingly cliché’ there is a plethora of truth to the idea that having a quarterback who exhibits strong leadership skills directly leads to more success on the field. After a strong finish to the 2003 season during which he separated himself from fellow platoon partner Jason Fife, Kellen Clemens was poised for a breakout year in 2004. The problem was, it didn’t really culminate. The soft-spoken young man from tiny Burns Oregon struggled that year, even being replaced for stretches in the opening game by a certain Freshman named Dennis Dixon. It wasn’t that the stats weren’t there (he threw for 22 touchdowns, as many as Danny O’Niel threw for during the fabled 1994 season, and even had a 437 yard game) it’s that the fiery attitude and clutch performances in crunch time (more on that in a moment) weren’t. But that changed in 2005 as Clemens became a vocal on-field presence, a clutch performer, and even after a broken leg ended his season, an inspirational sideline leader. Justin Herbert, heading into his sophomore campaign, appears to be brimming with a newfound confidence that wasn’t very prevalent in 2016. A good sign for Herbert occurred in the final moments of the Civil War when after a failed pass attempt to Johnny Mundt ended any hope of an Oregon victory, the young Freshman went over to the Senior tight end, helped him to his feet, and spoke encouragingly to him on the way back to the sideline. If the initially shy Herbert can develop more of an anchor persona for his orchestra, it may well work wonders for Oregon’s offense as a whole.
#3 Clutch performance
It could possibly be chalked up to a singular moment when Oregon’s fate was decided in 2004. After jumping out to an early lead on the road against Aaron Rodgers and #4 California, the Ducks were trailing 28-27 but were on the move, only needing to get into field goal range to pull the improbable upset. After starting 1-3 Oregon had reeled off 4 straight wins and this would not only mark the biggest victory since their 2003 upset of Michigan, but would also make them bowl eligible. But the pass from Clemens to Keith Allen was dropped around midfield on 4th down, and as the ball thudded to the turf at Memorial Stadium, so did the Duck’s hopes for a successful season. Fast forward a year and Oregon was again faced with a clutch situation against Cal, tied 20-20 on a rainy, windy afternoon at Autzen Stadium. This time, however, there would be no ball slipping out of a receiver’s hands, just 3rd string QB Brady Leaf slipping a 4 yard touchdown pass to James Finley to take a lead Oregon would not surrender in a 27-20 overtime victory. That was the second of 3 straight victories in which Oregon came through big in crunch time, all after Clemens’ season-ending leg injury. 2016 provided a trilogy of nail-biters that could have easily gone Oregon’s way but didn’t. Losses against Nebraska, Colorado, and Cal all came down to the final moments, and Oregon couldn’t come through. Finally the tables turned their way in a huge upset over Utah in Salt Lake City, and in 2017 Oregon will need to start showing that kind of drive and poise in the clutch when things get tight. Turning the close losses into close wins is a trademark of any team turnaround.
And finally, satisfied consumers
Any time a new idea, a new system, and in Oregon’s case, an entirely new coaching staff is introduced into a program it’s a sales process from the coaches to the players. The athletes on the field have to buy what the men with the headsets are selling. The 05’ team completely bought in to what coach Bellotti was presenting, and that in itself was long rumored to be the hurdle Helfrich was unable to clear. Throughout spring ball, players across the board had been openly acknowledging a new excitement and camaraderie between the players and coaching staff, one that looks to have carried over into fall camp. The big question is, will the effects of it be immediately visible once Oregon hits the gridiron for competition against other teams? On that foggy November night back in 2005 the players whooping and hollering amidst the tide of frenzied fans were reaping the benefits of buying in to what the coaches were selling. And since his hiring in December, Taggart has proven himself an excellent salesman.
Now, it’s up to the players to open their wallets.