By my count there are 14 seniors playing their last game for the Ducks tonight, and each of them have certainly played a role in a journey ending with four consecutive BCS games, three conference championships and a national championship run which fell painfully short against Auburn. This class took the reins from a talented group who experienced moderate success, and thrust it to a height only a handful of programs have or ever will reach.
They’ve displayed talent, resiliency, and the type of work ethic necessary not only to excel on the field, but off of it as well. They won close games, never lost two in a row, and did so in the face of adversity. They survived “the punch” and parlayed it into a Rose Bowl appearance. Survived an offseason of turmoil involving their starting quarterback and Heisman candidate running back, and parlayed it into an undefeated regular season. And most recently, survived the loss of the Doak Walker winning running back and catalyst to much of their success LaMichael James, and parlayed that into the game you’ll watch tonight. This team knows how to win and has never been afraid of the moment.
In the biggest spots they’ve brought it. Sure, they’ve suffered some heartbreaking defeats and have lost on some off nights, but they’ve never wilted under the spotlight and have never been dominated on the big stage. From the Halloween Night game against USC in 2009, to Darron Thomas’ first road start at Tennessee, the Civil War win in Corvallis on the cusp of a BCS title bid in 2010, to last year’s Rose Bowl. This season’s prime time performance at USC, to the Civil War game some predicted they’d lose (primarily due to a letdown from the Stanford defeat), this team has fought and in most cases won.
There are many individuals who’ve stood out, but none bigger than the team as a whole.
Kiko Alonso overcame an alcohol abuse problem and a run-in with the law, to become the Rose Bowl MVP and potentially a first-day NFL draft pick.
Kenjon Barner went from a nameless freshman defensive back, to a Doak Walker finalist and Heisman candidate.
I’ll always remember Michael Clay’s dynamic fake punt run during the 2010 Civil War, but primarily remember him for his solid game and leadership.
Dion Jordan, the tall lanky young man who came to Oregon as a receiver, was moved to tight end, and will finish as a defensive end being mentioned as a top-15 pick in this year’s NFL draft.
Two seniors on the roster at the start of the season Carson York and John Boyett, will not play because of unfortunate career ending injuries.
Other familiar names such as Jackson Rice, Will Murphy, Isaac Remington, and Kyle Long; a fan favorite whose time in Eugene will end sooner than most would like, but in a way that few will forget.
Then there’s Chip.
This may not be Chip Kelly’s last game in Eugene, but it might be as well. There’s no rock big enough to hide from the rumors which have been circling over head for the better part of the last year, and it likely will come to some sort of head sometime in the next week. If this is his last game, he’ll be remembered as the guy who took a good program known to put themselves on billboards, and made them good enough not to have to. Under Chip’s watch Oregon became more than a self-made marketing machine. They’re uniforms – while still a staple of their program – are no longer their identity, but rather a facet of the hippest team since the pre-millennium “U.” Kids nationwide dig on Oregon. Sure, they’re into the flash, but the flash wouldn’t matter without the top-5 finishes and highlight plays, All-Americans and Heisman candidates, and conference titles and BCS games. In the end it’s about the wins, and few have won like the relatively unknown assistant from New Hampshire.
Charles “Chip” Kelly’s road to this point went from college football’s back country two-laner, to an interstate highway at Autobahn speed. Before his stint in Eugene, Chip spent 17 seasons as a relatively obscure assistant at colleges halfway around the world from a BCS bowl game. Since, he’s spent his four seasons as a head coach putting down roots smack-dab in the middle of them. It’s hard to believe that just six seasons ago a coach with his pick of the litter of NFL positions was game-planning for schools the likes of Stony Brook, Northeastern, and Hampton. He’s become a prodigy of the coaching position, and Oregon is and has been lucky to have him on their sidelines. If this is it, then I thank him for his service and wish him the best going forward, but if he returns, I wish him and the Oregon community more of the same and maybe that little-bit-more which has eluded the coach and the program nibbling at it for the better part of the last four years.
Kansas State is a good team who’ll likely offer a formidable challenge. Bill Snyder’s a very good coach, Colin Klein’s a proven leader, and Arthur Brown will be playing on Sundays, but to heck with them, this game’s about what you’ve been fortunate of enough to watch for the last four seasons, and what you should try and enjoy for a few more hours later tonight.
Here’s to the players of a team who’s never settled, and the coach who never let ‘em.
Happy Fiesta Bowl Oregon! And adios to one of, if not the best group of kids the Ducks have ever seen, and maybe the coach responsible for making them all better.