Sometimes you have to take a step or two in reverse before eventually taking, sometimes several, steps forward. Such has been the case with the Oregon Ducks offense after Jeff Tedford left his role as offensive coordinator in Eugene to take the head coaching job in Berkeley.
During his tenure at Oregon, The Ducks took large strides. The offense under his guidance flourished with the likes of Akili Smith and Joey Harrington at the helm. The on-field success those teams achieved pushed expectations to new levels, and brought unprecedented exposure to the football program. Oregon rose from a semi-consistent bowl team to a team that expected to win. A team that when denied a shot at Miami in the 2001 national championship game, then head coach Mike Bellotti was quoted saying “I liken the BCS to a bad disease, like cancer”. Strong words, but hey, Mike had a point.
This brings us to that memorable Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, 2002. The game was supposed to be the consolation prize for the Ducks that year, but the outcome still in some ways felt more like a pinnacle. It was last game on the Oregon staff for Tedford, and the end of an era for Oregon football. It was Oregon 38, Colorado 16, but not as close as the score indicates. Most who followed the team closely will remember feeling like the Ducks lost something more than an offensive coordinator that year.
In the next few seasons, things started looking as if the Ducks might be losing their way altogether. The momentum of previous years of success and hard work had almost slipped away completely. Meanwhile, Duck fans watched at a distance as Tedford installed his familiar winning formula at Cal.
Jeff Tedford was one of the most desired head coaching prospects in the country when he left Eugene. His resume and his results on the field were impressive. Tedford has tallied a 72-42 record, best all-time at Cal, including a decisive 5-2 Bowl record. He has guided numerous NFL quarterbacks in his career such as Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Billy Volek, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, A.J. Feeley, Kyle Boller, and Aaron Rodgers.
When the Bears landed Tedford, he had the task of taking over a program that had just fired head coach Tom Holmoe after floundering to a 1-10 record in 2001. The Bears immediately responded to Tedford’s presence and improved dramatically, finishing 7-5 his first year, which was the Bears first winning season since 1993. The miraculous turn around in 2002 earned Tedford Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors, despite the Bears not being eligible for postseason play. He would win the award again in 2004 after posting a 10-win season and a #9 ranking in the final AP poll.
In 2006, Teddy’s Bears again posted 10 wins and shared the Pac-10 title with USC. While the Bears were enjoying this upward trajectory, the Ducks experience was much less glamorous early on, after replacing Tedford with short-timer Andy Ludwig (who interestingly served as OC for Cal in 2009, Remember 42-3, anyone? Ludwig is currently with San Diego State).
With Oregon not playing California in 2002, it almost made it OK to root a little for Tedford in his first season. After starting the season 6-0, the wheels came off for the Ducks after opposing teams figured out the Ducks couldn’t stop the pass (especially that darn quick slant).
The loss of many seniors from the Fiesta Bowl team hurt, and it showed up almost everywhere on the field. The offense sputtered, and the Ducks went on to lose 6 of their last 7, including a forgettable appearance in the ill-fated Seattle Bowl, where Duck fans were handed a serious dose of lowered expectations, losing 38-17 to Wake Forest. What a difference a year made.
2003 brought another hot start to the season for Oregon, highlighted by a 31-27 win over #4 Michigan. There was cause for optimism again, and the “Rich, Cool, and 4-0″ Ducks graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Ducks would again stumble and lose their next three games by a combined score of 131-43. The Ducks managed to muster some momentum and win 3 out of the remaining 5 games of the season, including a sensational 21-17 win at Autzen vs Tedford’s Bears on a cold, wet night when the lights malfunctioned, casting darkness over half of the shivering Oregon faithful.
The Ducks went on to finish that season 8-5 after falling short 31-30 to Minnesota in the Sun Bowl. Conversely, the Bears were clearly a team on the rise, and the loss at Oregon would be their only blemish in their final 6 games. After being ineligible for post season play in 2002, the Bears were finally able to take their winning record bowling. The Bears won a shootout vs. Virginia Tech 52-49 in the Insight Bowl. They would finish 8-6, losing several close games, and even managed to upset #1 USC in a classic 34-31 triple overtime game. This was still a time for (some) Duck fans where it felt o.k. for Cal and Tedford to have some success, as long as it was not at the Ducks expense. This feeling would not last.
In 2004, Cal was no longer a Pac-10 underdog, and Oregon as a program had clearly taken a step back, still struggling to find a new identity, and posted a rare losing season. The Ducks opened the schedule by playing one of their ugliest games of the 2000’s, falling at home 30-24 to Indiana. The mistake prone beginning would be an indication of things to come as the Ducks lost the next week 31-7 at Oklahoma and finished the season 5-6.
A QB named Aaron Rodgers was leading the way for Cal and the Bears were improving. Aside from losing to USC 23-17 (in which Rodgers completed 23 straight passes, a Pac-10 record), the Bears ran the table before losing 45-31 to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.
That year, the Oregon game at California was decided by only one point with the Bears winning 28-27 in a game where Jared Siegel missed an extra point in the first quarter, and a final Oregon drive ended with a Kellen Clemens pass hitting the turf after hitting WR Keith Allen in the hands, wide open and within field goal range.
This also marked the last season for Ludwig, the man Oregon had hired to replace Tedford. The Ludwig failure in combination with Cal’s success was a tough pill for duck fans to swallow. Oregon needed to make a change. Bellotti boldly opted to scrap the entire offensive playbook, hire Gary Crowton, install a version of the spread offense and forever change the philosophy and direction of Oregon football.
The biggest beneficiary of the change might have been Kellen Clemens (until being injured in Tucson), who had found great rhythm in the new offense, leading Oregon back to a 10-win season, and a final #10 ranking. In 2005, the Ducks would again find themselves in a close game against Cal at Autzen. This time, they would come away with a 27-20 victory in overtime.
Clemens had been the biggest key to the Ducks success that year. After he went down, the offense was left with a duo of sophomore Quarterbacks in Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf. While splitting time, each had moments both memorable and forgettable. With the team leader and best player on the sidelines, the offense still was able to will its way into the Holiday Bowl, where Oklahoma would be waiting. While the Ducks played a hard fought game down to the very end, it wasn’t enough, losing 17-14. Some still look back and wonder what might have been had Clemens been able to avoid the injury that season.
In 2006, Dixon would continue struggle, and threw a pick-6 on the first play from scrimmage in Berkeley. Cal had come out in their gross yellow uniforms for the first time, and took advantage of an inexperienced and mistake-prone Duck team, hammering Oregon 45-24. Cal would go on to have their best season in the modern era, finishing 10-3 and beating up on Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl, 45-10.
This season was a low point for Oregon fans in the series. Not only was Cal having arguably their best season ever, but Oregon was inconsistent for much of the season behind rotating quarterbacks. The future was unclear. The Ducks managed to qualify for the Las Vegas Bowl, but looked genuinely uninspired against BYU and were blasted 38-8.
2007 Would be a different story, for both teams. The Ducks again changed offensive coordinators, after Gary Crowton accepted the same position at LSU. The Ducks would hire current head coach Chip Kelly from New Hampshire. Kelly immediately molded Dennis Dixon from an indecisive, sometimes skittish QB into a steady producer that may very well have won the Heisman that season had he been able to finish the season healthy.
The Ducks came into the game against Cal having bested Michigan in the big house 39-7 and starting with a 4-0 record. ESPN College Gameday was in town for the meeting of Pac-10 contenders in Autzen. Cal would get the better of the matchup 31-24, in a game where the Ducks comeback effort would come up just short. Oregon, despite losing Dixon, posted a 9-4 record and a win over South Florida in the Sun Bowl. Cal would finish just 7-6, winning the Armed Forces Bowl.
2008 would bring more QB injuries for the Ducks, as projected starter Nate Costa tore an ACL in fall camp, ending his season. They would use several quarterbacks that season, including tossing current QB Darron Thomas into the fire against Boise State.
They would eventually find a groove under Jeremiah Masoli, who really only had a few types of plays–really good or really bad, and sometimes you would see both in the same play. The rain-soaked game in Berkeley was marked by possibly the worst passing performance in recent history by a Duck QB, when Masoli went 7/21 for 44 yards and 2 int’s. Cal would again get the win, 26-16, finishing the year 9-4 after winning the Emerald Bowl.
The Ducks however, managed to get to 10-3, beating Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl in what would be Mike Bellotti’s last game as head coach.
In 2009, Oregon and Cal played early in the season in week 4. Oregon had started the season losing at Boise State, and then won two-in-a-row to set up what was supposed to be another big time game against then #6 California. This game was surprisingly not close. The Ducks jumped all over Cal, throttling them 42-3 at Autzen.
Given the recent history between the teams and so many close games, this game remains as one of the most memorable, enjoyable days at Autzen, and also one of the most shocking outcomes. Oregon would go on to win the Pac-10, losing in the Rose Bowl to OhioState 26-17. California achieved 8-wins before losing in the Poinsettia Bowl and finishing 8-5.
In 2010, the two teams continued in different directions, but it was their meeting that would be one of the most talked about games of that season. The ducks uncharacteristically low offensive output had some questioning if Cal had devised a “blueprint” for slowing Oregon. The Ducks escaped with a 15-13 win that night and went on to again win the Pac-10, finish the regular season 12-0 and playing in the BCS National Championship game. Cal finished 5-7, and missed a bowl.
Last Thursday, Cal came into Eugene looking to show off some new all-white uniforms, and prove that the way they slowed Oregon in 2010 was no fluke. They were able to do some of that for a half. Then in the second half, the Bears followed the script of most Oregon opponents last season and were victimized by a second-half explosion by the Ducks, losing 43-15 and falling to 3-2.
In the series since Tedford left Oregon nearly 10 seasons ago, Oregon has the head-to-head advantage 5-4. For a few seasons, it looked as if Cal had seized the momentum, and had the right coach to take them to the next level, and they still might.
Football is a game of momentum, among many other things. When a team has it, everyone can tell. The team plays together, gets the lucky bounces, and finds ways to win in the close games. It can be just as obvious when a team doesn’t have it. Right now, Oregon has it and Cal does not.
Tedford’s teams have begun to slip back in to mediocrity. Coach Tedford has started climbing the ranks of the “coaches on the hot seat” discussions, and a swell of Cal fans have voiced their displeasure on message boards and radio shows. It is possible that if Cal struggles the rest of the way and (I would say) next season too, the Bears could be looking for a new coach.
Jeff Tedford is a very accomplished coach and one who absolutely played an instrumental role in getting Oregon football to where it is today. He also turned California from a perennial punching bag into a contender. Although it did not always seem to be the case, it is clear right now that Oregon has been able to take even larger strides forward without him.
Critics of Tedford will point out that despite coaching 2 Super Bowl winning QB’s (Rodgers, Dilfer) the others have been major disappointments in the NFL. 5 of his former pupils went on to be drafted in the first round, but who besides Rodgers has made a signifiacnt impact at the next level? I am almost sure 4 of the 5 NFL owners would like to have those picks back. Since Rodgers graduated in 2004, Tedford has had almost a revolving door at the position. The Ducks have had their issues at the position too, but mostly due to injuries. Since Chip Kelly arrived in 2007, the Ducks have been one of the most electric and entertaining teams to watch each year. The same can not be said for Cal who seemingly has not had an offensive player worth watching since Jahvid Best, and is lacking an identity on offense. People are quick to describe the Oregon offense as fast, exciting, high scoring, quick strike, hurry up, a blur, etc. How would you describe the Cal offense?
Another indication the Ducks and Bears are headed in different directions? Take team records into consideration. Since 2007, Tedford has managed a 29-22 record at Cal while the Ducks have achieved a 41-11 record in the same span. So go on Bears, and enjoy your head coach while you have him. Maybe another future first round QB is on the roster in Berkeley. While the Bears take the next few seasons to figure that out, the Ducks will just keep on winning.
Average per game
Average per play
Oregon Offense through the years