In the last two weeks, Oregon has beaten bad teams with sloppy performances, 49-21 over Oregon State, 49-31 over UCLA. Neither win was artistic. The Ducks displayed enough athleticism and verve to put an outmanned opponent away, but each time they sputtered awhile on offense, allowing scores at the end of halves that made the wins seem less dominating and complete than they were. If Oregon were still in the national championship race, where style points matter, they’d have been awarded no points over these last three weeks of the season, a loss to USC and two inartistic wins.
The Ducks played their most focused, complete game of the season back on November 12th, beating Stanford 53-30 on the road.
It’s important because the Ducks have unfinished business, and a huge question to answer.
How good are they, really?
It’s a wonderful accomplishment to win a third straight conference championship, to win 10 or more games four seasons in a row, to finish the season ranked 8th, 11th, and 3rd in the country in the previous three years.
But the Ducks have a clear challenge ahead of them in Pasadena: win a big game against an elite program with the nation watching, and dispel the notion that they are just the nice little team with the fancy offense, not quite ready for the SEC.
Few fans in Oregon feel that way about them; we love our Ducks, love the way they run and hit and compete, and thrill watching LaMichael James and Michael Clay and company fly with and to the football. Oregon football is entertaining. Chip Kelly has assembled a group of likeable, hardworking young men, and they’ve become the dominant team in West Coast football, going 33-6 over three years, the only team in the country to make the last three straight BCS bowls, the seventh ever to do so, while locking down the conference title three years running, the only team to do that besides USC.
That’s a lot to be proud of, and there were hundreds of great plays and exciting moments that happened along the way. We bask in them. It’s a glorious time to be a Duck. When you think about the great career LaMichael James has had, with over 4900 yards rushing and 57 career touchdowns, or the great career De’Anthony Thomas has just begun, with over 1900 all-purpose yards and 16 scores as a freshman, many of them dazzling, breathtaking dashes of 60 yards or more, it’s mind-boggling. You ponder the fierce determination of John Boyett, the smart, tough playmaking of Clay, or the relentless hustle of Taylor Hart, and a Duck fan can’t help but beam with pride at what this 11-2 team has put together, overcoming youth and a disappointing beginning, overcoming the implosion of one of its projected stars. They’ve accepted every challenge. They had two stumbles, to two very good teams on nights a lot went wrong. It’s a lot to look back on and enjoy.
Nationally, however, the perception of Oregon won’t change until they get over the hump with a big win in Pasadena. They have to meet and beat a top-ranked team in the Rose Bowl, winning their first Granddaddy since 1917. It would help if it were Wisconsin, known for it’s smashmouth power, skill position talent, big offensive line, and bulldozing defense. Beating Montee Ball, Russell Wilson, and Lee Toon for the Roses, that would shut up the ESPN talking heads and quiet the dismissals. With a win on January 2nd, Oregon would immediately enter the conversation for the national title in 2012 with a great nucleus returning, and they’d prove that their few losses in the last three years do not limit or define them.
Can Oregon beat an elite school in a big game, a team with extra time to prepare and physical offensive and defensive lines? Of course they can. But until they do, the question will come up every time.