That’s been the definition of Win The Day, the mantra of the Oregon Ducks since the start of the Chip Kelly era. The team only worries about what it can control, and what it cannot is ignored. Yet despite playing in its fourth consecutive BCS game, including the National Championship two years ago, there hasn’t been a game in the Chip Kelly era, and possibly ever in the program’s history, that has rivaled the outside distractions of Thursday night’s game. The question was, how would Oregon respond?
Ten years ago, a one-loss Oregon team found itself in the Fiesta Bowl after being left out of the National Championship, playing a one-loss Big 12 Champion; a Duck team that also had a similar valid argument about belonging in the title game as well. Last night’s game was meant to be a close game. It was touted as the best matchup of the bowl season outside of the National Championship, but just like that New Year’s Day in 2002, Oregon beat the tar out of the Big 12 champion.
While Oregon was repeating history, it was making it as well. De’Anthony Thomas opened the game with a 94-yard touchdown, the longest play in Oregon bowl history – and the first ever opening kickoff returned for a touchdown in Fiesta Bowl history.
Not to be outdone by the special teams, Oregon’s defense flexed itself on Kansas State’s first possession. Facing a 4th-and-1 on the Oregon 39, the Wildcats made a very Oregon-like go for it. The defense forced a turnover on downs, showing that just because a team can make play calls like the Ducks doesn’t mean they can execute like them. After trading punts, De’Anthony Thomas scored on a 23-yard pass, with running reminiscent of his will-not-be-denied dominant efforts against Fresno State. At 15-0 late in the first quarter, it appeared the rout was on.
But conference champions like the Wildcats don’t just go away after a quarter. Following Oregon posting its lead, Kansas State added two scores of its own, followed by its own enthusiastic defense forcing Oregon into a turnover on downs after stopping an Oregon fake punt. With the ball at midfield, trailing by less than a touchdown, the Wildcats had all the momentum.
They started their drive with a 12-yard catch by Angelo Pease to put Kansas State at the Oregon 38. Yet it was on the next play that the Ducks responded with a huge play, one that may not be one of the most ten most heralded of the night, but possibly its most valuable. On a halfback pass, Pease shook off a near-tackle from Bo Lokombo and threw a perfect ball deep to former Oregon multi-threat Chris Harper, who appeared to have it caught. Instead, Brian Jackson hit Harper high, popping the pass free. Kansas State had been methodically acquiring yards all night, but Jackson’s denial of the big play showed the Wildcats that making up any deficit wouldn’t come easy, setting the tone and swinging the momentum for Oregon.
Kansas State ended the drive with a missed 40-yard field goal, giving the Ducks the ball with a minute remaining. As the Ducks had shown 24 times this season, that was all the time they would need. With a 46-second drive, Oregon took a halftime lead of 22-10. It was a drive that carried Oregon into halftime, leading to a dominating the third quarter that rendered the end of the game largely devoid of drama. Kansas State added a late touchdown to give Oregon fans a moment of pause at 32-17. A long drive was culminated by an Alejandro Maldonado field goal, a player who found as much redemption in this game as anyone, and put the final score on the board with 2:28 remaining – Oregon 35, Kansas State 17.
If this was Chip Kelly’s final game, it was the perfect mixed tape of his greatest hits. There was the electric return by De’Anthony Thomas, the highest profile recruit of Kelly’s tenure, to open the game. The unheralded yet dominating defense emerged once more. There was drama in the middle of the game, but a blowout second half as the opponent was worn down, as we have seen so many times before. We had redemption of Maldonado, just as Kiko Alonso found his in last year’s bowl game. Marcus Mariota, co-MVP, showed how good that offense looks with a true dual-threat quarterback. To top it all, there was a bizarre one-point score on an extra-point safety, showing that just when thought you had seen every possible way Oregon could score, they showed you one more.
Chip Kelly’s record thus far: 46-7, three straight 12-win seasons, two BCS bowl wins, including the first Rose Bowl win in 95 years, and a national championship appearance. It’s may be the end of an era for Oregon’s seniors, and likely their head coach too, but what an era it was.
Last year, following Oregon’s win over UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship, LaMichael James took the stage to be presented with the game’s MVP trophy. The fans began chanting “One More Year! One More Year!”, drawing a smile from James. Unfortunately, what they didn’t understand was that was their one more year, and though he could have come back, his star had become too big to pass up the NFL. The same thing has to be said about Chip Kelly. We can beg for another year, but this was that one more year. His star is simply too bright, and if last night was his last game we couldn’t have asked for a better valediction.