In just his first season as Oregon’s head coach, Mark Helfrich accomplished something that Chip Kelly never did in his four years as the Ducks’ head coach. Mark won a game that was decided by a field goal or less coming from behind in the last minute. But it wasn’t just what he did, it was how he did it that showed his coaching brilliance. It’s Kelly who is known for his innovation and thinking outside the box, but when push came to shove at the end of a close game, Helfrich simply one-upped the Chipster in dialing up the perfect play.
I refer, of course, to Oregon’s defensive play that allowed Oregon State to score a go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes left in the game. Oregon State was driving, getting closer and closer to a can’t-miss game winning field goal, when from Oregon’s 25-yard line, the Beavers called a play that NOBODY would ever expect them to call (wink-wink) — the jet sweep! The Ducks’ defense came up with Oscar-worthy performances, taking themselves out of position, diving for missed tackles, basically doing everything needed to put the ball back in the hands of All Pac-12 QB Marcus Mariota as quickly as possible.
It was the kind of game that whoever had the ball last — with enough time to work — was going to win. An Oregon State turnover was unlikely and a missed field goal was becoming less likely by the yard. The best solution, and the one that Helfrich dialed up wittingly or unwittingly, was to let the Beavers score and score fast.
If it wasn’t brilliance on Helfrich’s part, it was at least a coaching oversight by Beaver Coach Mike Riley for failing to tell his players that they needed to hang onto the ball until the game clock was eaten up, even if it meant tripping over the five-yard line to avoid scoring a touchdown. All the Beavers needed was a fresh set of downs to run out the clock and set up a game winner.
Of course we don’t KNOW that Helfrich and Aliotti called for Oregon’s defense to lie down on purpose, but if they did it was absolutely brilliant play calling. And if you don’t think a coach would ever call such a play that initially works against his team, think again.
In basketball, teams routinely foul to send the other team to the free throw line in order to get the ball back. In baseball, pitchers deliberately walk batters to create force plays. In football, defensive backs take 15-yard pass interference penalties to avoid longer gains. Sure, all of these things have their risks, and so does going for it on fourth down.
But even if it was an accident and not brilliance on Helfrich’s part, it worked — and Chip Kelly coulda shoulda woulda learned something from it. His Eagles made the mistake of scoring too fast, going ahead 24-23, but leaving New Orleans with 4:54 to put together a winning drive.
Once the Saints got within field goal range, Chip used his timeouts to give New Orleans time to move closer to the goal line and increase his chances of losing on a short field goal. As a result, New Orleans kicked the 32-yard game winner with no time left. When the Saints were closing in on can’t-miss field goal range, Chip would have been ahead if he just let them walk it into the end zone so he could get the ball back – just like Mark did.
On the first weekend of January alone, two other teams went down in similar fashion. Green Bay tied the Niners with 5:06 left on the clock and used timeouts to let them move closer and closer to a 33-yard field goal with no time left.
And in the BCS Championship, Auburn took a four-point lead with 1:19 left on the clock. By that point in the game, defensive stops were not happening and turning the ball over to Florida State with over a minute left proved fatal. Again, it was the kind of game where the last team with the ball, and enough time to work was going to win. It was Auburn who failed to make sure that they were the ones with the ball.
Sometimes you make the right choices and sometimes accidents work out in your favor. Whichever the case, Mark got it right and Chip coulda shoulda and would have, but didn’t. And for that matter, neither did Green Bay or Auburn.
Main photo by Kevin Cline