Dan Lanning Must Play to Win

David Marsh Editorials

Playing to win requires some risk taking. It will require Dan Lanning to take some shots, some of which will fail — but it is the mentality he needs if he is going to be a success at Oregon. He needs to show he is willing to do whatever it takes to win games, and not just win, but leave little doubt to which is the better team along the way.

It will all start this Saturday against Georgia, but playing to win is a philosophy that extends far beyond one game. It requires the team to be aggressive on both sides of the ball and exploit every advantage it can against the opposing team. This is the mentality that Oregon fans expect from our Ducks team as it is perhaps best exemplified by the Kelly-Helfrich eras. During this time in Oregon history, UO frequently won by multiple scores and was able to put the game away long before the final whistle.

Perhaps the best example is the 2015 Rose Bowl against Florida State. Oregon left the first half with a minor lead, then only allowed Florida State to score one more touchdown as the Ducks buried the Noles under 41 second-half points. Oregon’s offense created desperation from Florida State’s offense, and they made more mistakes — which, in turn, put the ball back into the Oregon offense’s hands. The Ducks made Florida State pay dearly for each of those mistakes.

Oregon played to win and didn’t care by how many points, because winning was all that mattered. The game was over by the fourth quarter and Oregon even sent out its back-ups. This may have been a Rose Bowl game, and a Playoff game, but this was typical for any Oregon team of the time. Win big and get the back-ups on the field in the fourth quarter, if not earlier.

Byron Marshall runs against Tennessee Tech in 2012 in garbage time, getting some valuable reps in a game that was already over.

With Oregon putting the back-ups out on the field, there was a greater sense of just how important the play-to-win philosophy was at Oregon at the time. Those back-ups got valuable snaps and playing time. Sure, they didn’t do much besides run the ball, but they had the chance to play in front of a large crowd of people and make sure they did their jobs correctly. This paid dividends down the road, as these back-ups found their way to becoming starters.

What is Playing to Not Lose?

As Oregon fans, we are all too familiar with this play style, as it was Mario Cristobal’s philosophy. This can bring plenty of wins (Oregon had four winning seasons under Cristobal), but it doesn’t put opponents away. Those games were typically close until the end. They were painful for Oregon fans to watch because the outcome wasn’t clear against even lesser opponents.

In the 2021 season, Oregon required the defense to get a stop on the final drive of the game on five occasions: against Fresno State, Ohio State, Stanford, Cal and UCLA. Only Ohio State finished with a better record than Oregon. That is a pretty bad showing for Oregon’s former head coach, as all but Ohio State should have been relatively easy wins. Even against Ohio State. Oregon should have won by at least two scores.
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The problem was that Cristobal was playing to not lose, which meant that as soon as Oregon had a lead he would take his foot off the gas and focus on running out the clock, and sometimes he would start trying to run out the clock at the start of the third quarter. This left the door open for opposing teams to fight their way back into the game because being down only by a score or two with potentially half a game left to play meant that they were still in the game, and rightfully so.

Oregon had to hold a Cal team that failed to make a bowl game ’til the bitter end.

In trying to run out the clock for such a long period of time, it also meant that Cristobal would surrender the momentum and would turn a surefire win into a nail-biter. Teams that had no business hanging around stayed in the game and fought until the bitter end because they knew if they could just get a score or two, they could steal the whole game. The only saving grace for Cristobal’s teams is that he recruited superior athletes who could step up and, more often than not, get the required stops to win the game.

Oregon needs to look and feel like Oregon again, and a big part of that is playing to win. As fans, we are tired of sitting on the edge our seats every week when we know we should be winning by double digits. We need Lanning to be an aggressive coach who isn’t afraid to take risks and win games by multiple scores. We need the return of Oregon’s play to win mentality.

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: Gary Breedlove

Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in SLC, Utah.

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