Oregon vs. Kelly for a Shot at Validation

Joshua Whitted Editorials

How many times has it been said that Oregon is “back”?

Since 2019, the Ducks have made a number of top-10 — occasionally even finding itself in the Playoff conversation. But even in Mario Cristobal’s best seasons, it never felt like Oregon was really its old self again.

In particular, the offense — the calling card of the program — never consistently excelled enough to satisfy the needs of highlight-deprived fans. Despite multiple Pac-12 Championships, and back-to-back New Year’s Six Bowl appearances in 2019 and 2020, it still seemed like Cristobal’s Ducks weren’t yet the dominant teams of yesteryear.

Now, it’s starting to feel like old times.

Yes, Oregon got smacked in its season opener, but since then, the Ducks have fielded one of the best offenses in all of college football. Just like under Chip Kelly, Oregon is running wild on just about every team that comes in its path, and ironically, it will get a chance to validate its hot streak by playing the coach who gave the program its trademark identity.

The Revitalized Oregon Offense

For all of the heightened expectations for Oregon’s defense under Dan Lanning, the most notable improvement from the team overall has undoubtedly come on offense. It has been well documented that Cristobal’s squads never had the offensive firepower to make a serious Playoff push.

Bucky Irving is leading a deep, talented running back room.

Fans were expecting improvement under new offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, but not even the most optimistic of the Oregon faithful could have predicted an offense that ranks fifth nationally in yards per game and ninth in points per game; both marks lead the Pac-12.

Oregon’s offensive resurgence can be credited to a number of factors. First, Dillingham’s sophisticated rushing scheme combines zone and power concepts, including many variations of his apparent favorite, the counter. He also regularly adds read keys to these runs, which allows Bo Nix to either keep the ball himself or pass it on an RPO.

Oregon’s ground game is also so potent because the offensive line and running backs are playing at an all-conference level. Oregon’s veteran line has mastered the unique counter variations that Dillingham utilizes often, and the running backs, namely Bucky Irving, have shown tremendous vision and explosiveness all season, which has led to many big runs.

Through the air, Nix has been an unexpected significant upgrade at quarterback. He has learned to play within the system — something that he never could master at Auburn — limiting negative plays and keeping the offense on schedule.

But he has been more than a game manager; he has been Oregon’s best playmaker when they need it most. His ability to quickly locate open receivers and accurately make passes down the field, on top of his athleticism and escape ability as a ball carrier, have taken the Ducks’ offense to an elite level.

But for all of Oregon’s success over its last five games, it hasn’t exactly come against elite competition. None of the teams Oregon has faced since Week 1 have even cracked the top 50 in total defense. It’s obvious that the Ducks’ offense has improved, but how much exactly is hard to say at this point.

Oregon has faced a stretch of mediocre defenses.

But we won’t be in the dark for long. Saturday, Oregon has its most important game to date, and it will have a chance to legitimize itself against its former hero.

Kelly has UCLA rolling. The former Oregon coaching legend was on the hot seat not so long ago, but now, his offensive vision is being realized in Westwood, and his defense is also carrying its end of the load as a top-40 unit.

The Ducks are certainly closer than ever to being the offensive machine that they were under Kelly a decade ago, but they’ll have to get through him and his much-improved Bruins to prove their legitimacy.

Saturday will be a day of redemption, either for Kelly or the Oregon offense. It’s Dillingham and company’s time to prove that their hot start is not merely a fluke, but a sign of things to come for Oregon football.

Joshua Whitted 
Grove City, Ohio
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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