Kelly's genius in full effect at the Fiesta Bowl
GLENDALE, Ariz. - An offensive savant, Chip Kelly loves the art of scoring. The only thing he loves more is winning, but the two have been intertwined during his six seasons at Oregon as a coordinator or head coach.
Kelly has developed the reputation of an offensive mastermind who has revolutionized the college game with his spread attack at a breakneck pace. He tries to score as quickly or creatively as he can each time he steps out onto the field.
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Thursday's 35-17 Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State was typical. The Ducks scored on the opening kickoff. They scored on a 46-second, 77-yard touchdown drive right before halftime. They scored on a 5:11 milk-the-clock drive to put away the game.
They scored on the rarest play in football: a one-point safety, only the fourth in NCAA history.
"We’re always going to try to see if we can steal a point here or there," Kelly said after Thursday night's victory. "We got a safety for one point today where I have no idea what that was. When they told me they were going to give us one point, I said, 'We’ll take it.'"
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The play was typical of a wild night where everything went the Ducks' way, from De’Anthony Thomas’ 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game to the final kneel-down amid raucous applause from the fans at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Kelly became the first coach to go to a BCS game in each of his first four seasons, a record that will stand the test of time with a new four-team playoff system rolling around in 2014. The distinction could be extended another year given what the Ducks return next season ... but the $64,000 question surrounding this event was whether the 49-year-old in charge would be around to see it.
Reports surfaced in the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl connecting Kelly's name with a number of NFL head-coaching vacancies. The fans, well aware of the talk, chanted, 'We love Chip! Four more years!' as the clock wound down.
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The sometimes combative coach played things straight about his future but stopped short of a full commitment.
"I’ve said I’ll always listen; that’s what I’ll do," Kelly said after the game. "The success of our football program has always been about our guys. It’s an honor that someone would say they wanted to talk to me about moving on to coach in the National Football League. It’s because of what those guys do.
"So I’ll listen and see."
The rumors didn’t seem to affect his players. The game wasn't played at a typical Oregon pace (the Wildcats had three drives of at least five minutes in a keepaway effort), but they controlled throughout on both sides of the ball.
Afterward in the locker room, everyone understood what could happen next but hoped for continuity at the Pac-12's most successful program over the past four years.
"I love Chip. I’ve said it before: I hope he stays here forever," offensive coordinator and rumored successor Mark Helfrich said. "If that’s not his dream, that’s okay. Whatever happens, happens. You hang out with these guys long enough, you understand what a special thing we have here."
"We haven’t talked about it. That 'Win the Day' mantra comes out all the time," long-time Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti added. "I have no control over what happens tomorrow but we had some control over what happened today and these kids controlled it. They’re winners."
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The Ducks wrapped up perhaps their best season under Kelly despite facing plenty of adversity from start to finish. Many thought it would be difficult for Oregon to maintain the high standards set in Eugene after losing the most productive backfield in the nation and several key defensive starters, but Kelly and his staff simply plugged in fresh faces and let them roam.
There was no better indication of the way the season went than the calming presence of the game’s offensive MVP, quarterback Marcus Mariota. The redshirt freshman from Hawaii set a new school record for touchdowns in a season and wrapped up his inaugural season behind center 12-for-24 passing with 228 total yards and three scores.
"It was incredible just to be able to play the way we did as an offense," Mariota said. "It’s been a long road (from game one) but Coach Kelly and Coach Helfrich have been behind me the whole way and without them, I wouldn’t be the player I am today."
No one had a better view of what Mariota accomplished than the tailback who lined up next to (and behind, in front, and sometimes off center to) him in Kenjon Barner. The senior waited behind LaMichael James several seasons before finally getting his shot as the primary ball carrier in the Ducks' offense, and was rewarded by finishing second in the nation in rushing.
"For a freshman to do what he’s done, it surprised everybody else but not anybody in this locker room," Barner said. "We know what Marcus is capable of and the sky is the limit."
Given that Mariota returns with Thomas, one of the fastest players in college football, the future appears bright for the Ducks.
Whether that future includes the mad genius Kelly scheming ways to score more points remains to be seen.
But for the Duck fans looking on, there was no better way to win the day one more time than with another BCS victory.