Oregon clearly was in trouble. Its opponent had all summer to prepare for the Ducks gimmicky offense, and we all know what that means. The defense could train its eyes. It could memorize the Ducks' feints and misdirection and personnel groupings. The scheme would become second-nature. Heck, stopping the Ducks' fancypants offense would be easy.
Then Oregon beat New Mexico 72-0 to open the 2010 season, gaining 720 yards.
A lot has been made of how teams with extra time to prepare for Oregon's offense seem to gain a significant advantage. And we're going to make something of it, too. But let's first understand something: When you talk about giving a team extra time, it's most likely the "team" part of the formula that is more important than the "extra time."
Oregon has lost six games under Chip Kelly. Only one defeat came against a team that didn't finish ranked in the nation's top five (8-5 Stanford in 2009). Only one came against a team with just one week to prepare (10-2 USC in 2011). But it's the four nonconference losses that are most notable, in large part because the Ducks' offense put up respectable numbers in the two conference defeats.
Those four games include three undefeated teams and 11-2 Ohio State. Auburn beat Oregon for the national title last year. LSU is playing Alabama for the national title on Jan. 9. In 2009, Boise State went 14-0.
So Kelly's explanation for his team's losses reduces each to a fundamental essence that puts the foundational justification for this story at risk.
"The games we lost are because the other team was better than us," he said.
Better on that day would be the way some in the Ducks locker room might phrase it.
Excuses are bad. No one likes to hear a loser making excuses. But let's make them anyway.
Boise State 19, Oregon 8: Kelly's head coaching debut was a disaster. The game is best known for Ducks RB LeGarrette Blount's postgame punch. This was the one, truly dominant throttling of Kelly's offense: 152 total yards, including just 31 yards rushing. The Ducks were breaking in four new offensive linemen and it showed. Excuse? Oregon just got whipped in every area, including coaching.
Ohio State 26, Oregon 17: This one was most notable for Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor posting the best game of his career, passing for a career-high 266 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 72 yards. On the Ducks side, QB Jeremiah Masoli had his worst game of the season, completing 9-of-20 passes for 81 yards with an interception. And Ducks fans certainly remember the fumbled exchange between Masoli and Blount in the third quarter on second-and-2 on the Buckeyes 18 with Ohio State up 19-17. While much is made of the Ducks always losing the battle up front in these games, the Ducks outrushed Ohio State 179 to 153, averaging 5.4 yards per carry compared to 3.0 for the Buckeyes.
Auburn 22, Oregon 19: The Ducks lost on a last-second field goal in the national title game -- there's shame in that? Sure, they didn't score much but they gained 449 yards. In terms of the physical matchup, sure, Oregon couldn't block DT Nick Fairley. The 2010 Lombardi Award winner was pretty good.
LSU 40, Oregon 27: The excuse here is the most obvious: What if Oregon didn't lose the turnover battle 4-1, including a fumbled punt that gave LSU a TD? But if you won't entertain the excuses, just look at the facts of the season. How many teams scored 27 points on LSU? That would be none. Next highest totals were 21 and 17 points. The Ducks gained 335 yards. Only West Virginia gained more. Said Kelly, "When it was all said and done, that LSU defense, they are pretty freaking good."
Still, excuses are for losers. If the Ducks' ultimate goal is to rank among the nation's super-elite -- the top five -- it must win these games. It can't average 17.8 points and 95 yards rushing against highly ranked nonconference teams, as it did in these four games.
And if the Ducks go down against Wisconsin on Jan. 2 in the Rose Bowl, they will hear the same sort of chatter. Further, the Badgers believe the extra prep time gives them an advantage against Oregon.
"If you got done with a game on Saturday and you had to get ready for (them), I think it would be a very difficult challenge," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But the extended prep and the opportunity to kind of slow things down a little bit mentally is going to be great."
Added defensive end Patrick Butrym, "It's such a difficult offense to go against. Honestly, it would be very hard to prepare for them if we only had a week. So I'm glad we have that extra time."
The key for the Ducks is the running game. In all four of the above defeats, the Ducks didn't approach their season average on the ground. That's understandable against good defenses, but the Oregon offense isn't the Oregon offense without an effective rushing attack.
Wisconsin has a good defense -- eighth in the nation in total defense and sixth in scoring -- but it's not as fast as LSU or Auburn and it doesn't have the NFL talent up front Ohio State did. The Badgers rank 46th in the nation against the run, surrendering 138 yards per game.
Kelly also pointed out that the Badgers, despite Big Ten stereotypes, have seen plenty of zone-read running plays and spread passing formations this season. The Ducks' offense won't be completely new.
For Kelly, the formula is simple. He needs to get his speedy playmakers the ball in space. The Ducks need balance. They need to convert on third down. And they need to win battles up front.
Extra prep time spelling doom for Oregon? That's probably part of the equation, but in the end it's just, well, football. Players making plays. Or not.
"It's a quick sound bite," Kelly said of the story that won't die until his team wins a marquee nonconference game.
"The answer is the team that has the best players is going to win the football game."
So are Oregon's players finally better?