Oregon needs to 'WTD' on Jan. 2
December, 3, 2011
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com
EUGENE, Ore. -- It would be unfair and perhaps even inaccurate to describe Oregon's celebration after winning the first Pac-12 championship game as subdued or distracted or somehow lacking that unfettered euphoric frenzy that erupts after landmark success. The Ducks partied after whipping overmatched UCLA 49-31. The grins were ear-to-ear. The emotions were authentically proud and in the moment.
Winning three consecutive conference championships is a special achievement for any program, but especially a program whose older fans can remember times when such results seemed unattainable.
But you know the "but" is coming. The but is this: After the Ducks finish celebrating, they need to get down to business. And that business is winning their final game, the one that would unmistakably announce the program's arrival as an elite program.
The Ducks have reached the Rose Bowl before. They have played for a national title. But they have walked away from that final game both times with the confetti falling on their triumphant opponents.
It won't surprise anyone that Ducks coach Chip Kelly didn't even sniff the bait when asked if he felt like the program needed to win a BCS bowl game after losing the past two seasons.
"Not based on the two previous losses," Kelly said. "I think our guys are going to go out there and compete, but not based upon anything that happened in the past. I've said this a lot, we're a forward-thinking operation."
Sure, fair enough. But not every Ducks fan or even Ducks player is so completely enmeshed in "The Tao of Chip." They know the simple fact that Oregon in just three seasons under Kelly has accomplished everything a program can in the Pac-12, other than winning a Rose Bowl or winning a national title.
"We really need to finish this season right," said tight end David Paulson, who caught one of three touchdown passes from quarterback Darron Thomas.
"The last two seasons, we had great years but we didn't finish on a good note. I think for this program to keep growing, we need to finish the season. This year, we need to finish in the Rose Bowl."
Kyle Terada/US PresswireChip Kelly is on to the Rose Bowl with his Ducks, while Rick Neuheisel, right, is out of a job.
The dispatch of UCLA takes second billing. It played out as expected. The Bruins fought hard but were overwhelmed by the Ducks' speed and relentlessness, even with do-everything back De'Anthony Thomas knocked out in the first quarter with an apparent concussion.
Oregon led 21-7 after a quarter, 35-17 at halftime and 49-24 entering the final frame. The result was never in doubt. Game MVP LaMichael James produced three touchdowns and 219 of the Ducks' 352 yards rushing. The Ducks outgained the Bruins 571 yards to 337.
The loss even took second billing for the Bruins. For them, it was more about Rick Neuheisel coaching his final game. He was fired this week and finishes his ill-fated career at his alma mater with a 21-28 record.
"There was a lot of heart and there was a lot of work," Neuheisel said. "We made it a game, at least for a time. I was thrilled we got that kind of effort, given the events of last week."
There was an abundance of graciousness when Neuheisel and his players met with reporters. They paid tribute to Oregon, Neuheisel paid tribute to his players and they, in turn, thanked him.
Said linebacker Patrick Larimore, "Being able to play under him has been truly a blessing for me and I know it has been for the rest of the team."
The Bruins had to play a clean game to have any chance and they did not. They lost three fumbles and threw an interception. They also were 1-for-3 on fourth down, while Oregon was 4-of-7. The Ducks, in fact, scored a pair of long touchdowns -- a 30-yard James run in the first quarter and a 25-yard pass to Daryle Hawkins -- on fourth-and-short plays.
Oregon, meanwhile, piled up a bunch of notable numbers. James, a redshirt junior, became the first back in conference history to produce three consecutive seasons with more than 1,500 yards rushing. That's a major achievement when you consider the history of Heisman Trophy winners and Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs the conference has produced. James' 52 career rushing touchdowns is tied with former USC running back LenDale White for second in conference history, and he passed Marcus Allen for third place on the conference's all-time career rushing list with 4,923 yards.
Thomas set a school record with his 63rd career touchdown pass.
As for getting to the Rose Bowl -- again -- it remains special, without question. It's certainly a source of jealousy among 11 other Pac-12 teams. Even Kelly admitted, "It means a lot."
"The Rose Bowl in this conference is the pinnacle," Kelly said. "If you don't have a chance to play -- obviously because of our two losses -- in the national championship game, there's no other game you'd rather play in than the Rose Bowl."
But the playing is not the thing to catch the consequence of becoming a college football king. And Kelly and Oregon, of all coaches and teams, should know that. After all, it's written all over the stadium and even has a special "WTD" shield.
Win the day.
Oregon needs to win the day on Jan. 2.