Faster than a speeding Duck
EUGENE — When the rest of the nation began taking notice of the Oregon football team’s frantic offensive tempo, fans, media types and casual observers alike turned to every superlative in the book to describe the Ducks’ offense.
Some called it the “blur” offense. They used phrases like “pedal to the metal,” and “faster than a speeding bullet.”
Now, Oregon’s offense is, itself, a superlative.
I heard a guy in the supermarket the other day say to his kid, who was running between people and shopping carts: “Hey, slow it down! Who do you think you are, the Ducks?”
As a writer, I constantly consider adjectives to describe my nouns, but what we have here is an adjective and a noun — Oregon football — that have morphed into a two-word adjective, as in ”that dude was, like, Oregon-football fast!”
That’s what Chip Kelly’s blur — excuse me, spread-option — offense is doing. It’s redefining college football; the way it’s played, the way it’s coached, the way it’s officiated, the way it’s covered and, yes, the way it’s described.
Oregon player adjustments
Running backs coach Gary Campbell was entering his 25th season with the Ducks when Kelly came on board as the team’s offensive coordinator and implemented the fast-paced, no-huddle, spread-option offense. I wondered if Campbell had any trouble adjusting to the pace from a coaching standpoint, because it changed the way the Ducks practiced, prepared and played.
“It’s really not very tough for us as coaches,” Campbell said. “I think it has the most effect on the players, especially in the beginning.”
Even now, even though the players are better-conditioned all year round, Campbell said the Ducks have to put in work to get into shape at the beginning of each season. And they have to be mindful of their conditioning and nutrition throughout the year, particularly the big linemen.
“It’s tough for those 300-pounders to keep pounding down the field, and they lose a lot of weight doing it during practices,” he said. “Guys will lose 10, 15 pounds just in a practice, but that’s what they get accustomed to doing, and as long as they’re in shape for it, they can do it.”
It took Oregon players a while to get in that kind of shape.
“It’s not something you put in one year, and all of a sudden, you’ve got your guys playing fast. This really has evolved over two, three years.”
Opponents fake their way through
Knowing how long it took them to become proficient at high-speed football gives the Ducks a mental edge whenever they face an opponent who claims to be preparing for Oregon’s tempo in practice.
“We ask our players: ‘Those guys say they’re going to play at our pace, and they’re going to get prepared to do it in two weeks, do you think they can do it?’ ” Campbell said. “And they laugh, because they know, coming into fall practice, that getting into shape takes a lot out of you … and they’re used to doing it.”
None of the Ducks’ opponents — and maybe no defense in the nation — is in good enough condition to hang with Oregon’s offense for four quarters (except, maybe, the Ducks’ own defense, which practices against that tempo every week). The Ducks catch opposing defenders off guard frequently and wear them down eventually, which has resulted in Oregon running away with a lot of games in the second half.
As a result, some have turned to nefarious schemes, and the lengths to which opponents have gone to slow the Ducks have been well-documented this season. Players have faked injuries to buy a little extra time between plays, and I wrote earlier this week about how those tactics have fired up Oregon fans this season.
Cal did it. Stanford, too. Arizona State appeared to turn to the tactic in Tempe on September 25.
Faking injury is more or less the only thing that’s really slowed the Ducks with any consistency this season.
But it hasn’t stopped them.
Officials under pressure
What about the effect Oregon’s pace has on officials?
It’s already an unenviable job; those guys have to stay on top of every play, tune out the noise — from fans, coaches, players — and try to make the right call under pressure every time.
Add a whole new wrinkle to the job duties for crews working an Oregon game: Set the ball and get out of the way as fast as you possibly can.
The Ducks can’t hike the ball until the official has determined the spot, set the ball on the field, stepped out of the way and given the signal. So among the many things holding back the Ducks’ ability to go faster is the time it takes an official to go through these steps after each play.
Every game, Kelly implores the officiating crew to move faster, so the Ducks can play faster.
Heck, at games against Stanford and UCLA in Autzen Stadium this year, Oregon fans have booed the officials, not for bad calls, but because they were taking too long between plays.
How’s that for pressure?
Too fast for TV
If you’re watching the Ducks on TV, keep your eyes glued to the screen when Oregon has the ball. Look down to read a text message, make a quick run to the kitchen, turn away for even a second, and you’ll miss something.
And if you are watching on TV, you’ll notice something else there’s rarely time for when the Ducks have the ball — replays.
Broadcasting a football game requires the combined efforts of many different people in different positions — cameramen, announcers, producers, directors, assistants. And nearly every one of them is under the gun all the time, to get things right as quickly as possible.
All told, they do a pretty dang good job considering how many different things have to go right to bring you each play, and yet TV crews have still struggled, at times, to keep up with the Ducks, cutting away to crowd shots and barely getting back in time to show the next play. There was Nate Costa’s two-point conversion run against UCLA that ESPN almost missed entirely because the network was showing fans and Oregon players celebrating Remene Alston’s touchdown run. And I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a play-by-play announcer, during an Oregon game, say something like “Normally, we’d show you a replay of that, but …”
Keeping reporters busy
Most football beat writers at the college and professional levels started out covering high school games, where deadlines are tight and statistics are not handed out by team personnel at the end of each quarter.
I’ve covered my share of games. Most of us keep our own stats, writing down every single play as it happens, then counting it all up afterward.
Line-by-line notes might include down and distance, and the yard line for the line of scrimmage, as in “1-10 — 29 yl,” followed by a short-hand description of the play, using jersey numbers (6 pass to 81 to 45 yl) and, for me, the play’s total yardage in parentheses, to make it all easier to add up later.
So my notes from a high school football game might look something like this:
Barlow, 11:52, 1st quarter:
1-10 — 45 yl — 32 run off right tackle to 46 yl (1 yd)
2-9 — 46 yl — 6 sacked by 54 at 42 yl (-4 yds)
3-13 — 42 yl — 6 pass to 80 down left sideline for TD (58 yds)
And so on, for the entire game. If there’s time between plays, I’ll jot notes in the margin, like “diving catch” or “nice spin move at 40.” But even when teams huddle before snapping the ball, it’s often a race to scribble a note or two before the next play.
Imagine trying to do this while covering the Ducks.
My notes would look something like this:
Oregon, 6:59, 1st quarter:
1-10 — 13 yl — 21 run 1 option keeper to 22 yl (9
2-1 — 1 pass to 23 to 45
1-10 — 45 — 1 keep 21 run
2-2 — 21 run
1-10 — 21 TD
Good thing team personnel hand out those stat sheets.
Keeping fans in a frenzy
Oregon’s offensive pace is affecting fans, as well.
If you’ve ever been to a college football game, you know what it’s like when the home team scores. High-fives are obligatory, and complete strangers turn around and lean across others to slap hands.
My hands hurt after games at Autzen, from all the clapping and high-fiving. Chip Kelly obviously doesn’t care about my hands, because apparently, the Ducks plan to keep pushing the tempo.
“This last half of the season, we’ve been able to pick up the pace even a little bit more, because we think we’re getting in better and better condition,” Campbell said. “So we may, at times, just call three or four plays ahead of time and say, ‘hey, just go run ’em.’ ”
It’s complete madness, this frenzied tempo, and it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.
Just think, in the time it took you to read this far, the Ducks could’ve run about 20 offensive plays and scored a couple of touchdowns.
That is, of course, unless you read, like, Oregon-football fast.
Photo courtesy of Jolien Vallins.