SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If NFL teams were judging Oregon coach Chip Kelly solely off Thursday night’s Fiesta Bowl matchup with Kansas State — which they most surely weren’t — Kelly’s reputation as an offensive genius might have flickered there for a while.
After scoring 15 points in the first 11:14, the first eight on a 94-yard runback of the opening kickoff, plus a two-point conversion, Kelly’s high-octane, run-based spread offense, which averaged 50 points per game this season, was repeatedly shut down by the Wildcats’ active, aggressive defensive front and linebackers.
The Ducks went from 3:46 left in the first quarter to the final minute of the second quarter without managing a first down, let alone scoring. This is what some people think will happen in the pros, if Kelly tries to transplant his scheme. Other people think Kelly will do something at least slightly different in the pass-happy NFL.
After the Ducks’ 35-17 victory, linebacker Kiko Alonso said Kelly has given his team no idea what he might do.
“He’ll be successful no matter what he does,” Alonso said.
Commented running back Kenjon Kelly, when asked what he will cherish about his coach: “Sitting in a meeting room with him is a lot different than sitting in a meeting room with anybody I’ve ever sat with, because it’s not about football, it’s about life.”
Kelly said on the field during the postgame celebration that if any teams want him, they know where to find him.
In any case, Kelly has repeatedly said, “Jonas Salk was a genius. I coach football.”
Thursday night might very well have been the last time he did that wearing the green-and-gold Oregon colors. Kelly is expected to interview with the Browns, Eagles and Bills this weekend, presumably staying in Arizona for those sessions. Lots of NFL people think Kelly is the Eagles’ first choice.
USA Today reported Thursday that Oregon already has decided to promote offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich if/when Kelly decides to leave.
Though Thursday’s game certainly doesn’t represent the totality of Kelly’s four-year head-coaching career at Oregon, some of his primary traits were on display. A profile in the Oregonian in July said he has the nickname “Big Balls Chip,” for his love of going for it on fourth down, trying for two after touchdowns, and running trick plays.
In addition to the early two-pointer, Kelly courted disaster in the second quarter Thursday by calling for a fake punt that didn’t get the first down, and set up Kansas State at midfield, down 15-10. The Wildcats missed a 40-yard field goal, and Oregon was able to re-establish momentum by throwing the ball, oddly enough, moving 77 yards in six plays in the final minute of the half for a 22-10 halftime lead.
Sean McDonnell, head coach at Kelly’s alma mater of New Hampshire, where Kelly was an assistant from 1994-2006, talked at length to the Oregonian about that gambling mindset.
“What I love about him is — I compare it to a quarterback,” McDermott said. “There are two types. Both have the ‘it’ factor. But one will go for it, and the other won’t. One is an X’s-and-O’s type, while the other is instinctual combined with the X’s and O’s. He’s that. He’s the guy you know in certain plays, it’s not even in the read but he’s going to go for it …
“He’s Brett Favre. I want that in a coach. I want someone who is playing every game to win, even if it costs him a few. That’s what I want. I’m sure he sleeps pretty well at night knowing that he goes and believes in what he does.”
McDonnell — one of a very small circle of people who are close to the 49-year-old Kelly, who is unmarried — told the Boston Globe that Kelly “never met a fourth down he didn’t like. If we had a fourth-and-7 and were trying to kick a field goal or send the punt team out, he would say, ‘Sean, come on, I know we can make this.’”
Kelly’s team is known for its furious, no-huddle pace, which wears down defenses. Kelly told a sideline reporter at halftime Thursday that he hadn’t been quick enough, that he would go faster in the second half, which is what the Ducks have tended to do during his 45-7 tenure (going into the Fiesta Bowl).
The Ducks rambled to a field goal and a touchdown on their first two third-quarter possessions, taking a 32-10 lead, after Kansas State blocked an extra point and carried into their own end zone for a rare one-point safety.