One of our readers emailed us after the recent loss by Oregon to Stanford and asked about the Ducks' alleged big game woes.
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Kelly's first season as OC of the Ducks saw them rise to No. 2 in the polls, and have senior quarterback Dennis Dixon, who had struggled at times in his previous three years under center, named a top Heisman candidate. Unfortunately, in the tenth game against Arizona, Dixon aggravated a knee injury he had suffered during the previous week's contest against Arizona State. Without their starting QB, Oregon lost the remaining two games on their regular season schedule, but overcame the South Florida Bulls in the Sun Bowl.
One could easily attribute any losses that year to the injury to Dixon, and not some internal struggle with them winning when it counts.
In 2008, the Ducks dropped three games. They came up short in the biggest game of the year against USC, but managed to come up with a victory in the Holiday Bowl against Oklahoma State. Again, nothing too indicative of a problem within the school. They lost one big game midseason and had a good win in the postseason.
In 2009, Kelly was given the head coaching position when Mike Bellotti was asked to become the new athletic director. Oregon's opening game was a chance to avenge a loss to Boise State, who had posted their first ever road win over a BCS school in Autzen Stadium during the 2008 campaign. The Ducks lost the rematch, but ran off six-straight wins afterwards to set up a huge matchup against No. 5 USC. Oregon rolled past the Trojans, and appeared to be ready to make a run at the national championship. However, they essentially no-showed the following week, as upset-minded Stanford derailed their title hopes, leaving the Duck fan base with a sour taste in their mouth. The team managed to win the conference and secure a Rose Bowl berth, but lost to Ohio State, 26-17.
Oregon put together an undefeated season in 2010 and received an invitation to the National Championship to face a similarly unbeaten Auburn team and their surprise Heisman-winning quarterback, Cam Newton. Cam and the Tiger defense proved too much for the Ducks that night, and for the second-consecutive year, a stellar regular season performance saw Oregon stumble late and come up short.
2011 saw the Ducks and LSU Tigers face off at a (somewhat) neutral site in the new Cowboys Stadium in Texas. For the second game in a row, a Tiger team from the SEC was overpowering up front, and Oregon came out on the losing end. Still, the Ducks managed to string together nine wins before the Trojans upset them at home. This again relegated Oregon to a Rose Bowl berth, where they would face another transfer QB on a new team, Wisconsin and Russell Wilson. In a controversial finish, the Ducks secured their first BCS win in Kelly's tenure with the school.
The following year, Oregon started fast and dominated their early season opponents. After winning a heatedly contested game against USC, they were looking again at a Stanford squad who had seen Andrew Luck drafted No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts during the offseason. The Cardinal shut down the Ducks in Autzen Stadium, allowing just 14 points. This marked the first time all year Oregon hadn't put at least 40 on the board. After Stanford completed the win of the Pac-12 North, the Ducks accepted a bid to the Fiesta Bowl, where Kelly coached his team to their second-straight BCS win. This time, against Kansas State.
The 2013 season had again seen Oregon dominate early, until they ran into the Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 7th. David Shaw's bunch dominated most of the contest, shutting the Ducks out through three quarters. Oregon managed to score 20 in the fourth, but it was too little too late.
This leaves us looking back at Oregon's performances over this time period and reflecting on how they've faired in critical games.
Let me state candidly that prior to their win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl in 2012, I firmly believed in this "they always drop big games" theory. Since that victory, however, can we really say the Ducks have consistently performed all that badly in big game situations? Given their record, I don't see how one could truly make that case. They have won more bowl games than they have lost, and have chalked up a couple of BCS wins to boot. In fact, they have won a number of big regular season games, only to be beaten by overlooked foes soon after.
It's easy to take potshots at Oregon after their recent loss to Stanford, but I think the perception that they don't play well in big games can be attributed to an East Coast/Southern bias in college football. It seems their main problem isn't their inability to get up for big games, but their inability to have a complete season where they do not grow complacent at some point. That's the story of most teams in college football, though. Even LSU, Ohio State, Texas and USC struggle with this at times. It seems like Alabama is the only big time program that hasn't in recent memory.
But if that's the worst criticism you can level at the Ducks, they're obviously doing something right.