UCLA will test Oregon, but these are the Ducks we expected to see
After a disastrous opening week, Oregon is now back in the national picture
Rookie coach Chip Kelly sparked the revival by resisting the urge to tinker
On Satutrday, Oregon travels to UCLA in first road game since Boise debacle
EUGENE, Ore. -- When the TV cameras finally switched off after a bad night in Boise, many probably figured they'd seen the last of the Oregon Ducks -- aside, of course, from the YouTube clips.
LeGarrette Blount's postgame antics grabbed most of the attention. But once fans got past the punches -- if they could -- the lingering memory from Boise State's 19-8 victory over Oregon was of a BCS-buster picking up another landmark win, and a BCS pretender exposed.
Chip Kelly's head-coaching debut couldn't have been much more disastrous. Oregon looked dazed and confused -- especially on offense, Kelly's specialty -- and it was fair to wonder whether the rookie was ready, or had gotten his team ready.
We'd seen the last of Blount, for sure. We wrote off the Ducks, too, after that putrid performance.
But five weeks later, the entire college football season appears headed for a topsy-turvy conclusion -- think 2007 and hold on for the ride. On the basis of its performance in the opener, Boise State ranks sixth and is thinking bigger, but remains concerned about sliding because of a weak remaining schedule.
And Oregon is back in the picture.
Blount is back, too -- well, not quite, but almost. Kelly's decision to reverse his initial ruling is another matter, but if nothing else, we learned Kelly doesn't much care what other people think.
In the last month, we've also learned Kelly and the Ducks weren't what we saw on that Thursday night in Boise. With four straight wins -- including a 39-point undressing of then-No. 6 California -- Oregon has climbed up to 13th in the national rankings; Kelly has restored his reputation as an offensive mastermind, and people are beginning to think he might just be a pretty good successor to Mike Bellotti, after all; and the Ducks' often-maligned defense has morphed into a strength.
Combined with the evidence that USC is mortal, Oregon looks like a serious Pac-10 contender.
"We always knew we were this good," quarterback Jeremiah Masoli said after that win over Cal two weeks ago. "Or better."
Maybe the rest of us should wait to make that determination, at least until the Ducks travel to UCLA on Saturday afternoon. Oregon's resurgence has been impressive -- especially in the last two games -- but it's taken place in friendly confines of Autzen Stadium. Oregon hasn't been on the road since Boise.
"That's the next challenge for this team," Kelly said. "Last time we didn't play very well on the road. I think we're a little bit older, a little bit more mature, but it's going to be a test."
More importantly, injuries are suddenly a concern. Senior cornerback Walter Thurmond -- the team's best defensive player and a scoring threat on special teams -- suffered a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff against Cal. His replacement, Willie Glasper, blew out a knee in practice this week. With free safety T.J. Ward still nursing a high ankle sprain suffered against Boise State, the secondary is suddenly a patchwork of players.
And Masoli, who recovered after a shaky first quarter of the season, injured his right knee late in the second quarter last week against Washington State. The Ducks have been coy with injury information, but Masoli isn't expected to play much, if at all, against UCLA.
With the Ducks facing the Bruins with a completely rebuilt defensive secondary and a first-time starter at quarterback, this Rose Bowl talk could be very premature.
Certainly Kelly, whose motto is "every week's a new season," would think so. But when you consider how the first week, or first season -- whatever -- went for the Ducks, it's been an impressive run.
Since the opener, much of the news emanating from Oregon has been made off the field. Or in Blount's case, coming off the field.
Kelly suspended Blount for the season. But last week, he reversed the decision, announcing a plan that would provide the chance for reinstatement and briefly restarting the controversy (and sending everyone back to YouTube).
There was also the report that Kelly had sent $439 to an angry fan for his travel expenses to Boise. Think Oregon football, and it's been about the sideshow. And for once, we're not talking uniforms (against Cal, they even wore retro uniforms that were, well, normal).
With less publicity, the Ducks began putting the pieces together on the field, too. Here's what happened: Kelly returned from Boise, and he evaluated every part of the operation, and ... he didn't change much of anything.
"We didn't panic," Kelly said. "We didn't flinch."
Kelly stuck with his plan, even as the program appeared to be listing badly. He plugged in a redshirt freshman to replace Blount, and the smaller, quicker LaMichael James proved a better fit for the Spread option attack. He waited as four new starters grew into roles on the offensive line. He stuck with his quarterback, even when fans clamored for the backup.
Society, Kelly said, might be all about the "quick fix ... but football isn't."
Nothing seemed smooth. Oregon lurched and sputtered. The Ducks edged Purdue thanks to two defensive touchdowns and a failed two-point conversion attempt. They held off Utah, but needed late interceptions to do so.
Against the Utes, Masoli -- Sports Illustrated's regional college football preview coverboy -- completed just 4-of-16 passes for 95 yards (58 of which came on one pass). He didn't look remotely like the dual-threat quarterback who had propelled the Ducks on a late-season run in 2008. The offense didn't resemble last season's powerful unit.
But as talk shows and message boards lit up, calling for veteran backup Nate Costa to replace Masoli, Kelly scoffed. The next week against Cal, the offense clicked as Masoli completed 21-of-25 passes.
"He did exactly what everyone knew he could do," Costa said.
Could it be the Ducks are only doing what everyone suspected they could, before the bad night in Boise? Because on second glance, there's a lot to like about this team, starting with the schedule. The four-game home stand proved vitally important in helping a young, fragile team regroup and evolve, and the remainder of the schedule favors a run at the Rose Bowl.
After UCLA, the Ducks have a bye next weekend, providing Masoli time to heal before traveling to Washington. Then the Ducks host USC on Halloween night. You think Autzen Stadium might get rowdy?
Win then, and you have to figure the opening-night flop might finally fade from everyone's minds.
"The only thing that's going to fix that is if we go out and get the Rose Bowl, or a BCS game," tight end Ed Dickson said.
At the very least, the Ducks have positioned themselves to make that run at redemption. After that bad night in Boise, few would have believed it was possible.
George Schroeder covers college football for the Eugene Register Guard and is the president of the FWAA. Follow him on Twitter.
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