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POSTCARDS FROM A COUP D'�TAT:
A lone white sneaker on the 20-yard line, property of one of the hundreds of fans who stormed the field at Autzen Stadium following Oregon's epoch-ending win over USC last Saturday.... � A klatch of college-aged women bumping and grinding with the Oregon Duck before said mascot was plucked from his webbed feet for a session of crowd-surfing.... � Pete Carroll on a folding chair a half hour after his Trojans' second loss in four games (a defeat that knocked them out of the national championship hunt), stooped and careworn, the USC coach looking every hour of his 56 years.
Before we trace Oregon's improbable arc from unranked to unstoppable, let us observe a moment of silence for the passing of a dynasty. Matthew Harper's last-minute interception of Southern California quarterback Mark Sanchez snuffed out more than a Trojans rally. The free safety's second red-zone pick of the second half tolled the death knell for one of the most impressive runs in modern college football history. Since 2002 USC has won two national titles and five Pac-10 crowns and played in five BCS bowls. The team that 22 months ago came within 19 seconds of a third straight national championship, that over a four-year stretch was a staggering 48--2, has lost four of its last 15 games.
The final score in Eugene was 24--17, but the difference between the teams was more than a touchdown. This was a matchup between a static program and a dynamic one, between the hunted and the hungry. Trojans fans need to start coping with this grim possibility: El Paso and the Sun Bowl.
IT WAS Vince Young, you'll recall, who pulled the ball down and scored the go-ahead touchdown for Texas against USC with 19 seconds left in the January 2006 Rose Bowl. It was also Young whose angular frame filled the screen in Chip Kelly's office one day last week. Kelly, the Ducks' first-year offensive coordinator, was interested in seeing how Young repeatedly burned the Trojans with the zone-read option, which is also part of Oregon's package. Kelly, 43, replaced Gary Crowton, who last January left Eugene to take the same job at LSU.
The hiring of Kelly by Oregon head man Mike Bellotti seemed, at the time, a bit of a reach. He'd spent the previous eight seasons coordinating the offense at New Hampshire. While the Wildcats were a bona fide offensive juggernaut under Kelly, they were still a I-AA juggernaut. In his spare time he wandered around the country, dropping in on coaches whose schemes intrigued him, an antique scavenger moving from one garage sale to the next. "Everybody was always really receptive," he recalls, "because none of them ever played New Hampshire."
Yes, his spread attack was feared throughout the Colonial Athletic Association for its creativity and production, but his pedigree gave Ducks fans pause. The man who'd spent his days and nights scheming to beat the likes of Hofstra and Rhode Island would sink or swim in the Pac-10.
Kelly had a tougher time of it, frankly, in the CAA. Going into last Saturday, Oregon was averaging 551 yards and 46.6 points per game (both marks were second in the nation). As a tune-up for USC, the Ducks had racked up 661 yards of total offense in a 55--34 victory at Washington.
Tailback Jonathan Stewart had a career game against the Huskies, rushing for 251 yards. A 5'11", 230-pound junior who runs a 4.34 40 and power-cleans 402 pounds, Stewart runs around and over people. He is also the beneficiary of a devilish spread attack directed by quarterback Dennis Dixon, whose spot-on reads and silky ball fakes freeze and confuse defenders who are not sure, half the time, which Duck has the ball.
While Stewart was expected to have a huge year, Dixon was even money to start the season on the bench. He threw nine interceptions against two touchdowns over the second half of 2006. He didn't help his cause when he announced in June that, rather than spending the summer throwing to his receivers, he'd be in Florida, playing for a minor league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, who'd selected him in the fifth round of the amateur draft. "The timing was not good," recalls Bellotti. "I made the comment that I'd rather have him reading defenses than reading curveballs. But there was never a doubt about his commitment to football."