College football writer
Five and a half hours on a plane is a long time for anyone to sit and think, but for football players after a loss, it’s an eternity.
Not only are you dealing with the physical consequences of playing a hard-fought game on Saturday inside the confines of a pressurized cabin, but you’re also consumed with the mental aspect of recapping each play over and over and over, in the mind and often on an iPad screen loaded with the video.
Oregon’s players and coaches had plenty to do on their way back to Eugene after Atlanta’s season-opening 49-3 loss to No. 1 Georgia. The mood from the forward cabin to the last row was somber and chatter was kept to a minimum (and not just because of the late hour).
How could it not be? Not after this becomes this way, even if it was to the reigning national champions in their own backyard.
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However, as the miles rolled by and the team moved further west, the Ducks’ disappointment became a decision that went beyond position groups or on-campus experience. Far from wallowing in defeat, the work done since then has turned into eight straight wins, the fifth-longest streak in the country.
Air travel hasn’t been so smooth these days for Oregon.
On the flight back from Boulder last week, after the Ducks took on an overmatched Colorado team, the players chanted, joked, cheered and hogged all the limited in-flight Wi-Fi bandwidth to show each other highlights – a jovial mood that was a far cry from their initial road trip. While some teams might have suffered a lingering hangover from a result that couldn’t be changed, the program instead used this setback against Georgia to refocus on the little things and get closer with impressive results.
“I think that’s why we’re playing well — we connect with each other well. We’ve got enough big guys and enough guys coming up,” quarterback Bo Nix said this week after practice. “Collectively as a whole, I think we’re having a great time and it shows on the field. I’d say it correlates to winning. Having fun takes your mind off the seriousness of the game.”
This does not mean that they play for free because there is nothing at stake.
Heading into this Saturday’s game against rival Washington (7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), the Ducks have climbed into the top six of the College Football Playoff rankings and now even have a viable path to to a possible rematch with the Dawgs in the Peach Bowl semifinal. Nix has continued to garner news surrounding a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and the team has become the favorite to make it to Las Vegas and win the Pac-12 Championship.
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Not exactly what the obituaries were saying about Oregon’s season in September.
“Obviously, you’re not the same team you were the first time you hit the field. At the end of the day, we came out every week and said how can we improve on the little things. And those little things are starting to add up for us. ,” head coach Dan Lanning told FOX Sports. “I don’t think any of us felt like coming here and having your best product in your first game. There was an opportunity to coach better, an opportunity to play better, and everybody in our organization has jumped at it . really good.”
In the win against the Buffs, the Ducks had a touchdown catch by an offensive lineman, a touchdown catch by a quarterback, and a touchdown by a defensive player (a linebacker). Not only was it fun for Ducks fans to watch, but the school noted that it was the first time it was done at the FBS level, not just in the same game, but in the same season.
Having fun is one thing, making history is another.
Not that Lanning and others wouldn’t mind repeating a bit of the not-too-distant past. The last three times Oregon lost its season opener, it ended in a New Year’s Six game.
In a curious twist of fate, one of them landed directly in the hands of Nix, who began his career by throwing a game-winning touchdown in his first start at Auburn, a pass that beat the Ducks in 2019. While he would continue to earn SEC freshman honors that season, the rest of his time on the Plains was much more of a rollercoaster that produced as many memorable moments as disappointing lows.
The departure of Gus Malzahn and a season-ending injury in 2021 combined to prompt Nix to transfer, with many lamenting that he never reached the promised land he hoped for after arriving as a player of five stars and son of a school legend.
“I had a lot of respect for Bo going against him as a coach, and a lot of confidence in what kind of player he could be and what kind of person he was, more importantly,” added Lanning, who faced Nix three times in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry as UGA’s defensive coordinator. “Bo has always shown talent and passion, and he’s always been a smart player. You’ve seen those pieces. I think it’s been really fun to see it all come together here, and I’m really excited for him.”
Bo Nix scores five touchdowns against BYU
Bo Nix accounted for five total touchdowns in Oregon’s rout of BYU earlier this season.
As capable as Nix was in the eyes of Lanning and the coaching staff, they weren’t assured of the starting job behind center as the senior was deciding his next stop after entering the transfer portal. Eugene’s new staff not only wanted to see the quarterback’s talent emerge in a new environment, but also wanted to see how a new group carried the relative overseas through the spring ball and into the summer.
It’s safe to say those questions were answered pretty early on, with teammates embracing the lifelong southpaw for the way he worked in the offseason, even electing him captain for the opening goal .
“He loves the game of football. He’s up there all the time learning, he’s up there coming up with ideas and giving his two cents on the game plan,” said offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who previously coached Nix in 2019 with the tigers “He cares. It sounds simple, but the care factor is real. I think he’s enjoying having fun again.
“I don’t know if it’s as much about (leaving) Auburn as it is about starting over, rebuilding and really allowing them to take ownership and have a say in the game plan. He likes to do what he feels with comfortable..”
That comfort factor was most on display in one of the areas where the signal caller struggled: under pressure. Often at Auburn, the pressure would result in forcing a throw or getting rid of it in an inopportune spot as Nix’s decision-making process sped up.
Now, not only is Nix much calmer in the pocket, but he’s benefiting from not having to do too much on every drop back. It helps that Oregon has allowed just one sack all season, a testament to what’s going on up front as much as knowing the timing better on every play.
“I think our offense is one of the best in the country. When you look at what we’ve been doing offensively, almost everybody touches the ball. Countless people have a touchdown. Our O-line is the best in the country.” , Nix said. “You take me out of the equation, our offense as a whole is still so dynamic. Guys are doing so many different things, you can’t tell it’s me because you’ve got guys scoring touchdowns, catching touchdowns.
“I literally think my job is the easiest because I just have to get these guys the ball and they do the work for me.”
Oregon is third in the nation in scoring at 43.1 points per game, a dozen points better than last season. The Ducks rank second in yards per game and, underscoring the balanced nature of their offense, are one of four Power 5 programs to rush and pass for more than 2,000 yards through nine games.
Lanning, despite his defensive upbringing, lights up when he talks about the wrinkles the Ducks bring to the table in the run game, and how effective they’ve been when it comes to downfield opportunities. Most of all, he’s excited about how they’ve combined so much success moving the ball with taking care of it at the same time.
Nix has thrown just three interceptions since the opener, one of which came on a Hail Mary attempt at Cal, and is the only team in the country without a fumble this season.
“I think Nix is playing with a lot of confidence. You can just see how the game has slowed down for him,” Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer said. “Man, I can’t say enough good things about what he’s doing leading this offense. They’re one of the best in the country for a reason.”
And all this, mind you, despite being shut down, and nearly shut down, in Week 1.
That’s just college football for you. There is no preseason to get a new coaching staff in sync with their players and no real playing time for the transfers with the other veteran starters.
Each campaign is as much about progress over four months as it is about early bottom-line results, something the Ducks have proven in 2022.
Back on that long flight home after losing to Georgia, amidst all the negativity and focusing on the lost assignments, the team also had a chance to cook a little with a compliment they received after the game that might have turned out to be prophetic from a certain Bulldogs coach. .
“They’re going to bounce back from that and (Lanning) knows we have better players,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He’ll never say it, but he knows we have better players.”
Smart is right to point out that his former protégé wouldn’t say such things in public or in private about his team.
But he was in time to notice that they would recover. Maybe if they keep it up and keep progressing the way they have, Oregon could also change the minds of everyone on that line about the best players, if for no other reason than the players themselves have gotten better.
“As the games go on, it starts to reveal itself more and more, and the guys are getting more confident and starting to figure it out,” Lanning said. “A lot of times, all these guys need is a chance to prove it.”
Based on much nicer home trips, the Ducks are proving something.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets including NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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