LOS ANGELES – Phil Knight had poured millions upon millions of his fortune turning a vision of what Oregon football could be into the reality that was playing out on the L.A. Coliseum field.
Through the years the Nike founder and Oregon uber-booster had made repeated trips down here only to (most of the time) fly home dejected after another loss. It was always those Southern California Trojans who were retaining No. 1 rankings and national title hopes.
Now the script had flipped. The clock was running down, the cavernous stadium was emptying and the scoreboard read Oregon 53, USC 32. Knight stood on the sidelines and took it all in – the sights, the sounds, the silence.
"I sure enjoyed it," Knight said. "It's been a blast. They've had their fair share. This is kind of our year."
"Kind of" doesn't begin to describe it.
Oregon is 8-0, top-ranked in the AP poll (No. 2 in the BCS standings) and it boasts a frenetic offense that applies so much physical, mental and emotional pressure on defenses that they eventually just collapse. In this case, it was right after USC had stormed back to take a 32-29 third-quarter lead. The Coliseum was suddenly rocking on a dark, eerie, upset-feeling night.
"We thought we had the game in the bag," Trojans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey acknowledged. "Then the defense fell apart."
This is what Oregon does to you.
Just when you expect the Ducks to panic, they double down. Just when you think they may crack, they turn their video game offense into a jam-it-down-your-throat machine. Just when you think the game is in the bag, they knock you flat on your back.
Trailing by three, the Ducks rattled off touchdown, touchdown, field goal and touchdown. Two of the drives were rather un-Oregonesque, actual time of possession gems running 6:46 and 7:18.
"Long for us is two, three minutes," offensive lineman Mark Asper joked. "[The longer ones] are a little more satisfying because there's a little more toil."
In this case, toil for running back LaMichael James, who wound up with 239 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
"He'll sleep on the plane," coach Chip Kelly said with a laugh.
There's a lot of laughing around Oregon and why not? The Ducks didn't want to make too much of knocking off the Trojans but the reality of the Pac-10 is that the Trojans have long been the dominant program and trips to the Coliseum were generally horror shows. Kelly likes to talk about "faceless opponents" and how Oregon's fate depends on how Oregon functions, not the other team. This was just another game he claimed.
That's all well and good but shutting up Los Angeles is never a small thing. The Trojans are a power in decline, three losses this year, three years of scholarship limitations on the horizon. Oregon is just getting better and better, playing faster and faster.
What was once considered a gimmicky team with a glamour offense is now a well-oiled machine that is far tougher than critics understand. There's more than one way to wear out an opponent and for Oregon it isn't just with relentless play calling (one every 15 seconds in the first half) but relentless force.
"I think it's the physical factor," said Asper, a 6-7, 323-pounder who is part of a mammoth group of lineman. "Then they start running more vanilla defenses or they can't disguise [blitzes] as well. As the game goes on, it allows us to go even faster."
It's a sight to see. Oregon looks like a hockey team at times, changing on the fly. The only thing that slows their snaps is getting the referees to place the ball down. USC could rarely sub, adjust, catch its breath or figure out what was next. In the second half, Oregon often just gave it to James on simple plays to chew up yards. They didn't need any tricks.
Oregon may or may not be the best team in America. It's difficult to imagine anyone has its offense operating as well (a near point-a-minute 54.9 points-per-game average). The defense has allowed just one fourth-quarter score – a late, meaningless TD that allowed UCLA to close to 60-13 last week.
"I can't tell you the last time we had a bad practice," Kelly said. "We've been a really good second-half football team not just because of our conditioning but because of the intelligence of the guys we have."
About the authors
Dan Wetzel and Jeff Passan write for Yahoo! Sports, the most-read sports site on the Web. Josh Peter, a former Yahoo! Sports reporter, is a freelance writer. Wetzel has coauthored four books, including the New York Times bestseller “Resilience: Faith, Focus, Triumph” with Alonzo Mourning, and lives in Michigan. Peter is an award-winning investigative journalist who has earned national attention for his reporting on the Bowl Championship Series. In 2005, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series on race and high school football in the South. He lives in Los Angeles. Passan has won multiple Associated Press Sports Editors awards and lives in Kansas.
The Ducks tell stories of grueling practices where speed in all tasks is put at a premium. It results in a confidence that the other guy will fall first, that in the second half the game will be won. A measly three-point deficit to USC was nothing more than an opportunity.
"There's no panic in this team," Kelly said.
There is only promise – of a second consecutive Pac-10 title, of the push for a BCS title, of more magical nights like this one. Here on Halloween Eve it was about exorcising some ghosts from this old joint.
"With SC, we still feel like they're living in the glory days of when [Reggie] Bush was here," Cliff Harris said. "That their five-star [recruits] are going to beat our hard work. But talent doesn't beat hard work."
Not tonight. And that might be what be pleased Phil Knight the most. For all the bells and whistles, all the opulent facilities, all the look-at-me uniforms he and Nike have given Oregon to attract all this talent, there's finally a team that fulfills his wildest dreams.
It's built on strength and smarts and resolve; not just flashy jerseys and offensive sets. It's the steak to go along with the sizzle. "There's a lot more going on other than tempo," Knight said.
It's about watching the Coliseum empty in shuffled silence on another Saturday night in what just kind of feels like Oregon's year.
- Phil Knight