EUGENE, Ore. — It was 12 years ago that Chip Kelly, then just 18 games into his tenure as Oregon head coach, stood on the sideline opposite Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh and called a surprise onside kick. The Ducks were down 21-10 in the second quarter at the time, and the play sparked a 49-10 scoring run for Oregon and a win over the ninth-ranked Cardinal.
On Saturday, Kelly returned to Eugene as UCLA head coach with an undefeated no. 9 Bruins team, and this time it was first-time head coach Dan Lanning who reached into his sleeve for a near-identical trick that helped propel no. 10 Oregon to a 45-30 win.
After the Ducks scored in the second quarter to go up 17-10, kicker Andrew Boyle dribbled the ensuing kickoff straight ahead with his foot, waited for it to reach 10 yards and then jumped on it. It was a play Oregon had been practicing all week in secrecy, taking advantage of an opening they saw in UCLA’s kickoff coverage team. Lanning even told members of the media who saw them working on it in practice to keep it quiet. The incoming rain also factored in.
“I told you don’t tell anybody or I’ll never let you come to practice again, right?” Lanning said postgame with a smile. “We saw it after the first kickoff, and we felt like, OK, that’s the look we want, we think we got a chance for it. It looked like there was some weather coming in. We felt like if there was a chance to steal a possession it would be before the weather really hit.”
As the Ducks’ offense came off the field, they tried to disperse on the sideline to not give anything away. Boyle perfectly timed the play, which was designed to be recovered by him, and the momentum of the game shifted as the rain began to fall.
Quarterback Bo Nix, who finished the game 22-of-28 for 283 yards and five touchdowns, took care of the rest, leading the offense down the field for another touchdown after the onside kick. Suddenly, the Ducks were up 24-10.
“When you keep an explosive offense like that off the field it slows them down, makes them cold,” Nix said. “We didn’t really look back after that.”
The Kelly-like aggression and creativity was not reserved for special teams. On offense, Lanning and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham went for four fourth downs and converted three of them.
“I think you can kind of give credit to a lot of our success offensively to coach Lanning’s aggression, right now,” Nix said postgame. “He’s a super aggressive head coach, which is a little different, because he’s defensive minded.”
Lanning arrived in Eugene after having made his reputation coaching Georgia’s dominant 2021 defense. But against UCLA on Saturday, he knew he would have to outmaneuver Kelly on offense to have a chance at beating the former Ducks coach. Extra possessions, tempo and long drives would be key against a Bruins’ offense that had scored more than 40 points in four straight games.
Oregon totaled five more minutes of possession than UCLA and had 544 total yards of offense to their 448.
“At halftime we sat there and talked about how the most physical team is going to win this game,” Lanning said. “You look at the brand of football we played going into the half and coming out in the third quarter, we said we’re going to run the ball and be physical.”
The closing number came in the third quarter. After holding UCLA to a field goal on its opening second-half drive, Nix and Co. got the ball with nine minutes left in the quarter. They went 82 yards on 15 plays, including 12 runs, and took more than seven minutes off the clock before scoring a touchdown to go up by 22.
Lanning said one of the team’s goals Saturday was to ensure it had the edge on explosive plays, which Kelly’s offense had been doing with ease. Thanks to Nix, who had the Bruins’ defense on a string all day, and a Ducks’ defense that contained Dorian Thompson-Robinson, that proved to be the case.
By utilizing his legs (51 yards on eight carries), Nix opened up freeway-sized lanes in the passing game, where he was nearly perfect on everything from checkdown throws to a parabolic 49-yard deep ball to Troy Franklin for a touchdown that sent the sellout crowd at Autzen Stadium into a frenzy.
Nix said after the game that this was what he wanted when he made the decision to transfer from Auburn to Oregon.
“I can’t speak to anything before,” Lanning said when asked about what’s changed from THE Nix at Auburn to the one at Oregon. “Beyond that … you can’t watch a football game right now and tell us that guy is not elite.”
Following a tumultuous season at Auburn last year, Nix has displayed the ideal combination of explosiveness and composure under Dillingham’s direction. Dillingham, a former Auburn quarterbacks coach, worked with Nix during the 2019 season, but this is the first season in which he has called plays for Nix to execute.
“We’re just connected offensively. I know what he wants out there,” Nix said. “He trusts me with what I see, and I think this is the closest we’ve been all season.”
With Saturday’s win, Oregon continues to turn its season-opening 46-point loss to Georgia into a further fading memory. The Ducks now control their destiny in the conference. If they win out, they will be in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 championship.
“I don’t think anybody on our team is satisfied and I think that’s what gives this team a chance to be hungry and great,” Lanning said. “We’re going to enjoy this one, though.”