Canzano: Oregon Ducks face important questions
What must be done to get past Washington?
LAS VEGAS — Friday night’s loss was as heavy as a bag of bricks dangling from around Dan Lanning’s neck. The University of Oregon football coach walked toward the stadium tunnel after another three-point defeat to Washington and looked, for a few heavy strides, like a guy who might topple over from the weight of it.
The Huskies were all around him, celebrating their 34-31 victory. Photographers swarmed the undefeated Pac-12 champions. Purple confetti would eventually shoot out of a cannon and Michael Penix Jr. would punctuate the moment by announcing: “They tried to write us off — but we ain't write back!”
Ready to write off Lanning today?
Not me. But I do need to see him make some difficult decisions.
Before Oregon’s coach got to that tunnel and disappeared into the postseason, he stopped and performed a 180-degree pivot. Lanning planted his sneakers. His chin rose. His shoulders followed. The same eyes that had been trained on the turf in front of him were now up, looking at his players who were leaving the field amid UW’s party. Oregon’s coach walked back toward them.
“I hurt for them,” Lanning said later, “because I wanted them to have this one.”
The post-game scene of a conference championship game is an interesting study, isn’t it? The victor gets the spoils. The other gets the shaft. Flip the script by three points on each side and the Ducks are smiling and slapping backs while the Huskies watch in despair. The scene is that fragile, but that’s how it works. Washington won. The Huskies get the moment. Oregon just gets to leave.
An hour before kickoff at Allegiant Stadium, employees rode a service elevator to “Level 00” pushing carts that carried cardboard boxes filled with “Pac-12 Championship” T-shirts and baseball caps to field level. There were two versions of the title T-shirt inside the boxes. One was green and featured an Oregon “O” and the words “2023 CHAMPIONS.” The other was purple with a block “W” logo.
One batch got unboxed on the field in Vegas.
The other probably gets shipped to a third-world country.
Washington knows how to win big football games. It did that all season. Kalen DeBoer’s team controlled the line of scrimmage on Friday. It beat Oregon at its own game, out-rushing the Ducks, out-playing the Ducks, and mostly importantly, out-scoring them — again. But if Oregon wants to contend next season in the Big Ten Conference, it must sift through Friday night’s wreckage, learn from it, and course correct.
The Huskies chased their destiny.
Oregon waited for it to come to them.
During pre-game warm-ups, I watched Oregon’s players on the field. The Ducks came out more than 90 minutes before kickoff (much earlier than Washington). Oregon’s players stretched. They got loose. It felt like a business trip. But I immediately noted to others on the sideline that the Ducks were far less emotionally charged than they were in Week 7 at Husky Stadium.
I was there in person for that pre-game scene, too. Oregon’s players shouted and whooped it up that day. UO center Jackson Powers-Johnson, pulled together a group of teammates about to take the field in Week 7 and shouted, “When we step on the f**king field, it’s ours! Wherever we roll, it’s ours!!”
Were the Ducks flat on Friday? More focused? Distracted by the glare of the big stage and the College Football Playoff pressure? Something else?
Oregon was oddly quiet in the warm-up. Almost muted, compared to their earlier matchup with their Pacific Northwest rival. Across the way, the Huskies were barking, and getting ready to play. At one point, JaMarcus Shephard, UW’s receivers coach, turned toward the Oregon sideline in defiance and shouted: “We ALL want it! We ALL want it!”
I thought more about that emotional contrast during the first quarter. UW dominated the opening period, taking a 10-0 lead. The Huskies ran 27 plays and had 118 yards of offense. Oregon’s offense ran six plays and had only nine yards.
Think about that.
In the biggest game of its season, Oregon’s prolific offense moved the ball only 27 feet in the entire first quarter. A week earlier, the Ducks did better than that on the first two plays of the game — getting 11 yards against Oregon State’s defense.
Washington had a better plan. Its players looked far more energized and prepared to execute it. We can break down the tape and pick out a handful of pivotal plays that swung the outcome, but the Huskies grabbed control of Friday’s title game even before the coin toss.
The Ducks spent a lot of energy trying to dig out of that early hole. They did, by the third quarter. But Oregon also found itself in the worst place a team be in college football — locked into a one-score chess match vs. DeBoer and Penix Jr. It was a compelling finish, but we all know how that tends to work out for Oregon.
I’ve talked occasionally in the last couple of seasons with Lanning’s father. Don Lanning is a retired school teacher. So was his wife, Janise. The hosted 22 people at Thanksgiving dinner in Missouri, then flew to Las Vegas to see Friday’s conference championship game in person.
It was a less cumbersome trip than the one Lanning’s parents made last bowl season, amid the well-publicized breakdown of Southwest Airlines’ booking system. Last December, Don and Janis drove their 2019 Ford Edge more than 1,600 miles to make it to the Holiday Bowl.
The trip took 22 hours.
“Couldn’t allow a long drive to keep me away from my son’s first bowl game as head coach,” Don told me.
One of the things I like most about Dan Lanning’s story is his parents. They’re resilient people with healthy perspective. They’re educators. They made their children work hard, dream big, make their beds, laugh, treat people with kindness and learn from their mistakes.
I’ve wondered at times how those values fit into today’s win-at-all-costs world of college football. Oregon epitomizes the race to the top. But in that candid moment where Dan Lanning wore the loss as he left the field, then, straightened himself up and turned toward his players, it was evident.
“(I was) just thinking about our players,” he said, later. “ just want to be around our players, let them know how proud I am of them.”
The season belonged to Washington.
The Huskies owned it — 13-0.
DeBoer, 49, is an experienced, skilled, evolved head coach. He’s in his third head-coaching stint. He got his first job in 2005. That same season, Dan Lanning was a 19-year-old linebacker for William Jewell College. A few years later, Lanning was a high school assistant who worked as an elementary-school PE teacher.
Now, at age 37, he’s the second-youngest head coach in major college football. He’s in charge of the biggest revenue generator in an athletic department with a $138 million budget. There’s been steep growth for Lanning in two seasons. And he needs more of it.
Experience isn’t everything. Nor is it an excuse. Oregon has to play better and make the opportunities count. It just didn’t do enough to win the title. But Friday was game No. 114 for DeBoer as a head coach. It was game No. 26 for Lanning.
In league play, Lanning’s record is 15-4.
0-3 vs. Washington and 15-1 vs. everyone else.
What I’m saying is, there’s a growth curve at work here and the most important thing now — the only thing Lanning can actually control — is whether he wants to do a deep self examination and figure out where it went wrong. Great leaders make difficult decisions. Lousy ones ignore them.
Does Lanning need to examine his coaching staff and make changes? His team’s pre-game preparation? Does he need better defensive backs and pass rushers? Or was Friday’s loss simply part of the progression of an eventual champion, sniffing around big-time success before a breakthrough?
Lanning refused to blame the loss to Washington on injuries to the Oregon secondary.
“That's a cop-out for us,” he said.
He sorted through the difference between winning and losing.
“They've been good in critical moments. We didn’t finish.”
And he pointed to the future.
“It’s a building block, right? We’re in year two,” he said. “This is an opportunity to build on to this and set the expectation for what it should look like in the future.”
The transfer portal opens on Monday. Oregon will get busy recruiting, sifting through the transfer portal to try to fill deficiencies. Among the looming questions, who will replace Bo Nix at quarterback? And it’s not lost on me that the loser of the Pac-12 title game is 0-11 in its subsequent bowl game. The Ducks finished 10-3 last season. They’ll either be 11-3 or 12-2 this season.
It’s the walk off the field by Dan Lanning that I’m left thinking about today. His chin was down for a few heavy strides. His shoulders were fighting to keep from rolling over. You could tell how much the guy cares about winning. His body language screamed it. But you also could tell how much he cares about his players by what he eventually did.
He turned to face them.
Now, it’s time to face what comes next.
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