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Canzano: Oregon Ducks found a way in Holiday Bowl
Ducks have work to do in the offseason.
To be fair to Camden Lewis, he kicked the game-winning extra point from a cow pasture.
Some careful readers pointed that out to me on Wednesday night. Lewis lined up on sandy turf at Petco Park, planted his foot, and kissed the football off the left upright — and through — for the win.
The University of Oregon beat North Carolina, 28-27, in the Holiday Bowl.
That’s 10 wins in Dan Lanning’s first season as a head coach. A bowl victory, too. Also, some much-needed momentum for what will be a critical offseason for UO.
But let’s be real, that Lewis PAT was a metaphor for the 2022 Oregon Ducks season, wasn’t it? Not always pretty. Not always simple. But very interesting, wildly entertaining, and mostly successful.
“This had nothing to do with me,” Lanning said, as he hoisted the trophy on the field after the game. “This has everything to do with our players. They believed from the beginning.”
A few thoughts:
• The goal post uprights are 18-feet, 6-inches apart. Lewis used every inch on that game winner. In a season in which special teams became an issue, the Ducks reminded us in the closing seconds how important that third unit is to them. Lewis (64 for 64 on PATs and 14 of 16 on field goals) was a bright spot this season.
• Lanning said after the game that quarterback Bo Nix called the pass play that resulted in the game-tying touchdown. I wasn’t surprised. Earlier in the season, after the victory over Cal, offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham told me that Nix had the authority to change any play he called.
“I really trust Bo,” Dillingham told me. “If he doesn’t like something, he changes the play. Most of the time, I like what he does. But even when I don’t, I’m OK with it. I’m giving that freedom.”
• The six-yard TD pass to Chase Cota was a terrific throw and catch. Cota had played in 37 games in his college career before suiting up on Wednesday. He’s a senior and had 102 receptions and eight touchdowns in his career before that final play, but he’d never scored a TD in a bowl game.
With 19 seconds left in his college career, he finally got one. Reception No. 103 goes down as the most memorable of his career. Cool moment for a family that has a rich history with the Oregon program. Chase’s father, Chad, is a former UO defensive back.
• The final pass play underscored how important the return of Nix in 2023 is to the Ducks. Incoming offensive coordinator Will Stein won’t be working alone in his first season. The return of Nix is still the biggest postseason win for Lanning’s program.
• Nix’s ankle still didn’t look right, did it? It was encouraging to see the quarterback hustle downfield on Bucky Irving’s 66-yard rushing touchdown, running right behind him. But at other parts of the evening, I thought Nix favored the ankle and just wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.
Nix rushed five times on Wednesday for six yards. His longest rush was six yards. Oregon needs Nix to get healthy in the coming months, but also it needs to remember the lesson learned in 2022 — protect the QB.
I’d prefer to see the Ducks use Nix more selectively in the run game in 2023. I thought Dillingham got a little too aggressive with Nix as a runner in the middle part of this season. Some of it was unnecessary. He’s vital to the success of the team and needs to be healthy down the stretch.
• How about Bucky Irving? Oregon’s running back won the game MVP honors, deservedly so. Irving had 149 rushing yards on 13 carries. He scored two touchdowns. Irving has tremendous vision and great speed in the open field. He was an absolute joy to watch this season and eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards on the season in the bowl game.
• Oregon’s win was messy. The Ducks were a two-touchdown favorite vs. UNC, but dug a hole in the second half and had to scramble out of it to win. But that’s sort of how bowl games go these days. The Ducks were without several key defensive players, but got inspired performances from players such as linebacker Keith Brown, who had seven tackles and a filthy uniform by the end of the game.
• Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye is really good. He threw three first-half TD passes and was a problem for Oregon’s defense. Maye rushed for 45 yards, too. His performance prompted former NFL defensive back and former UO great Alex Molden to text me at halftime.
Wrote Molden: “Drake Maye is a bonafide stud! He will be a top-five pick in the 2024 draft! You heard it here first.”
• Getting 10 wins is worth celebrating. Lanning joins Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, Mark Helfrich and Mario Cristobal on the list of UO football coaches who posted 10 wins or more in a single season. Only Kelly, Helfrich and Lanning have accomplished the feat in their first season on the job.
• There’s some improvement out there for Lanning. My grade for his first season: B+. I had concerns about game management when the first-time, first-year coach assembled a relatively young staff around him. The staff recruits insanely well. They have a ton of enthusiasm. They say the right things. But the staff needs to get better with situational awareness, the use of timeouts, and game management.
• Lanning was at his strongest this season in managing the energy and culture of his locker room. His humble postgame comments were perfect. He’s likable and strikes the right tone at a moment like that. I don’t think it’s easy for a new coach to come in, inherit a locker room filled with players recruited by other head coaches (See: Mario Cristobal), and try to win games. Lanning navigated that well in his first season. Also, he won some big victories in last week’s early-signing period. Recruiting is a key component of coaching.
• I spoke with Dave Uiagalelei, the father of five-star defensive end Matayo, an hour before kickoff of the Holiday Bowl. The interview is worth a listen. He told me that Matayo’s decision to sign with Oregon over USC and Ohio State last week was rooted in how the coaching staff laid out its plan to utilize and develop him.
Matayo’s father told me that the Ducks coaches took note of his son’s passion and interest in music and took him to the two major production studios on campus in Eugene.
“They did their due diligence on finding out what was important to Matayo. Matayo doesn’t care about the fancy stadiums and fancy stuff,” Dave said. “… Oregon did their thing, man. They did a great job of showing they care about Matayo and what’s important to him.”
• Oregon won the bowl game. The Pac-12 is now 2-1 in postseason games, with with four bowls left to play. No College Football Playoff participant, but it’s been an encouraging year for the conference in a lot of ways.
I didn’t mind the Lewis extra-point hitting the upright. The kick went through. It was great theater. A reminder that we should take nothing for granted in life — or college football. I loved the sight of Lewis, walking off, shaking his head at the absurdity, waving off Oregon teammates who were trying to celebrate around him.
Nix himself had a “Is it OK to celebrate?” look on his face. I’ll bet you did in your living room, or wherever you watched the game.
A 10-3 record this season?
That good enough?
Not for some. It says a lot about the expectations that have been raised over the years at Oregon. The goal at the beginning of a season isn’t to win the Holiday Bowl. But that’s just what happened to the 2022 Oregon Ducks on Wednesday night. Faced with a moment of truth, they scrambled late and found a way.
That kick was a metaphor folks.
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