Canzano: Oregon Ducks run into a dragon in Georgia -- can they now become one?
Dan Lanning's debut turns into 49-3 loss.
ATLANTA — It was bad. Ugly, too. Those aren’t words the University of Oregon likes having whispered about its football program after a game. But the Georgia Bulldogs spent a few hours exposing the Ducks, so it’s what they get.
It was Georgia 49, Oregon 3 on Saturday in front of 76,490 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The annual “Dragon Con” event is being held a few blocks away in downtown Atlanta. There are more than 60,000 attendees wandering the streets, dressed in costumes, wielding fake spears, bows and battle axes. Observers noted that there aren’t any actual dragons at “Dragon Con.”
Oregon bumped into one, though.
Georgia blew fire across the field, snorted smoke, and wrecked Dan Lanning’s debut game with its scaly, barbed tail. Oregon came dressed as a football team. But it didn’t play like a great one. The defense didn’t cover well, or tackle. The offense looked formulaic, plodding and stagnant. In the end, I was left with a thought — man, that stunk.
“Credit to Georgia,” Lanning said afterward. “They did a phenomenal job preparing their team for us. They outcoached us, they outplayed us today. They did a really good job.”
Chip Kelly got trucked in his coaching debut, too. Remember Oregon’s 2009 opening-night debacle against Boise State? The Ducks had zero first downs at halftime and managed no points. They lost the game, 19-8. It got so bad that ex-coach Mike Bellotti left the press box in the third quarter and appeared on the sideline, pacing around, eager to help with a suggestion.
Lanning’s predecessor, Mario Cristobal, might have done the same if he weren’t so far from the wreckage on Saturday. The Miami coach was in Florida, putting 70 points on the likes of Bethune-Cookman — a far easier debut.
Three takeaways on Oregon’s loss:
• Bo Nix threw two interceptions and looked skittish. Maybe being chased about the field by a relentless sea of five-star recruits does that to a quarterback. Or maybe he’s just not what Oregon needs at quarterback. I need to see more, but I felt my eyes drifting to the Ducks’ sideline in the second half looking to see if Jay Butterfield or Ty Thompson might get in the game.
• Georgia looked flawless, especially on offense. I bumped into long-time Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat reporter Chip Towers in the third quarter in the press box. He marveled about the motion, misdirection, and new wrinkles in the Bulldogs’ offense. Towers wondered, “Did they do that just for Dan Lanning?” Georgia’s offense was so smooth it looked like it was from Week 7.
• Oregon isn’t at all ready to compete with a high-level SEC program. The Ducks defense was supposed to be the strength of the team. The front seven, led by Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe, was supposed to be disruptive, fast and hard-hitting. That defense surrendered 571 yards of total offense and got run out of the building.
Kelly’s team lost to Boise State in 2009, regrouped, won seven straight games, and made the Rose Bowl. I’d bet against the Ducks getting to Pasadena this season, but I think there’s a genuine opportunity for Lanning’s crew to turn this 0-1 start into a pivot point, too.
Is Georgia that good? Or Oregon that ordinary? Maybe both? Those will be the questions to ask in the coming weeks. Next Saturday, it’s Eastern Washington at home. After that, BYU comes to Eugene and if the Ducks aren’t a lot better by then, they will be 1-2 heading into Pac-12 play.
Oregon receiver Seven McGee sat on the bench after the final whistle. The teams shook hands on the field. McGee didn’t move. The rest of the players on both teams eventually retreated to the locker room. McGee sat on the aluminum bench, staring off, until a UO staffer came to get him.
I think a lot of Oregon fans in their living rooms probably felt the same way on Saturday. There’s bound to be some soul-searching this week. The hope here is that the Ducks wallow on the plane ride home, but emerge on Monday ready to seize the football season.
Said Lanning: “Now, it’s about, what can you go fix and how can you improve?”
I wondered when Lanning was hired if he’d signed on for an unfair first fight. He drew his old employer, the defending national champions, in what amounted to a road game. It was a baptism in the Red Sea in front of a national-television audience. But that’s college-football show business.
Lanning’s father, Don, told me a story last month. I asked him for an example of his son’s resilience. Lanning’s father didn’t hesitate. He recounted a Missouri high school football semifinal game that was played in his son’s final prep season.
“That was a big, big deal in our town,” his Dad said.
Richmond High — Dan Lanning’s team — was the smallest school in the division. They were playing Harrisonville High, the largest school. Dan and his teammates had prepared for it, studied film, and practiced extra hours. The small town was so excited, the stores closed shop and everyone drove an hour to see the game.
“They just spanked us,” Don told me. “Then, they rubbed our noses in it after the game. Dan was so broken-hearted over that. He thought he was going to win the game and be a state champion.
“Dan took that hard because he has such high expectations.”
Nobody with a realistic mind expected the Ducks would beat Georgia on Saturday. Not in Atlanta. Not in Lanning’s first game as a head coach. Not as a 17.5-point underdog. But what we didn’t see coming was a 60-minute indictment of Oregon.
Way in over its head.
Georgia did what it pleased. It converted 90 percent of its third downs. It averaged 9.2 yards per play. Bulldogs’ quarterback Stetson Bennett threw for 368 yards and might have had 500 if he hadn’t been pulled from the game early.
“They executed,” Oregon defensive back Bennett Williams said, “and we didn’t.”
I remember the doubt in Chip Kelly’s eyes after the loss to Boise State. It wasn’t at all what Kelly expected would happen. The debut of his high-octane offense, particularly, didn’t go as planned. Dan Lanning had that same look in his eyes on the sideline in the second half.
Nothing seemed to work. Not the blitzes. Not the half-time adjustments. Not the words he shouted on the sideline. Georgia just lined up and made winning look easy.
“I think every one of our players will tell you they have more in the tank and they can do a little bit better,” Lanning said. “Same with our coaching staff.”
If you think about it, losing to the Bulldogs on Saturday isn’t at all like that season-ending loss Lanning suffered in high school. Nobody on the other side rubbed his nose in the defeat, for one. Also, there’s another opportunity out there for Lanning and his players.
It comes in seven days.
They’d better play like a dragon.
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