I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next regular American. But it’s probably time to put a juicy one from last college football season to rest.
Before the final home game of the regular season at Reser Stadium, I bumped into Oregon State football coach Jonathan Smith on the field. His team was warming up in front of the game against rival Oregon.
Bookmakers had installed the Beavers as a three-point underdog earlier in the week, but as kickoff approached a strange thing happened. The line flipped. Oregon State suddenly found itself playing as a home favorite.
People in the stadium buzzed about it.
Something was up.
“What’s going on with that?” Smith asked me on the field. Coaches don’t like uncertainty. Was it an injury? Something else? I wondered if Bo Nix’s availability was in question. But the Oregon quarterback was on the field, down the way, warming up.
Smith walked off to coach the game. I went to the press box. The news leaked a few minutes later. Turns out that Arizona State was finalizing the hire of UO offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham as its new head coach.
In fact, ASU had already sent a chartered Cessna Citation V to Corvallis Municipal Airport to pick up Dillingham. It would wait for him and take off less than an hour after Oregon State’s 38-34 win over Oregon. It landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport that night.
Dillingham was formally introduced the following morning at a news conference. The original plan was to whisk the coach back to Eugene, where he’d begin preparations for UO’s expected appearance in the Pac-12 title game. But when the Ducks were eliminated from playing in Las Vegas, things changed.
“The plan was for him to get back to Oregon fast,” a high-ranking ASU source told me that day, “but obviously that’s not necessary now.”
Was Dillingham distracted in Oregon’s final regular-season game?
Conspiracy theorists wondered. Bettors speculated he might be. Ducks fans debated the topic, too. I spoke with Dillingham at length late last week in a 1-on-1 interview. I asked the coach about his focus and mindset during the final few weeks of the regular season and the loss to OSU.
Dillingham’s full response:
“I was distracted only because I was all-in,” Dillingham said. “I was so all-in at Oregon. All-in. I mean, for me… I think we had 30 points in two of the last three games vs. two of the best defenses in the league. Our quarterback got hurt… in the second to last game vs. Utah we had 17 points in the first half and then they realized our quarterback didn’t practice all week and couldn’t move out of the pocket and they started playing ‘house-zero.’ It limits what you can do.
“But from a plan perspective, we played the Washington game. We shortened the game in the third quarter. We had a lot of success and went up and down the field. In the third quarter we shortened the game with a long drive, but we got hurt on the last drive at quarterback. Otherwise we could have ended it. And then, obviously, we scored 30-something points in the last game (vs. Oregon State) with a quarterback who wasn’t completely healthy.
“To answer those questions, absolutely not. It’s not what I’m about. I’m about the people. And I was all-in on trying to win a Pac-12 championship. I was all-in on trying to go to the Rose Bowl. I was all-in on trying to go to the final four. That’s not how it played out. It sucked. But for me, not even close. The only thing that distracted me was the vision of being 11-1, being 12-1 and going to play the final four.”
Oregon had 470 yards of offense in the regular-season loss to OSU. It posted 26 first downs and averaged 5.7 yards per play. Oregon’s woes that day at Reser Stadium weren’t on the offensive side of the ball. It’s convenient to blame Dillingham. I don’t blame people who wondered about it. But dwelling on it disregards an epic and resilient performance by OSU.
I think the more likely explanation is simply that Oregon State was the better team that day and playing at home. The Beavers didn’t need to throw the ball in the second half and still moved the ball at will. Also, without a healthy Nix, the Ducks were clearly hamstrung in the final month of the season.
Oregon had 592 yards of offense and lost 37-34 to Washington. I’d present that as Exhibit B. Again, the issues in that loss weren’t on the offensive side of the ball. A week later, the Ducks out-gained Utah 346 to 326 in an inspired home victory.
I’m sure that Dillingham was way down the path with ASU in the final weeks of the regular season, but it didn’t appear to be affecting the offensive performance. Nix’s ankle was a lingering problem. Oregon’s defense was woeful in both losses.
The grassy knoll?
Debate about those things all you’d like. But it doesn’t make sense to me that Dillingham would want to do anything other than look terrific for his current and future employer. He was auditioning for the ASU job.
It’s time to put that conspiracy to rest.
NEVER TOO EARLY: I can’t decide whether Washington or Oregon State was playing the best football in the Pac-12 at the end of the season. I don’t think anyone wanted to play either team. Both closed out the regular season and won the respective bowl games in impressive fashion.
Who was playing the best?
I lean UW, but it’s close.
USC had a great season. It featured the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and made it to the Pac-12 title game. But Utah put two losses on the Trojans and won the conference title head-to-head. USC wilted in the title game and its defense was predictably bad in the Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane. Meanwhile, Utah’s defensive performance in the Rose Bowl was disappointing.
I’m wondering who the media will pick as the preseason favorite for 2023. I suspect USC will get the nod on football media day. But Washington, Oregon State, Oregon and Utah should all get votes. Who do you like?
My way-too-early 2023 champion pick (if Cam Rising returns to Utah): Utah.
My way-too-early pick (if Rising doesn’t return): Washington.
The contenders all have questions to answer, though:
USC: Will the Trojans improve on defense? If not, will Caleb Williams be able to hide the defensive issues again next season?
Utah: Is Rising coming back at quarterback? If so, how does an offense centered around him keep him healthier in 2023? If Rising isn’t coming back, how good can the Utes be with Bryson Barnes?
Oregon: With Bo Nix back at QB, all the questions in Eugene are on the defensive side of the ball. The Ducks won’t win a conference title playing terrible defense. Will they be markedly better on that side of the ball in 2023?
Oregon State: How will transfer QB D.J. Uiagalelei fit in Jonathan Smith’s offense? Also, how will increased expectations be met in Corvallis? The Beavers are no longer viewed as underdogs. Does that change their approach?
Washington: Will the Huskies get better in the run game? How about defense? Fix those two glaring holes and UW is a serious playoff contender.
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It is a distraction. If the bookies knew, then the locker room knew. No way around it. It did affect the offense, just by knowing. It is the new world order (chaos) of college football. Love it or hate it, it is a new wrinkle for sure.
FWIW, it think it hit the ducks last year too with the Miami rumors.
Dilly was distracted and it's OK... There's no way you can't be in that situation.
It doesn't appear to have effected much other than a couple of play calls in the
red zone which cost the Ducks.