Bo Nix, Oregon Ducks football douse Liberty Flames in Fiesta Bowl
The mighty Liberty Flames won the coin toss for the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, at State Farm Stadium on New Year’s Day and decided to receive the opening kickoff, promptly driving 75 yards in six plays for a touchdown through an Oregon defense that looked unorganized. Although the extra point was missed, Duck fans stirred uneasily: No. 23 Liberty was the leading rushing team in the country and looked as advertised, running over Duck defenders scrambling to cover a triple option offense that is unique from the offenses they faced in the Pac-12.
Oregon’s offense answered with a 60-yard drive but had to settle for a field goal. Coach Dan Lanning’s heavily favored Ducks looked like they were in for an unexpected battle. But as the game wore on, superior talent and experience showed, and behind the masterful passing of Bo Nix, No. 8 Oregon soundly dunked the Flames, 45-6.
Bo Nix leads Oregon in dominant win
In an impressive demonstration of discipline Oregon doesn’t usually display, the Ducks had their best game of the year in avoiding penalties, incurring only two for 20 yards, and did not have a turnover. The Liberty gang had six flags for 49 yards, mostly in key situations and turned the ball over three times.
For some reason, the Flames’ offense lurched and after gaining 75 yards in six plays, were held to 65 yards in their next 18 plays. During that time, after a shaky 0-for-4 start, Nix completed 19 throws of 25 attempts for 257 yards and four touchdowns, providing a comfortable 31-6 halftime lead.
The Ducks’ All-American center Jackson Powers-Johnson opted out of the contest in order to watch the game and get ready for an NFL career. He was replaced by freshman Iapani Laloulu who was outstanding in both run and pass blocking. The loss of their starting center didn’t seem to bother the rest of the offensive line, either, which did not give up a sack, and set up running backs Bucky Irving and Jordan James with cracks and holes to out-rush Liberty 183 yards to 168. The total offensive accumulation was 584 yards, which was outstanding, given the Ducks’ slow start in the first quarter.
Irving, who gained over 1,000 yards during the regular season, gained 117 and James slashed for 63. Lanning also had some dipsy-do on offense in the first half. Nix handed the ball off to a back going across the formation to the left, who gave it to a back coming the other way, who flipped it back to Nix, who back peddled a couple of yards and threw an outside screen pass to his brother, Tez Johnson, who was patiently waiting back on the left side of the line of scrimmage behind a seven-man screen. It was a reverse flea-flicker, perfectly executed, and only two Flame defenders were in the area. Johnson looked like a Maserati escorted by seven huge semitrucks as he gleefully hopped into the end zone.
In the waning seconds of the first half, Nix drove the offense 68 yards in five plays in less than a minute for a touchdown. At the start, it looked like Lanning was headed for some Mario Cristobal clock mismanagement: in three short plays Nix ate up 40 seconds but the Ducks still had two timeouts. Nix completed a 40-yard pass-and-run to Johnson and then called a timeout with eight seconds left; the stage was set to run out of time and go in the locker room still with one timeout, which, unfortunately, you can’t take with you for the second half.
This was when the stars came out: Nix dropped back and under pressure threw a low dart to a sliding Traeshon Holden in the end zone. Irving had a key block in front of Nix as Liberty sent an all-out blitz that came up short — the Ducks had a 31-6 lead and the world was right. It was the eighth time this season that Nix had directed a touchdown drive in the last minute of the first half. Consider what that success does for your team going into the locker room at halftime: happy enthusiasm and the energy you want as the team prepares for the second half. That’s one reason the Ducks won 12 games this season and only lost two by a combined six points.
Credit should also go to the defense who were missing a couple of key performers who also wanted to watch the game, and actually played better as the game progressed. The Flames were limited to 126 yards through the air, a testament to both a pass rush that at times had quarterback Kaidon Salter scrambling for his life and pass coverage that was physical and effective. Steve Stephens IV, who has had an up-and-down career, was all over the field, and showed physicality in fighting off blockers and tackling on the perimeter of the defense. All-conference safety Evan Williams, as usual, made a couple of hellacious hits, but the Ducks still lack a safety who plays deep enough to break on balls thrown downfield, like Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze did. Coach Lanning may set that as a priority for the next batch of secondary defenders.
Final ride for Bo Nix, Bucky Irving leaves big shoes for Ducks to fill
There were a lot of tears shed in the beginning of the fourth quarter when Nix was substituted for freshman quarterback Austin Novosad. The crowd stood and cheered as the most-valuable Duck headed for the bench for the final time and was embraced by teammates and a special moment with Lanning. Two plays later, after carrying the ball for seven and then 17 yards, Irving was subbed for, and the crowd once again rose to their feet, honoring one of the most dynamic running backs ever at Oregon.
Nix set a handful of NCAA quarterback statistics: 61 starts (1st); 152 touchdowns responsible for (4th); pass completions 1,286 (7th); and 15,352 pass yards (6th). His pass completion percentage for this season also broke the NCAA record formerly held by Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. As Nix played two years for Auburn, taking the record away from a player from rival Alabama must be a bit of satisfaction.
This season, two losses to Washington left a bitter taste for players and fans that will take a long time to go away, but Lanning has firmly established a winning discipline and attitude for the seasons ahead. The popular coach, only in his second year as a head coach, has established Oregon as a preeminent recruiting force and has put together an energetic staff that makes that force successful in forging personal relationships with the players and their families. There is a lot of talent coming back next season along with recruits and transfers to fill key openings in the ball club. It will be interesting. Who will replace Nix and Irving? It will be important to have that answered by the end of April.
In this new year, when life gets tough, the coaches will remind their players of that Husky taste and focus on it as they prepare to knock off their rivals and make a grand entrance to the Big 10 Conference, which for your information, has 18 teams.
My new year’s wish is the Ducks could just get one more year of Nix and Irving.
Ken Woody will hold a coaching clinic at 6 p.m. Thursday at the 6th Street Grill featuring video highlights of the Ducks’ Fiesta Bowl victory over Liberty, the historical “Last Hurrah” for the Pac-12 Conference, and recruiting and spring football information. Admission is free; food and drink available. Reservations are encouraged. Call 541-485-2961. After playing at Oregon, Woody coached college football for 18 years as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Utah State and Washington State and as a head coach at Whitman College and Washington University-St. Louis. He has been a commentator on Oregon football on Fox, Prime Sports Northwest and KCPQ.
First appeared on www.registerguard.com