Ducks football welcomes challenge of hostile environment
Chip Kelly doesn’t remember much about it, nor does he care to.
He has been asked in his weekly teleconference about that infamous moment in the Oregon-Arizona game of 2009 in Tucson, when Wildcat fans piled onto the sidelines to celebrate a presumed victory with more than three minutes remaining.
Oregon, of course, went on to win 44-41 in double overtime@@http://www.goducks.com/SportSelect.dbml?SPSID=3377&SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&Q_SEASON=2009@@, stunning and embarrassing a raucous home crowd in the process. It was a night made memorable for its wackiness, for the sheer audacity of a crowd to celebrate a victory with precious time left on the clock.
And yet, Kelly barely even noticed.
“I never saw that,” he said. “(The fans) weren’t in the coaches’ box getting in our way, so they didn’t affect our players or our coaching staff at all.”
Perhaps Kelly shouldn’t speak for everyone. Kenjon Barner saw what was happening late that night, and he was none too pleased.
“Four minutes left in the game, you’ve got people coming down on the field, and you feel disrespected,” Barner said. “This is not a team that wants to be disrespected.”
Whether the coaches and players noticed the mayhem, however, is not the point. With 10,000 fans packed into the ZonaZoo student section@@http://www.arizonawildcats.com/ot/zona-zoo.html@@, Arizona Stadium is known as one of the conference’s toughest places to play. Coming off of two straight home games against considerably weaker opponents, Oregon will have to buckle up for yet another tumultuous night in enemy territory.
“I think their crowd is really one of the biggest factors,” Kelly said. “They’ve got an unbelievable student section…and anytime you get the crowd that can get involved in the game the way they do, it’s just similar to the crowd that we have here in Autzen. I think that can make it a difficult venue for you to play games in.”
Difficult, yes, but it is also invigorating and, strangely enough, exciting.
“I don’t think our guys get overwhelmed by the environment that they’re in,” Kelly said. “You don’t want to go into a place where people are sitting on their hands and there’s not a lot of energy. There’s a lot of energy down in that stadium, and if you’re a competitor, you get excited about that.”
Running back LaMichael James, who ran for 117 yards in his last appearance at Arizona Stadium@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=204838581@@, falls into line with his coach.
“I think that’s the way college football should be,” he said. “You know, it’s fun. The fans are really into the game from the beginning, throughout the pregame and throughout the whole game.”
It helps that the Ducks are used to the chaos. Autzen Stadium is well known as one of the nation’s toughest (and loudest) places to play, and Oregon is well versed in competing amid the screams of thousands.
“We’re used to that sound,” Kelly said. “Our defensive players have to handle it because our crowd cheers so loud when the other offense is on the field, so it’s really just kind of flipped for us. Now the offense has to handle it.”
That task will be made easier by Oregon’s unique play-calling system, which involves illustrated signs rather than vocal calls to the quarterback.
“We do everything from the sidelines, anyway,” James said. “We read our signs, and so I don’t really think the noise will be a factor for us too much at all.”
It’s all very easy to say, though, on a brisk fall afternoon in Eugene. Executing the game plan in a hostile — and much hotter — environment amid a sea of red and blue will be an entirely different story. Even James admits as much.
“I never really notice the fans,” James said. “But (2009) was one game that I really did notice the fans. They were really rowdy, so I think they played a big part in that game. And I’m sure they’re going to play a big part in this game this week.
“It’s just going to be the matter of who’s mature and who’s going to play mistake-free.”