Oregon coach Chip Kelly channeled Bizarro World Allen Iverson this week.
We're (not) talking about practice, man. We're (not) talking about practice. We're (not) talking about practice. We (can talk) about the game. We're (not) talking about practice.
Kelly closed practices this week -- a bye week, no less -- and won't say anything about what happened during practice, which means fans and media will have to keep guessing as to the health of quarterback Darron Thomas (shoulder) and backup running back Kenjon Barner (concussion). We know this because of a wonderful, testy exchange on the Pac-10 coaches conference call between a good, persistent beat writer -- the Eugene Register-Guard's Rob Moseley -- and Kelly, who never gives in to reporters' questions.
(You can listen to it here -- the exchange starts at 1:19).
Moseley asked about Barner's status: "I’m not talking about that. Practice is closed, Robby, that’s why we closed it. I’m not going to discuss practice," Kelly said.
Moseley followed up by asking why Kelly closed practice (the decision preceded the injuries on Saturday): "I thought that’s what our football team needed, so we don’t have to deal with questions like this," Kelly said.
(Moseley later felicitously noted this on his blog: "This struck me as odd. He closed practices so that he wouldn’t have to face questions like, “Why did you close practice?” Seems to me that, had he not closed practices, the odds were pretty low that I would have asked that question.")
Pac-10 coaches tend to be an open and affable group, unlike the reputations of a number of SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten coaches. And Kelly is no exception, though he can be a bit grumpier than most at times. Most teams have open practices (until Kelly's move only California and Stanford completely closed practices). But a gigantic, pink polka dotted elephant has wandered into Eugene and parked itself in front of Autzen Stadium, and this exotic interloper seems to have made Kelly even more intense than usual.
The elephant's name, by the way, is "National Championship Talk." But you can call her "Natty Champ" for short.
Kelly is trying to ignore this elephant, who is known to be fickle with her affections.
I stopped laughing just after the Moseley-Kelly exchange and was able to ask Kelly how he planned to shield his team from all the hype that is simmering around it.
"We don’t shield our team," he said. "I think our kids can read whatever they want to read. I don’t talk about that. But they also know that it means absolutely nothing. You can just look at Alabama. They were the No. 1 team in the country and they lost. Now they’re the No. 8 team in the country. So I don’t shield my team. I know our kids can read the paper. I know our kids can read the Internet. But we don’t need to discuss it. Because it means nothing."
The Ducks have been here before, though not as an undefeated team. They were 8-1 and ranked No. 2 in 2007 before an ill-fated trip to Arizona. Not sure if any Ducks fans will remember this, but quarterback Dennis Dixon's knee blew up in the first half, the Ducks lost and national title hopes went splat. They then meandered through their next two contests and ended the regular season with a three-game losing streak.
That season is not only noteworthy as a parallel but also as an example of what is different now. When Dixon went down -- and he was only the biggest name on a long injury list that season -- there was no one capable of adequately filling his shoes. The Ducks were shut out -- think about that: Kelly's offense shut out! -- in their next game at UCLA.
But when Thomas went down against Washington State, senior Nate Costa, who lost a close battle for the starting job during the preseason, stepped in and the offense just kept doing its ludicrous speed thing. Costa completed 13 of 15 passes for 151 yards and a TD. And he rushed eight times for 84 yards and a score.
"It just speaks to the depth we have in this football program," Kelly said. "It’s just like bringing Michael Clay in at linebacker or Boseko Lokombo or Cliff Harris or Josh Huff. We have depth at a lot of different spots right now, and that’s paying off for us."
The Ducks don't play again until UCLA comes to town on Oct. 21 for a Thursday night, ESPN game, so there's time for Thomas and Barner to heal, though the best guess is there will be no rush to get Barner back on the field after taking a huge hit against the Cougars that knocked him out and required two nights of hospitalization. There then will be a long week of preparation before the visit to USC on Oct. 30, which remains a big game even though it doesn't have the same gravitas that it appeared to have during the preseason.
So the Ducks have one game in a 20-day span. That's plenty of time for Thomas to get healthy (and perhaps Barner). And if Thomas still needs a few more weeks, the offense remains in good hands with Costa.
In other words, things are setting up nicely for the Ducks to remain in the national title hunt.
Chip, "Natty Champ" really is cute. You don't have to ignore the elephant in the room.
"We don’t run this football program based on outside influences," Kelly said. "People saying you’re this or that, whether you’re good or bad. I don’t think you can do that. We don’t as a coaching staff talk about it. We as a group don’t talk about it. Our players, when I listen to them talk, they don’t talk about it either."
And Kelly most certainly is not going to talk about practice.