Halloween 2009: The Game That Changed The Pac-12 Landscape

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The upcoming marks the first college football Saturday falling on Halloween since 2009. If this All Hallows Eve shared with college football is anything like the last, expect far-reaching implications well beyond the 2015 season.

It was on that Halloween night six years ago that the complexion of the Pac-12 Conference, still then the Pac-10, changed for years to come.

USC, the seven-time defending conference champion, visited Oregon’s Autzen Stadium sporting a lead in the conference standings (yawn) and the nation’s No. 4 ranking (just fourth?!). The Ducks were no slouches, winning seven straight after losing Week 1 at Boise State, and ranked 10th in the AP Poll.

Still, USC had seen this scenario before. Throughout its rein, contenders emerged as the Pac-10’s new It team — Cal in the mid-2000s, UCLA in 2005, Arizona State in 2007 — and all were summarily slapped down.

But Halloween 2009 was different. Eugene became USC football’s Haddonfield, as the Ducks sliced and diced the Trojans in a performance indicative of the conference’s direction for the next half-decade.

“Fright Night,” indeed.

Oregon was in its first season with Chip Kelly as head coach, and 2009 was Kelly’s third in the program. Predecessor Mike Bellotti hired him from New Hampshire as offensive coordinator in 2007, specifically to design a scheme that would negate USC’s long-held defensive advantages.

The outstanding USC teams of last decade are celebrated for their offensive stars: Carson Palmer, Mike Williams, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith, Fred Davis. But those USC teams dominated with defense, rolling out lineups that rank statistically among college football’s greatest of all-time.

Trojan teams with Sedrick Ellis, Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers, Clay Matthews, Oscar Lua, Frostee Rucker and so on imposed their wills physically on all comers. No one was going to out-muscle USC football; someone needed to redefine the game to beat the Trojans.

That someone was Bellotti. USC’s ascent to the top-tier of college football in the early 2000s came at Oregon’s expense. The Ducks won the last Pac-10 championship before USC’s run (not counting Washington State’s co-championship in 2002) and appeared primed to be the next breakout program. USC stifled the process by nearly a decade.

Seeking to rekindle the program, Bellotti went back to film study on conference foe Arizona State in 2004. Northwestern’s spread gave a much more talented Sun Devil defense fits, prompting Bellotti to hire then-recently released BYU head coach Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator.

The hurry-up, no-huddle spread has always been about gaining a competitive edge over slower defenses. Bellotti wasn’t breaking new ground when he brought in Crowton in 2005. In fact, the first major crack in the USC dynasty became evident that same season, in the 2006 Rose Bowl, when dual-threat quarterback Vince Young paced Texas to 41 points.

But Bellotti’s hire of Kelly to further speed up the Ducks’ new scheme was treading on new ground for power-conference football. The returns were evident immediately with Dennis Dixon’s breakout season in 2007, which likely would have culminated in an Oregon Rose Bowl appearance (or BCS Championship berth) had Dixon not blown out his knee.

Oregon had to wait two years, but the conference title and dramatic shift came in 2009.

USC regrouped defensively in a big way after its national championship loss in Jan. 2006, reaching an apex in 2008 when it allowed just nine points per game. Oregon scored 10 on the Trojans that season.

The 2008 Trojan defense stands as one of the best in college football history, and the next year’s incarnation that struggled against Oregon looked quite different. Attrition from eligibility brought on a whole new batch of contributors, while former secondary coach Rocky Seto took over coordinating duties from Nick Holt.

Nevertheless, USC was fourth-ranked and flourishing despite change. The USC aura was still very much in tact, thanks in part to such defensive efforts as holding Ohio State to 15 in Columbus and Cal to three in Berkeley.

By the end of Halloween night 2009, the aura evaporated. USC’s pass rush opened holes in the defense that quarterback Jeremiah Masoli exploited with a variety of quick passes. Duck receivers given even the slightest space were too quick for Trojan defensive backs.

And, lest you get confused and credit Oregon’s play as the result of pure trickery, widening the field opened gaps up front, which allowed the Ducks to employ a power-run game with LaMichael James that was every bit as effective as the best USC rushing teams.

James went off for 183 yards on just 24 carries.

That night was also the nation’s introduction to the Duck Deluge. Oregon’s signature of recent years are third quarter barrages as the opponent starts getting gassed. In this case, the Ducks hit the Trojans with a 17-3 third quarter, turning a one-score lead into a 21-point advantage that swelled further in the fourth.

The end result was a 47-20 blowout.

The 2009 Halloween game was not singularly responsible for starting a revolution; Oregon’s continued success beyond that night, which resulted in three straight conference championships, prompted an almost league-wide shift in philosophy.

The coaching hires made in the offseason before 2012 had direct ties to this game, as USC was no longer the hunted in the Pac; it was now Oregon.

Rich Rodriguez, whose innovative take on the option at West Virginia gave Bellotti some of his inspiration, replaced Mike Stoops at Arizona. Arizona made a shift to a style more akin to the air raid in 2007 with Sonny Dykes as offensive coordinator, but Dykes’ departure for Louisiana Tech after 2009 left the Wildcat attack somewhat stagnant. Rodriguez gave it the refresher it needed.

Arizona State had already entertained the spread idea under Dennis Erickson with his hire of Noel Mazzone, now Jim Mora’s offensive coordinator at UCLA. But the arrival of Todd Graham, a self-professed 20-year disciple of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense turned up the dial to 11 with Mike Norvell as offensive coordinator.

Washington State tabbed Mike Leach to supercharge the passing offense. Cal brought Dykes back to the Pac-12 a year later.

Every revolution starts somewhere. The Pac-12’s started on Halloween night, 2009, in Eugene, Oregon.