Maybe the most prescient thing uttered Monday on ESPN, in the network’s wide-ranging coverage of the national championship game between Oregon and Ohio State, came from the Philadelphia Eagles coach.

Chip Kelly, who in four seasons as Ducks coach raised the program to its current level, was asked on ESPN what Ohio State had to do to slow Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the high-powered Oregon offense.

“It still comes down to, like every football game comes down to, the battle up front,” Kelly said on a pregame panel discussion. “The Oregon offensive line vs. the defensive front of Ohio State, which is outstanding, and who can control the line of scrimmage. If you can put Oregon into the third and longs, then it becomes a different thing.”

Ohio State handled the Ducks 42-20, and the Ducks were indeed in third-and-long situations too often. For Oregon fans, the game was surely tough to watch at times.

But if you watched it to see how ESPN did in presenting the first college playoff final, you had reason to be impressed.

In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, ESPN promoted the games with short commercials that seemed oddly low key in 2014 and ’15. But they actually previewed ESPN’s approach to the broadcast.

The World Wide Leader took a less-is-more approach, especially with game graphics and animation. Anymore in big-time sports, we see big shiny score graphics that take up way too much of the screen. ESPN placed a small scoreboard in the bottom right corner, well-placed to not obstruct.

The line-of-scrimmage and first-down lines also were discreetly placed in a manner that made them appear painted onto the field. Same for the simple box placed in the picture that indicated down and distance, in the color of the offensive team.

Even the transitional animation that switched viewers to a replay zipped on and off the screen quickly, with just a slight sound effect.

It was such a refreshing change from the graphic bells and whistles we see too often from, say, Fox when it does the World Series or NFL football and too often blasts graphics and “Transformers”-like animation that scream, “Look at me!”

ESPN’s stuff said more like, “Here are a few things that could help you enjoy the game.”

The announcing assignment for the first playoff championship game went to Chris Fowler on play-by-play and Kirk Herbstreit on color. Fowler, who joined ESPN in 1986, has mostly been a studio host, but has been a major voice in college football with his work on “College GameDay.”

This year, Fowler replaced the venerable Brent Musburger as the main play-by-play guy for ABC/ESPN, which placed him into the major role of calling Monday’s game.

Fowler doesn’t have the easy on-air manner and sense of humor of Musburger, but he did a workmanlike job Monday, almost never flubbing facts (although he once misidentified Oregon running back Royce Freeman as Thomas Tyner, but others have done that) and moving the game along.

Herbstreit was a worry for some Oregon fans simply because he played for Ohio State. As former Ducks quarterback, and current Fox color commentator, Joey Harrington explained to me, it can be awkward to call games involving your former school because fans either look closely for bias or demand loyalty.

It was hard to see any bias out of Herbstreit on Monday. Certainly, he praised Ohio State profusely, but the Buckeyes deserved it. And he saved his most impassioned summary for Mariota.

“All the years of following college football, maybe my most favorite player that I’ve had a chance to cover,” Herbstreit said. “Just a class act. Does it the right way and has meant so much to the Oregon Ducks.”

Not everything ESPN did was golden. Its halftime was ragged, with analysis left to Desmond Howard and Tim Tebow, who revealed an odd detail.

“Before one of those plays, (Ohio State receiver) Jalin Marshall walked up to me and said, ‘I’m about to take this to the house.’ That is a lot of confidence, and that’s how their whole team is playing right now,” Tebow said.

ESPN also brought talk show host Jimmy Kimmel on to present the finalists and winner of a sign-making contest. The winner was a guy named Bryson, who apparently goes to Oregon and made a sign that said, “Urban Meyer met his wife on Farmers Only.” The segment fell on its face badly, but that was an exception.

The game’s final play was an interception thrown by Mariota, which prompted Fowler to say: “It’s not fitting. It ends with an interception. And THE Ohio State Buckeyes are the first national champions of the playoff era.”

Then Fowler and Herbstreit did something that should be required in that situation: They went quiet. For 54 seconds, they let the picture – confetti falling, players and coaches hugging – speak for itself.

It was another good move in a broadcast that was full of them for ESPN.

Kelly and Bellotti: Must-win or not?

Several hours before kickoff, an early ESPN preview show brought Kelly and his predecessor as Oregon coach, Mike Bellotti, together on a panel segment. It led to an interesting exchange.

Bellotti was asked about the importance of the Ducks getting the win. Bellotti, who works as an analyst for ESPN, showed a more media-like approach to the answer.

“The reality is, I think Oregon has to win a national championship to be considered in the vein of all those great programs,” he said. “They’ve been there, four straight BCS games under Chip is pretty unheard of, but still I think people believe that they’re knocking at the door.”

Kelly, who left Oregon to become Eagles coach in 2013, had a different take when asked if he agreed.

“I think in a lot of people’s minds, but mine, no, because I know those players and I know those coaches and the staff that Mike brought me to, and those guys are still there,” Kelly said. “They’re champions no matter what anybody says, the way they handle players, the way they go about their business. It’s a classy operation, it’s always been a classy operation.”

Kelly on Helfrich, Mariota

Kelly had great insight on Ducks coach Mark Helfrich and Mariota during his ESPN appearances.

On Helfrich: “Mark’s special. He’s one of those rare guys. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever been around. He’s an outstanding communicator. When he has a point, he can make it succinctly. I just sat there when we were in staff meetings, he would say something, I was like, ‘Wow, that was pretty sharp. I gotta write that down. That was a good one.'”

Kelly also spoke about Mariota’s ability to make reads and decisions, saying, “He may arguably be the fastest guy on the field tonight, but his mind is even faster.”

Kelly then talked about how Mariota came in as a freshman and was immediately making correct reads, even when he couldn’t name the coverages he was throwing against.

“It was like PhD level stuff that he was doing as a true freshman,” Kelly said. “That’s how his mind works. And to have someone who thinks that well, thinks like a Peyton Manning, and has that athletic ability where he can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his legs, it’s a special package. Obviously, the season he had, it’s one for the ages this year.”

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Other media news and notes:

• Wednesday’s Trail Blazers game against the Los Angeles Clippers has the rare distinction of offering a choice for all Portland-area viewers. The game will be carried by ESPN and KGW. For ESPN, Mike Breen will be on play-by-play, Mark Jackson on color and Lisa Salters on sideline. Although ESPN games are typically also produced by Blazers Broadcasting, they are usually on Comcast SportsNet Northwest, which is not available on Dish and DirecTV.

• An intriguing college basketball matchup Thursday, when Oregon plays at Washington State, which is coached by former Ducks coach Ernie Kent. The 8 p.m. game will be shown on Pac-12 Networks, with Rich Waltz and Matt Muehlebach on the call. The Ducks also play at Washington at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. That game will be on ESPNU.

• Oregon State, after sweeping the visiting Arizona schools – including a stunning 58-56 win over then-No. 7 Arizona on Sunday – also plays the Washington schools, with both games on Pac-12 Networks. The Beavers are at Washington at 6 p.m. Thursday, when JB Long and Mike Montgomery call the game. OSU then plays at Washington State at 6 p.m. Saturday, with Aaron Goldsmith and Dan Dickau on the call. Dickau, who starred at Prairie High School in Southwest Washington, had two playing stints with the Trail Blazers and spent a season as a player development coach with Portland.

• Also on Pac-12 Networks this week: Washington State at Oregon State women’s basketball at 6 p.m. Friday (Rich Burk and Tammy Blackburn on call); Washington at Oregon women’s hoops at 8 p.m. Friday (Ann Schatz, Elise Woodward); Cal State Bakersfield at Oregon State wrestling at 11 a.m. Saturday (Jason Knapp, Ken Chertow); and Washington State at Oregon women’s basketball at 1 p.m. Sunday (Schatz, Cindy Brunson).

• Even in a week with a ton of Oregon Ducks coverage, the most read sports story on this site last week was the summation on the Westboro Baptist Church’s plans to picket the Blazers’ game against Orlando on Saturday. Eliot Njus reported that the small group of picketers who showed up were outnumbered by counter-protestors.

— Mike Tokito
[email protected]
503-294-7604; @mtokito

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