Mario Cristobal

Oregon's Cristobal momentum goes bust in Las Vegas Bowl

Oregon's Cristobal momentum goes bust in Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Oregon coach Mario Cristobal didn't want to hear about his team possibly having played uninspired football and being distracted during a 38-28 loss to No. 25 Boise State Saturday afternoon in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Senior safety Tyree Robinson shook his head and smirked at the mere suggestion that the Ducks (7-6) were impacted at all by the emotional rollercoaster the players endured last week when former coach Willie Taggart bailed for Florida State and three days later Cristobal took over the reigns. 

Yet, to pretend that none of that madness contributed to the uncharacteristically bad showing by Oregon against BSU (11-3) on Saturday defies logic. 

"I don't think our guys were uninspired," Cristobal said. "We just didn't play well."

Not playing well equates to making some mistakes here and there that cost you a game. Simply not playing well does not explain away rushing for just 47 net yards after gaining 268 per game during the regular season or why an offense that averaged 52 points per game with sophomore Justin Herbert at quarterback didn't find the end zone until the third quarter against Boise State. 

"We just wanted to do whatever we can, lay our bodies on the line for (Cristobal)," Robinson said when pressed further about the team's emotional state during the game. "We're not worried about the decision that coach Taggart decided to make. We were playing for this coach now and that's all that matters."

Truthfully, it would be more comforting to know that the Ducks were indeed distracted. Otherwise, the alternative is that they simply got out-coached, out-worked and smacked around by what amounts to an inferior opponent on paper. What exactly would that mean for Oregon's future?

The team we saw go 6-1 with Herbert at quarterback (he missed five games with a broken collarbone) and stop cold a rising Arizona team before destroying a bad Oregon State team to close out the season appeared headed for a 10-win season in 2018. The team we saw on Saturday would be lucky to become bowl eligible again. 

The Ducks played conservative football in the first half with a lot of short passes as if freshman Braxton Burmeister were still filling in for Herbert. The offense line, coached by Cristobal, played awful football. 

Not only couldn't Oregon run well, but the Ducks offered mostly shaky protection for Herbert, who was sacked four times and harassed into two uncharacteristically badly thrown interceptions, one resulting in a 53-yard touchdown return that gave the Broncos a 24-0 lead in the second quarter.  

"We just didn't execute," said Herbert, who also lost a fumble. "We didn't move the ball when we needed to. We didn't hold up our end of the bargain."

The defense didn't play particularly well, either, but did keep Oregon in the game with two defensive scores within the final minute of the first half thanks to some horrible decisions by the Broncos. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye recovered a fumble off of a botched Statue of Liberty play and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown. Later, Robinson intercepted a horrifically thrown pass route into the end zone and ran it back for an Oregon record 100 yard touchdown return that make the score 24-14 at halftime.  

Those two miracles only delayed the inevitable. The Ducks simply didn't have it on this day. And who really could blame the team for coming out flat. There is simply no way that this team was not impacted by the entire goings on over the previous two weeks. Let's recap:

  • Taggart on Dec. 1 informs team that he would listen to Florida State, which upsets many players.  
  • Taggart goes on a recruiting trip on Dec. 4 in which he also interviews with Florida State. 
  • Taggart returns that same day, and according to some players, sends mixed messages about his intentions. 
  • Taggart tells the team on Dec. 5 that he is leaving after one season, which leads to some players taking to Twitter to essentially call him a liar. 
  • Taggart is introduced at FSU on Dec. 6 while some of Oregon recruits from its top-five ranked recruiting class begin decommitting. 
  • Oregon begins a coaching search while players wonder who will be their third head coach in a year. 
  • Cristobal is named interim coach, which upsets defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. 
  • The players sign a petition asking the administration to make Cristobal the permanent head coach, which probably didn't make Leavitt feel too grand. 
  • Rumors start to swirl about Leavitt leaving and some of the rest of the coaching staff moving on, as well. 
  • Cristobal is officially named head coach on Dec. 8.  
  • The Ducks coaching staff begins the process of trying to salvage the recruiting class while also preparing for a quick turnaround to play Boise State in just eight days.
  • Senior running back Royce Freeman announces that he will not play in the bowl game, news that senior running back Kani Benoit said after the game that the team already knew was coming. 
  • The Ducks take the field against a team with inferior overall physical talent but plenty of determination and stability, and not contending with major distractions.
  • Oregon falls behind 24-0 and never recovers. 

---

When you list it all out like that it what we saw on Saturday makes perfect sense. There is a fine line between being great and being mediocre. Oregon, when it had that swag, looked amazing at times. Mix in the nine-day stretch they experienced prior to the Las Vegas Bowl and you get what you saw on Saturday. 

It would be easy to point the fingers at Cristobal's coaching. But he, like his team, was also placed into an unfair situation. He went from orchestrating the running game as the co-offensive coordinator and line coach to running the team. Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo went from coordinating the passing game for Taggart, who called plays, to calling the plays himself.

Saturday's game shouldn't be given too much credence in terms of predicting the Ducks' future under Cristobal. Oregon will have eight months to get things situated before next season, which begins with three cupcake games. 

Plus, it's not as if we don't have two somewhat recent examples from the past to back up the idea that Saturday was just a bad day not a prelude to disaster. And it just so happens that one example involves Boise State while the other includes the Las Vegas Bowl. 

In 2006, the Ducks looked even worse than they did Saturday during a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl (Oregon should never return to this game) during a 7-6 season only to bounce back the following year and contend for the national title before quarterback Dennis Dixon went down for the season with a knee injury. 

In 2009, Chip Kelly made his debut as Oregon's coach at Boise State and lost 19-8 before righting the ship to lead UO to the Pac-10 championship in 2009. 

Maybe Oregon, under Cristobal, could make a similar rebound from Saturday to find great success. 

"We've got to get back to work once we come back off the break and re-establish ourselves and recognize the good things that were accomplished this year, and the things that have to be made better," Cristobal said. "And we will. We will focus on that and go forward."

Time will allow the Ducks to do so with a much clearer focus. 

Ducks can't afford to crap out in the Mario Cristobal Bowl

Ducks can't afford to crap out in the Mario Cristobal Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Saturday's game should be viewed by Oregon as the Mario Cristobal Bowl played in Las Vegas, Nev. 

Cristobal needs this win. UO's administration needs this win. Most of all, the players need a victory in order to validate why they went to bat for Cristobal with a petition asking that he be elevated from co-offensive coordinator to head coach last week after Willie Taggart jumped ship for Florida State. 

"We definitely feel the need to go in there and show the administration, as well as everybody all around the country, that they made the right decision in picking coach Cristobal to be the head coach," Oregon sophomore center Jake Hanson said. 

That need is real, and it raises the stakes for Oregon (7-5), making this about as close to a "must-win" as a middling bowl game matchup could be. 

Let's face it; the Oregon program and most of its fans believe that the Ducks are above the Las Vegas Bowl.  To them, this is the program of Kelly, LaMike, Mariota, Rose Bowls, Fiesta Bowls and national title games. 

The Vegas Bowl, and the like, is for chumps, not Ducks. With so many bowl games and only six wins needed to qualify for these glorified exhibitions, it's easy to dismiss most of these postseason contests. This bowl certainly falls into that category. Heck, senior running back Royce Freeman won't even be bothered with playing in this event. This will be the lowest bowl game the Ducks will have appeared in since losing 38-8 here to BYU in 2006. 

Yet, here Oregon is, in Sin City, desperately searching for its first bowl victory since the 2014 season that ended in the national title game. The Ducks (7-5) are also looking for some validation that the program is headed in the right direction.

Boise State (10-3) is the opponent. The Broncos are champions of the Mountain West Conference. That's not even Power Five. BSU shouldn't be on Oregon's level, record be damned. Surely the Ducks have got this one in the bag.

Well, they'd better. For a program that built its brand and success through a lineage of connected coaches, the Ducks appear to be a white-hot mess in desperate search of some footing. 

Reasons exist to believe that Cristobal, despite his 27-47 record, could lead the Ducks back to the top. Oregon bypassed chasing after bigger names because athletic director Rob Mullens - skewered after Taggart, his handpicked guy, departed - decided to roll the dice on Cristobal and maintaining some continuity.  

Should Cristobal fail, Mullens would have whiffed twice in finding a replacement for Mark Helfrich, who went 37-16 in four seasons but was fired after one losing season, albeit a horrific one at 4-8. 

Losing Saturday won't mean that hiring Cristobal was a mistake. But it certainly would create doubt, in at least some, that would linger all offseason. A loss could also lead to further deterioration of UO's recruiting class once ranked No. 1 and No. 5 respectively on top websites before Taggart left. Now the class sits at No. 9 and No. 10 after six four-star recruits withdrew commitments. 

Winning on Saturday, however would send the Ducks into the offseason with momentum and an even stronger belief that Cristobal is the guy. Rallying the team from the disappointment of losing Taggart and through not having Freeman to take down a solid Boise State club, and having 14 starters returning next season will raise hopes that a 10-win season is on the horizon. 

"It's huge," Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. "We just had a coaching change and we're very confident in the guy we have. Everyone is so supportive of him and I know that everyone is going to play their heart out for him."

They have no choice. 

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

usatsi_10423517.jpg
USA Today

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman made what had to be a tough decision for him to sit out Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. 

He made the wise decision, even though it might appear to be selfish on the surface. 

"This is hard for him, now," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said today prior to practice at Bishop Gorman High School. "This is not an easy thing for a guy like that."

Freeman, who practiced with the team on Wednesday, was not made available for comment today.

Freeman leaves Oregon as its all-time leading rusher (5,621 yards) and the Pac-12 Conference's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (60). He has given 947 carries to the program, a total that's also a record. Going out a winner in a bowl game was probably enticing for Freeman but the risk of injury isn't worth the reward. Few will remember or care who won the Vegas Bowl within days after it ends. An injury could hinder Freeman, projected to go in the third or fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, for the rest of his career. 

Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby would be wise to follow suit. Cristobal said Crosby would announce his intentions on Friday. Projected by many to be a first-round pick, Crosby could literally be risking $10 million or more by playing in the Vegas Bowl. A serious injury could knock him out of the first round and into the later rounds, as it did former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who tore an ACL during practice prior to the 2014 Rose Bowl. He ended up getting drafted in the seventh round and never fully regained health in his knee. He is now out of the NFL. 

NFL-bound players electing to not play in their team's bowl game is a growing trend. Former Last season, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and LSU running back Leonard Fournette sat out their respective team's bowl games. 

Cristobal is not in favor of this development. 

"I like to see key players play," Cristobal said. 

That doesn't mean he isn't with Freeman on his decision. 

"Am I disappointed in him? No, I'm not," Cristobal asked. "Do I want to see him play? Absolutely. But I stand by him just like I gave him my word and I don't break my word for nobody."

Cristobal said the entire team backs Freeman, as they should 

"They understand that this family thing is not just talk," Cristobal said. "This family thing is real. This family will stick together, support each other and we'll press forward."

Oregon's running game should be just fine on Saturday. When Freeman went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter against California on Sept. 30 the Ducks still won 45-24 and rushed for 328 yards and six touchdowns.

In 2016, after Freeman went down with a foot injury at Nebraska, the Ducks managed to rush for 336 yards and five touchdowns. Crosby was lost for the season in that game. 

Interestingly, following practice offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo met with the media and when asked about Freeman's decision said that he was unaware of the situation. 

"It's unfortunate," he said. "Obviously, Royce is such a big part of who we area. But guys are going to made decisions based on the betterment for their life. Royce has done an awesome job for us. We're going to miss him...but just like when he went down, we have to find a way to pull together."

The Ducks will lean on senior Kani Benoit, redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James, who will likely be next year's top back, junior Taj Griffin and freshman Darrian Felix. 

There is plenty of talent there to win with making Freeman's decision ever more on the mark as being the right move for his future. 

Upbeat Ducks prepare for important Vegas Bowl vs. Boise State

Upbeat Ducks prepare for important Vegas Bowl vs. Boise State

Oregon returned to the business of football over the weekend in preparation for Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl as if nothing ever happened last week.

During a seven-day stretch crazy emotional swings, Willie Taggart left Oregon to become the coach at Florida State on Tuesday leading to Mario Cristobal being elevated from co-offensive coordinator to head coach on Friday. 

Once the madness had subsided, the Ducks got back to playing football and preparing to face formidable Boise State on Saturday. 

"I feel like we're very dialed in, especially with everything that has been going on, I still feel like we have our heads on straight," redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks said.

Cristobal said he didn't expect his team to display any adverse impact from going through such a tough week, nor did he believe that the trappings of Las Vegas would distract his team from the job at hand. 

"I'm confident about the mindset of our guys," Cristobal said. "During the bowl season a couple of things happen; you have a mindset to go perform or you have a mindset to kind of go have fun. Our guys want to perform well. And to perform well, the investment has to be done during the course of the week."

The last time Oregon played in the Las Vegas Bowl not only did the city's environment get to the Ducks but Brigham Young laid a 38-8 butt-whoopin on Oregon. That Ducks team, however, was a mess. They had experienced a disappointing season after going 10-2 the previous year, and headed to Las Vegas as a fractured bunch. 

This time around, despite losing their head coach, these Ducks are strongly united and excited for the challenge ahead. Very rarely does a team's voice get answered when it comes to the hiring of a coach. But certainly the fact that 70-plus players signed a petition asking athletic director Rob Mullens to elevate Cristobal didn't go unnoticed. 

The result is an Oregon team that got what it wanted in a head coach. Now the team must go out and prove that it will perform at a high level for Cristobal in a big setting. 

---

Oregon vs. Boise State

When: 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Sam Boys Stadium, Las Vegas, Nev.  

T.V.: ABC. 

Betting line: Oregon by 7 1/2.

Records: Ducks (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12), Boise State (10-3, 7-1 Mountain West).

Last game: Oregon won the Civil War two weeks go then had the past two Saturday off. Boise State won its conference championship game over Fresno State, 17-14 on Dec. 2. 

Coaches: Ducks' Mario Cristobal (27-47, 0-0 at Oregon); BSU's Bryan Harsin (48-17, 41-12 at Boise State).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5. The Ducks with sophomore Justin Herbert at quarterback are a force that Boise State will have a tough time defeating. 

Boise State has a solid offense led by quarterback Brett Rypien, who has passed for 2,515 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions. 

"He's efficient, he's tough, he's athletic," Cristobal said. "He knows exactly what to do. He's a very well-coached individual."

But the Broncos' 32 points per game shouldn't scare the Ducks, who averaged 52 with Herbert in the lineup. 

Boise State's defense has being strong, giving up just 22.5 points per game. But Washington State put up big numbers during a 47-44 triple-overtime win over Boise State and Virginia took down the Broncos, 42-23.

The odds of Boise State keeping the Ducks under 40 are not strong while nothing about the Broncos suggests that they are capable of winning a shootout against Oregon.

The wild card in play, however, could be the status of senior running back Royce Freeman. Should he elect to sit out the game in order to prepare for the NFL Draft, the Ducks would be in for a closer outing. Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby said on Friday that he wasn't sure if he would play in Las Vegas. 

If both sit out, the Ducks would certainly face a much tougher challenge in Las Vegas. 

Game prediction: Oregon 44, Boise State 30. The Ducks are fired up. Keep in mind that this program has not won a bowl game since the 2014 Rose Bowl and not many players on the team saw the field that day. They have something to prove having supported Cristobal ball or the head job. Letting him down with a poor performance would be a bad look for all involved.   

Cristobal: He's a recruiter and isn't that the most important thing at Oregon?

Cristobal: He's a recruiter and isn't that the most important thing at Oregon?

Aaron Fentress scooped the college football world this morning with the first report that assistant coach Mario Cristobal will be named Oregon's next head coach.

The one thing that sticks out for me about this hire is that the Ducks are getting a big-time recruiter as their head coach -- which may well be the biggest part of Cristobal's resume. To win big in college football -- and Oregon is firmly in that group of schools that thinks winning a national championship is possible -- you need players. Big-time, blue-chip, NFL-first-three-rounds-of-the-draft players. And Willie Taggart aside -- because he cast himself aside so quickly -- the Ducks haven't really had a recruiting dynamo as the leader of the program. Ever.

Again, excluding Taggart, who departed prior to actually landing his first highly regarded class.

Cristobal has long been considered one of the top recruiters in the country and while at Alabama was instrumental in the Crimson Tide hauling in prized recruits year after year.

It's about time the Ducks brought in a premier recruiter, isn't it? For years, all I've heard is how difficult it is to bring top players to Oregon, which is so far from where all the top high school players live. So why not seek out one of the best recruiters in the country? Once you realize a top-flight sales job is needed, why not hire a very good salesman?

The Ducks have come close to a national championship a couple of times in recent years and I don't think they lost title games because of on-field coaching mistakes. I'm not saying the strategy and hands-on work with players isn't important. But I do think there are plenty of coaches capable of getting a team through a season without messing up the weight-room requirements, who to start at safety, defensive sets and third-down play calls.

Where the Ducks have usually fallen short is in the talent area. Frankly, they just haven't quite been good enough. Chip Kelly's schemes were great and I think his teams were disciplined, played hard and were well-coached. But they were always just a few big-time players shy -- especially up front on both sides of the ball -- from climbing all the way to the top of the college football world.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Cristobal may be able to rescue a majority of the recruiting class that Taggart put together this year. But if he doesn't, that's not the end of the world. The Ducks need big-time recruits EVERY season. And ie appears to me Cristobal is someone with the credentials to make that happen. At least it's worth a try. My only real concern about the hire is that he's another guy from the opposite corner of the country who may be, like Taggart, another candidate for an early exit.

Oh, his record as a head coach leaves something to be desired at first glance. But if you dive deeper into his situation at Florida International, you will find extenuating circumstances.

And recruiting to Nike U. will surely be easier than it was at FIU.

BREAKING: Oregon to name Mario Cristobal new head coach

BREAKING: Oregon to name Mario Cristobal new head coach

Developing story

----

Mario Cristobal will become the new head coach of the Oregon Ducks football team, according to a source. 

Cristobal will will replace Willie Taggart, who after one season left Oregon on Tuesday to replace Jimbo Fisher as the next coach at Florida State. 

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Cristobal came to Oregon last year to become the Ducks co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. He previously coached the offensive line at Alabama from 2013 through 2016. 

Cristobal has head coaching experience. He guided Florida International from 2007 through 2012, compiling a record of 27-47. He took over a struggling program and went 1-11 his first season. He seemingly rebuilt the program and reached 8-5 in 2011 before backsliding to 3-9 the following year. 

About 70 Oregon players signed a petition lobbying for Cristobal to take over the program. He was named interim coach for the team's Dec. 16 meeting with Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. 

The push now is to keep defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt on as defensive coordinator. He wanted to replace Taggart as head coach, so it will be interesting to see if he is willing to remain at Oregon given that he was passed over for another assistant. 

However, the Ducks, with the help of some powerful boosters, could be in a position to make a financial offer that could ease Leavitt's disappointment. He made $1.125 million this season. 

According to those with knowledge of the search, former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and current California coach Justin Wilcox were very much in the mix. However, Wilcox, according to a source, never interviewed with Oregon.

Keeping Cristobal is a strong move. He, along with whatever assistant coaches remain, could help salvage what was a top five recruiting class before Taggart departed. 

Since he moved on, the class has fallen to in the rankings due to decommits but remains top 10. Cristobal's presence could very well help keep the class in the top 10. 

PODCAST:

Karma bit Oregon in the backside, but the Ducks will recover

imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-kjljnno7iyl.jpg
USA Today

Karma bit Oregon in the backside, but the Ducks will recover

In the end, Oregon got what it deserved. 

Karma bit the Ducks in the backside when former coach Willie Taggart, after one Swag Surfin' season, hopped on his boogie board and glided out of town to become Florida State's new coach, leaving behind a lot of angry UO fans and jilted players (see Troy Dye).

For the first time ever (or at least based on what I can tell), an Oregon football coach has flat out left the program for another college job. It's no coincidence that this occurred a year after Oregon fired a coach for the first time in 40 years. 

Yes, I'm back on the Mark Helfrich kick once again. But only because I warned this time last year last year that firing Helfrich after one losing season and just two years removed from guiding Oregon to the nation title game could set into motion a vicious cycle of coaches coming in and out of the program for a variety of reasons. 

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Here we are a year later and the Ducks are already searching for their second coach post Helfrich. 

What's most amusing is all of the whining about "loyalty." Really? Loyalty is not sending a group of coaches that had accomplished so much at Oregon out to recruit when the writing was on the wall that they would be fired, then firing them while they literally were in the process of meeting with recruits. That was a messed up and totally disrespectful move by athletic director Rob Mullens on every level.

One recruit's family member, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled an awkward home visit with Helfrich, who clearly believed he was on thin ice. Helfrich told the family that he didn't know if he would remain Oregon's coach while also trying to recruit the player to UO.

That's just wrong. Let's go ahead and set aside Helfrich for a moment, how does one place in the same situation former long-time assistants like Steve Greatwood, Don Pellum, Gary Campbell, Tom Osborne and John Neal? 

Those guys only helped anchor the greatest era in Oregon football and what will likely remain the greatest era into the near future unless the Ducks magically win a national title, which remains only remotely possible. 

How Taggart dealt with Oregon's players is another story. But in terms of the business side of things. spare me the talk about how disloyal Taggart was to a program he worked for only one year. Especially considering that he didn't leave the Ducks for, say, Arkansas or Louisville. He left Oregon for Florida State, an all-time marquee program that Oregon can't measure up to, and it just so happens to be the team he grew up rooting for while growing up in Palmetto, Fla., where his widowed mother still resides. 

That, right there, is loyalty. Loyalty to family. Loyalty to roots. Loyalty to that childhood connection many of you have with Oregon. And, yes, loyalty to the almighty dollar, because Florida State offered more money (six years and $30 million) than Oregon did. 

And don't think that Taggart hadn't noticed how Helfrich and company were treated when fired.

During a candid conversation with Taggart last February, he said that he believed that the previous staff were unfairly fired given all that they had accomplished. But, that's the business, he added. On Tuesday, he played that business to his advantage. 

Oregon had avoided that side of the business for decades because the program didn't panic when things went south, as they did last year when the Ducks went 4-8 under Helfrich during the program's first losing season in 12 years. Oregon had a legacy coaching tree in place that went from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly to Helfrich. The latter three were promoted from within after serving as offensive coordinators to their predecessor. Bellotti retired from coaching in 2009 order to promote Kelly. Kelly left for the NFL in 2013 opening the door for Helfrich. All three came within a game, or two, of winning the national title. 

Then, well, Oregon got too big for its britches. The Ducks fans and hierarchy decided that the program was far too big to ever have a down season, which of course is absurd. So, UO blew out the former coaching staff and set out to find someone that would return the program to glory. 

That someone was expected to be Taggart. Oops. 

What Mullens should have done last year was sat Helfrich down and given him the "win or else" talk. Mullens should have made it clear that he must at least reach a bowl game in 2017 and reestablish discipline in the locker room.

One former assistant coach who didn't believe that the staff would be fired up until they were, stated late last season that had the staff returned in 2017 and had another losing season, he would fire himself.  

Instead, Mullens pulled the trigger last year. Clearly, he believed that Oregon could do better than a staff that had won four Pac-12 titles, two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl in six years. Yet, he ended up striking out with all of the so-called "big named" candidates before hiring a young coach in Taggart on the speculation that he was ready to thrive. 

Truth be told, I liked the hire. It was a bold roll of the dice on a young coach. Oh, and he is African-American, which for me (also African-American and long annoyed by the clear racism involved when it comes to the hiring of football coaches of color) earned Mullens triple bonus points.  

But the right move still remains to have given Helfrich and company one year to turn things around. With quarterback Justin Herbert in place, that turnaround would have happened and Oregon wouldn't be in the mess that it is now. 

The good news is that Oregon should still be able to find a good coach to lead what will be a potentially really good team in 2018. The trick, though, is finding someone that cares as much about Oregon as Oregon cares about winning. 

For all of its bells and whistles, Oregon is not a marquee job. The stadium is small, it's tough to get to Eugene, the region is short on recruits, the fan base is fickle and not nearly as rooted as they are in places such as Michigan, Nebraska, Texas and Florida State. Oregon has accomplished a lot with many disadvantages thanks to what was an innovative offense, Nike's support and brilliant marketing that elevated the Ducks brand, making UO a desirable place to play for high-end recruits. But not many proven coaches out there are going to view Oregon as a destination job. Helfrich did. But UO wasn't even on Taggart's radar until he interviewed for the job. 

So where does UO go from here. 

Kevin Sumlin and Mario Cristobal are good options. Sumlin, fired this year by Texas A&M, is looking to rebuild his career. Cristobal, once fired by Florida International and from Miami, Fla., longs to return to being a head coach. 

But would either consider Oregon a place to set up roots? At this point, Mullens will have to build a contract for UO's next coach that makes it very painful to leave for another collegiate program.  He failed to do that with Taggart. However, I'll bet that Taggart and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, would not have allowed such language to get in the way of the coach taking off for FSU. 

All of this is why I want to see Oregon go after California coach Justin Wilcox. He is an up-and-coming talent that has deep connections to Oregon. He played there. His brother, father and uncle also played there. He likely wouldn't leave Oregon down the road unless it were to jump to the NFL. 

Hiring Wilcox would return the Ducks to a place that values connections and roots, a formula tha worked so well for 40 years, save for a few bumps in the road such as the 2016 season. 

Whatever Oregon does, the Ducks will have a chance to return to greatness but will never avoid having bumps in the road here and there. Few programs ever do.  

But maybe returning to the past in terms of how the program hires and fire people should be more important than the unrealistic quest to become something the program will never be, a place strong enough to keep a Taggart from jetting off to a Florida State.  

At the end of the day, the entire Helfrich debate comes down to one more year. Had he succeeded, everyone would be happy. Had he failed, then he would be gone. The former staff deserved that one year more so than a Florida State fan with ambitions beyond Oregon. 

Oregon's offensive line could be considered the greatest in program history by season's end

Oregon's offensive line could be considered the greatest in program history by season's end

EUGENE - Oregon's offensive line should be a wrecking crew in 2017. 

When it's all said and done, this group could be considered the greatest in program history. The line's combination of size, strength, agility and tenacity across the board is unmatched by any previous Ducks line. It's so good, that the line could be the unit that transforms the Ducks from fledgling bowl team to one that could actually challenge in the Pac-12 North Division. 

“I think it all starts up front and if there is one position group on this football team that’s very solid and together and I’m really excited about, it’s the offensive line,” UO coach Willie Taggart said.

The Ducks return four redshirt sophomores who saw starts last year.  Center Jake Hanson, guard Shane Lemieux and tackle Calvin Throckmorton each started 12 games. Tackle Brady Aiello saw 10 starts. Most importantly, UO returns senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby, the team's best offensive lineman who missed 10 games last season mostly due to a broken foot. Toss in senior Jake Pisarcik, who played in six games and will compete to start at guard, and senior backups Doug Brenner and Evan Voeller and the Ducks have a loaded group to work with.

“There’s so many guys that we can plug in there and I’ve got complete confidence in all of them,” sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. “They’ve done a great job this offseason and they really know what they are doing.”

They experienced some great lessons last year and came out looking pretty good. Consider that the Ducks, despite running back Royce Freeman have a down season due to injuries, finished second in Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (226.4) and tied for the conference lead with Arizona in yards per attempt (5.5).

Not bad. But there was tons of room for growth. 

“I think we’re going to be tons better," Lemieux said. "Just looking at film from last fall camp to this last spring, it’s just like a total different offensive line.”

Different in size, strength, techniques and smarts. 

The Ducks line has increased its strength and bulk, going from about a 290-pound average to 310. The added physicality will be needed to operate in a new rushing attack. Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has installed a more physical attack based on what he did as line coach at Alabama and Taggart's schemes. 

Oregon wants to be more downhill in its attack. Straight ahead. Powerful. Tough. They will still get to the edges, which the previous scheme lived off of, but the new attack wants to enforce its will on opponents. The change in attitude takes time to build. 

"We're getting there," Cristobal said. "I wouldn't trade these guys for anything...You see the power...When you have a backfield like we have you can't help be excited to come off the ball and knock people back."

The trick is to build that depth through competition. 

"You can't let them feel comfortable," Cristobal said. "If they played to a certain standard then that standard has got to be higher...You're going to need depth. And you're going to need someone at some point in time to step in, or at some point in time be better than what's being done."

Unity and synergy are also important. Crosby acted as a mentor last year while sidelined. Now he is a leader and likes how the group has gelled. 

“We’ve all really grown together,“ Crosby said.

That, and experience, should lead to better communication. Last year, Herbert, playing as a freshman quarterback, sometimes had trouble communicating checks with such a young line. A season together, and a strong offseason complete with team bonding should make on-field communication more efficient. 

“When we see something that we don’t like we can change the play and we’re all on the same page,” Herbert said. “Last year, just five or six guys coming together that haven’t played much together communication stuff wasn’t great but having a year with them has been awesome. We’re so comfortable together that if Jake says something we know we are all going to follow him.”

Last season ended on a negative note for the Ducks. They led at Oregon State in the second half before the rains came. The passing game went down hill while OSU began to pound its running game at a weak Oregon defense. The Ducks' running game never answered. Oregon won 34-24. 

“There’s obviously some freshman mistakes that shouldn’t have been there by the end of the season” Lemieux said.

But that was then. This is now. 

“Our play has changed a lot," Lemieux said. "Our demeanor has changed a lot. Where last year I can look back and early in the season our strength wasn’t up to par as it should have been. There were some technique issues that shouldn’t have been happening that late in the season. Definitely I think the freshmen mistakes are obviously out the window.”

And that's bad news for opposing defenses. 

Ducks landing ginormous offensive linemen in recruiting

Ducks landing ginormous offensive linemen in recruiting

Oregon's 2018 recruiting class, ranked No. 5 in the nation by Rivals.com, is long on talent and beef. 

The Ducks will use a more downhill power running offense under coach Willie Taggart and co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Mario Cristobal than in the past and that requires size and strength. It appears that plenty is on the way. 

The class includes three offensive linemen that each weigh more than 330 pounds. To put that into perspective, the current Ducks' offensive line has just one player that weighs more than 325 and that's junior college transfer, George Moore

The projected starting offensive line averages about 308 pounds across with a high of 317 in the form of senior Tyrell Crosby. 

Oregon on Tuesday received a commitment from one of the centerpieces of this class, four-star guard Steven Jones out of Temecula, Calif.  The No. 7-rated guard in the nation checks in at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds.

Christopher Randazzo, a three-star recruit from Chino, Calif., is 6-5, 340. 

Then theres three-star guard Justin Johnson out of Philadelphia, Penn., who is 6-7 and 342 pounds. 

All three still must develop, shed baby fat, add muscle and strength and then perform on the field. But clearly the Ducks are going to start looking much larger along the offensive line in years to come under Taggart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oregon co-OC Marcus Arroyo brings that "juice" to the field

Oregon co-OC Marcus Arroyo brings that "juice" to the field

EUGENE - Oregon co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo has “that juice,” Ducks coach Willie Taggart covets.

That’s why he hired him. That’s what onlookers have witnessed from the Ducks’ passing game coordinator during spring drills.

“He’s smart. Very smart,” Taggart said. “Very articulate. He does a great job with the players. He’s very energetic. That’s everyday. He’s like coach (Jim) Leavitt. Got that juice everyday. He’s a team player. All about the team.”

New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, often "juiced" carbonated, sugary beverages, is a ball of energy on the defensive side while Arroyo is his counterpart on the offensive side of the ball.

Always bouncing. Always on the hop. Arroyo physically exudes the excitement he expresses about being at Oregon.

And it all began with an interrupted phone call following an unfortunate incident.

If Taggart had had his way, Arroyo would already be on year three with his staff. Taggart, while at South Florida, tried to hire the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer' quarterbacks coach when he became available after the Bucs made staff changes following the 2014 season. However, Taggart said USF lacked the financial resources to land Arroyo, who received a better offer from Oklahoma State, where he coached running backs the past two seasons.

When Taggart accepted the head coaching job at Oregon last December he brought David Reaves with him from South Florida to be the Ducks’ passing game coordinator. His tenure didn’t last long. A poor decision to drive while intoxicated led to a DUII arrest on Jan. 22, prompting Oregon to begin the process of terminating him. Reaves ultimately resigned a couple of weeks later.

That put Taggart back on the hunt for a passing game coordinator to compliment running game coordinator and offensive line coach, Mario Cristobal. That trail led Taggart back to Arroyo. This time, armed with greater financial resources from UO, Taggart felt confident he could land his man.

A phone call was placed, somewhat surprising Arroyo.

“My first response was, “I’ve got to buckle my seatbelt, I’m about to take off, I’m on an airplane right now,’” Arroyo explained following Wednesday’s practice. “And, I’ll call you back when I land.”

Arroyo did call back. Taggart answered and offered. Arroyo accepted, eager to work with Taggart.  

“In our business it’s a small circle,” Arroyo said. “When you find really, really good people you want to work with you stay in contact, and it worked out.”

Getting back to west coast appealed to Arroyo, who hails from Colfax, Calif., and played quarterback at San Jose State (1998-2002), passing for 4,672 yards and 28 touchdowns over his career.

Arroyo also worked at California under coach Jeff Tedford, a former UO offensive coordinator (1998-2001), as the the quarterbacks coach in 2011 before adding the responsibilities of passing game coordinator in 2012.

Arroyo, who coaches quarterbacks and tight ends for UO, has also coached wide receivers in his past, doing so at Southern Mississippi in 2013 when he was also the offensive coordinator.

“From an experience standpoint, he has everything you’re looking for,” Taggart said.  

Right now Arroyo's main focus is on coordinating the Ducks' passing game and evaluating the play of four talented quarterbacks: sophomore Justin Herbert, redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr, redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen and freshman Braxton Burmeister. 

Arroyo said the group is getting equal-enough snaps to allow for a true competition. Herbert, who started seven games last season, is the logical favorite to win the job. Arroyo likes what he's seen from him so far. 

"What I saw on film coming in was a young man with great poise, some really good traits and intangibles," Arroyo said.

Jonsen said he's enjoyed working with Arroyo, who stresses the importance of being a student of the game.

"He's just been really on us watching film," Jonsen said. "Really taking that free time and really watching yourself in 7-on and team."

Pushing the quarterbacks to match his intensity is part of that “juice” Taggart likes about Arroyo, who came to Oregon with high expectations for himself and the Ducks' offense.

“There’s no barriers for success at Oregon,” Arroyo said.