Oregon Ducks

DB coach John Neal reflects on his time at Oregon, his future, Helfrich's firing and 'Win the Day'

DB coach John Neal reflects on his time at Oregon, his future, Helfrich's firing and 'Win the Day'

John Neal isn't bitter and he isn't angry.

Granted, the defensive backs coach isn't exactly pleased that Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens decided to fire coach Mark Helfrich on Tuesday. Neal would have liked to have seen Helfrich and the rest of the coaching staff get a chance to turn things around following a 4-8 season. But Neal also said he understands how the coaching game works. Firings are a part of the business. Tough decisions need to be made. 

“I’m not one of the ones that is surprised," Neal said. "I’m not ill-prepared, either. You have to win games and you have to produce.”

For 12 out of 14 seasons at Oregon, Neal was a part of a coaching staff that under three head coaches produced great success. During the last eight seasons, Oregon made two trips to the national championship game, claimed four conference titles and won two Rose Bowls. 

Most of all, however, Neal said he will remember working with so many great coaches, and building great relationships with players that will last a lifetime. 

“That’s what I’m most happy about in my time at Oregon," Neal said. "I’ve received a lot of feedback from a lot of my players just thanking me for everything that’s happened here. Ultimately, it’s about relationships.”

--- Reflecting on the positives

It took only the program's second losing season in 12 years to end a legacy that stretched from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly and then to Helfrich. All are linked through a chain of successions from within. For the first time in 40 years, Oregon has fired a head coach. There is a chance that a new coach could retain some of Oregon's assistants, but it appears obvious that most, which includes some who have been at Oregon for more than 25 years, if not all will be gone. 

Rather than lament on the end, Neal accepts his part in the rise and the downfall. 

Neal recruited and developed many great defensive backfields. Several of his former players reached the NFL, including Patrick Chung, T.J. Ward, Jairus Byrd, Terrance Mitchell and Walter Thurmond. 

The past couple of seasons, however, have seen a dip in production out of Neal's group, and the rest of the defense. Hurting the situation has been missing out on some quality prospects such as Washington's Budda Baker.

Whether or not the staff deserved a mulligan is neither here nor there for Neal. He said he readily shares in the blame for the team's fall from grace. 

“I look at myself and I know I could have done better in a lot of ways,” Neal said.

Neal said that he would always reflect kindly on working at such a great place for so long and being a part of the greatest run of success in program history. Now, at 60, Neal said he gets an opportunity, albeit forced, to stop, reflect and decide what his next move should be. His religious faith, Neal, said leads him to believe that good things will happen for him. 

If the chance arises, he would love to interview for a position with the next Oregon head coach. If that doesn't work out, Neal said he would look for other opportunities. 

“I absolutely have to keep every option open that I have,” Neal said.

Some have questioned how Mullens handled the firing of Helfrich. Instead of informing him on Sunday, Mullens waited until Tuesday while the assistants were already out recruiting. Neal said the "how" is not important to him. He said he understands and respects that the Mullens is making what he believes to be the right choice for Oregon. 

“I don’t care how it was handled," Neal said. "The bottom line is that you’ve got to do the right things. If the right thing takes time, it takes time. It’s not personal...I don’t blame anybody.”

Neal said all coaches live with the constant fear of being fired at any moment. It could be for a personality conflict, or for breaking a rule, or simply because someone simply wanted to make a change. 

"National championship game, or not, the feeling is, 'I've got to do it again,'" Neal said. "You have that constant motivation to try to keep this standard going...We live in a world of constant pressure. The pressure from winning is the same as when you lose."

--- Reflecting on 'Win the Day'"

Neal remembers how bad things were after the 2006 season when the Ducks finished 7-6 after getting destroyed by BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl under Bellotti. 

“There was very, very high probably I could lose my job," Neal said. "Mike might have had to fire people."

Instead, the coaching staff set out to fix the problems by exploring all ideas from all avenues.  Neal said Bellotti allowed anyone and everyone to chime in on how to turn things around. 

It was then that Neal reached out to BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, one of his former players, to discuss his team's strong culture. That led to a more day-to-day focus that manifested itself into the "Win the Day" mantra under Kelly, who took over for Bellotti in 2009 after serving as offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008. 

"That was the beginning of the cultural turn around," Neal said. 

Neal was a big part of the creation of that mindset, which led to a lot of success. The Ducks contended for a national title in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon, a Heisman Trophy favorite, went down with a knee injury. 

“That was the greatest experience of my life because I got to be extremely and heavily involved in what ultimately came down to Chip Kelly saying 'let’s win the day,'" Neal said. 

Kelly, Neal said, is a one-of-a-kind coach.

“Kelly is a standard I’ll never get to work with again,” Neal said.

The team-wide mantra has somewhat eroded in recent years, Neal said.

Mullens, while announcing Helfrich's firing, referred to a lack of attention to detail and program direction for reasons to make a coaching change.

Neal said the bottom line is that the further away Oregon moved from the past it becomes more and more difficult to get new players and coaches to fully buy into the established culture.

Those who weren't there when it all began were tougher and tougher to get onboard. New assistants who hadn't experience that culture shift and new players had no reference point. If things went south, some who hadn't experienced the previous magic would question the philosophies. 

"Believers are the ones who were there and went through the (creation) of it all," Neal said. 

His biggest fear, Neal said, was losing that momentum.

“The minute momentum changes it starts rolling back on you,” he said.

Negative momentum rolled right over Oregon this season. 

--- Oregon's future remains bright

Neal believes Helfrich and this staff could have fixed the problems and returned the program to glory. He also believes a new coaching staff could accomplish the same. 

“No doubt," he said. "Everything is there to win. We have infrastructure. We have the fan base.”

The first step is becoming consistently competitive again. Oregon had a very young team and was beset by injuries this season. That contributed to Oregon getting blown out by Washington, USC and Stanford. 

Neal said dealing with Washington, coached by Chris Petersen, in the Pac-12 North Division is going to be tough for the Ducks moving forward. 

"I looked at Washington two years ago and went 'oh crap.'" he said. "In two years this team is going to be scary. Chris Petersen is going to go down as one of the top 10 football coaches in history."

Recruiting to Eugene will always be a challenge, but Neal said the elements remains there to be successful.

“I still think it’s extremely attractive," he said of UO. "I think it’s a remarkable deal in the sense of marketing and having your product be the best out there.”

However, not having a ton of regional talent to choose from does hurt.

“You’re going to lose in geography," Neal said, "but you can win in personality and what they believe your saying to them." 

 

Justin Herbert is taking on a new leadership role

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Justin Herbert is taking on a new leadership role

By 

Although Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert is already considered to be one of the favorites this year to win the Heisman trophy, in order to seal the deal, his offense has to thrive. This means that Herbert, along with his young, talented wide receivers will have to step up and make big plays against teams like Stanford, Washington, and Utah. The only problem, however, is that this has been a difficult task for Oregon to accomplish throughout the past couple seasons.

To make matters worse, wide receiver production has crumbled throughout the years in Eugene, ever since the departure of Marcus Mariota — the 2014 Heisman trophy winner. But not all hope is lost for the Ducks, since they have candidates that can turn things. Aside from Herbert himself — who’s demonstrated key leadership skills in the classroom due to his academic achievement, the Oregon Ducks also have their receivers. Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson III, and Brenden Schooler have all shown head coach Mario Cristobal and quarterback Justin Herbert what they can do with the ball in their hands.

In order to be recognized nationally and win the Pac-12, however, the Oregon offense will have to put up big-time numbers. How much are we talking? They’ll have to put up at least 950 more yards than they did last year. In other words, their offense would have to average out between Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr. in order for Herbert to get an invitation to New York in 2019 for the upcoming draft. With that much pressure on their plate, it’s easy for athletes like Herbert to forget how important rest and rejuvenation are when it comes to staying energized and injury free.

What needs to be done moving forward?

Oregon has to find ways to put the ball in the hands of their playmakers. Schooler, who’s become one of those much-needed players did well during his first season as a wide receiver. In fact, he did so well, fans forgot he was once a safety as he caught three touchdown passes and averaged 13.7 yards per catch last year. Now that he has a full year of practice under his belt at the wide receiver position, Schooler has shifted his focus from learning the plays to leading his team to victory.

Mitchell (another much-needed receiver), not only led the team in receptions, he also led the team in receiving yards. That, however, hasn’t slowed down his work ethics, which means this is another key player Oregon can count on. Johnson III, who’s become a return specialist for the team has also improved throughout the off-season. With that kind of potential, along with a healthy quarterback, the Oregon ducks could easily find themselves making a run for the Pac-12 championship.

One other thing that makes the receiver’s abilities even stronger is the relationship they all have with their quarterback. Michael Johnson III, for instance, noted that their quarterback is pretty special and that guys enjoy being around him — another key leadership quality that Herbert has shown his teammates throughout the off-season. The question fans are wondering, however, is with so much talent surrounding Eugene, can Oregon pull through and be the team they were three years ago? If everyone can stay healthy and Herbert can avoid having another season dealing with chronic pain, then the Ducks could possibly be a top contender. For now, however, only time will tell.

Will Oregon Ducks baseball finally take down rival Oregon State Beavers this year?

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NBCS Northwest

Will Oregon Ducks baseball finally take down rival Oregon State Beavers this year?

BY TALYA FRANCO 

Oregon Baseball has come up short against the Oregon State Beavers for many seasons now, but will this be their year for a breakthrough? They will be facing their rival for the first time this season on April 20. Despite the lack of dominance the Ducks have had over the Beavers, this year might be the year they can get that win in Corvallis.

Oregon State ended the 2017 season leading the Pac-12 with an astonishing 27-3 record and 56-6 overall. The team pitching was outstanding last year with an average team ERA of 1.93 and a batting average of .291 as a whole. This year is a whole other story for the Beavers; they have gone down in the rankings to 4th in the Pac-12 and are already tied for the same amount of losses as last season. Their pitching staff lies in the middle of the pack with a team ERA of 3.74.

Despite the Beavers ranking second in batting, the Ducks are ranked one place higher than the Beavers in pitching with an ERA of 2.69. Overall, the Beavers program has been strong for many years always competing at the highest level and this year have significantly dropped in rankings and numbers opening up spots for other schools to dominate the Pac-12.

The Ducks were swept by the Beavers last year but didn’t make it easy. They faced off 4 times averaging a one- or two-run difference. The most exciting game they played last year was when the Ducks attempted to come back in a rally but lost in a five-to four-score.

The school rivalry also known as “Civil War” is the most competitive aspect the athletic departments focuses on. This competition is not only in baseball but in every single sport and the baseball team is looking for that Civil War win coming up in the next two weeks.

Ruthy is ruthless in Ducks' Sweet 16 victory

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Ruthy is ruthless in Ducks' Sweet 16 victory

How Oregon won: A bit of nerves perhaps in the opening minutes, for the Oregon Ducks settled in nicely in this NCAA Sweet 16 matchup against the Central Michigan Chippewas. Lead by sophomore forward Ruthy Hebard down low, on both sides of the court, the No. 2 Ducks cruised to an 83-69 win over No. 11 Central Michigan and punch their ticket into the Elite 8.

It took awhile for both team to get settled in. Two hot-shooting three-point teams, and neither hit a three-pointer until halfway through the first quarter. Hebard established her game early. Her teammates found her down low, one or two dribbles to get to her right side, and then a high-percentage layup, the shot she has mastered so much this season. 33 times in a row, in fact. Hebard records her second double-double of the post-season tournament with 23 points and 14 rebounds. She needed four more blocks for a triple-double.

The Ducks defense came to play as well. Central Michigan comes in ranked No. 13 in 3-pt field goals attempted. Oregon coach Kelly Graves said during pregame that the Ducks must be mindful and defend the three-point line, and make sure the Ducks get on the boards because the Chippewas like to pass the ball out if they get an offensive rebound. Oregon’s defense held Central Michigan to 7-of-27 (26%) from behind the arc. Along with making sure there was a hand in the air on the Chippewas shooters, Oregon also recorded 11 total blocks, six alone coming from Hebard. Oregon will need that same defensive pressure down low against Notre Dame on Monday with their height down low.

What it means: The No. 2 Ducks are headed to the NCAA Elite 8 for back-to-back consecutive seasons and will face No. 1 Notre Dame on Monday evening in Spokane, WA. The Irish are coming off a 90-84 battle against No. 4 Texas A&M lead by starters Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale’s 25 points each.

High-flying Ducks: Sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu continues to shine when the spotlight keeps getting brighter. Ionescu was one rebound shy of her 11th career triple-double. She finished with 16 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds. Senior Lexi Bando finished with 14 points hitting 4-of-11 from three-point range. Junior Oti Gildon, playing in front of her home town fans of Spokane, came up again huge with 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench. She continues to be a stable presence off the bench for Graves.

Foul play: Gildon finished with three fouls. 

Ducks flying north to Spokane in dominant fashion

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Ducks flying north to Spokane in dominant fashion

How Oregon won: If you wanted high-scoring, fast-paced, an all-around offensive efficient battle, then you came to the right game. Two of the top-10 leading team scorers battled head-to-head in a matchup that did not disappoint with 174 total points scored. Both teams off to a hot start as buckets were raining from the ceiling of Matthew Knight Arena in front of a full house. But in the end, it was all Oregon on both sides of the court with an 101-73 victory over No. 10 Minnesota in round two of the NCAA tournament in Eugene, OR.

“Had to have been a fun game to watch for a fan to watch, it wasn’t always fun to be a coach to watch,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “I thought that first half, especially in the first quarter was, that’s high level offensive basketball…”

Offense production was there but the defense was on point tonight and picked up right where it left off Friday evening vs. No. 15 Seattle U. The Ducks held the number three team in the nation in scoring at 85.2 points per game, to just 73 points, 14 in each the second and third quarters. The Ducks defense limited the leader of the Gopher pack Kenisha Bell to just 14 points making sure that there was someone in front of her at all times in Oregon’s zone and clogging the lanes with multiple defenders there to challenge her shot.

Graves said, “I remember at the media timeout, second quarter, we talked about the first team to make a three-minute defensive stand was going to separate themselves from the others and that’s what we did.”

Ducks go on an 11-0 run to close out the first half and take a 51-36 lead. And it didn’t stop there. Oregon outscored Minnesota 30-14 in the third quarter and rode that momentum all the way until the final buzzard. 

Sabrina Ionescu was on triple-double watch by the end of the first quarter. She is on another level when the spotlight continues to get brighter. It is remarkable that with so much ice in her veins, Sabrina Ionescu can still heat up. Ionescu’s night finished just shy of yet another triple-double with 29 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds. Add in a step-back three-pointer, while getting fouled for the chance at am and-1 and four-point play, but missed the free throw.

What it means: The No. 2 Oregon Ducks hit the road north to Spokane, Washington to continue the next few rounds of March Madness play. The Ducks await the winner of No. 11 Central Michigan (28-4) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (27-6) to be played on Monday, March 19th. 

High-flying Ducks: Lead by Ionescu, her partner in crime sophomore forward Ruthy Hebard recorded another double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds. This duo combined for 21-of-28 shots from the field. Freshman Satou Sabally, who started tonight with five quick points and finished with 12 total points. 

In her final game in Matthew Knight Arena, senior and Eugene native Lexi Bando ended her career in front of Ducks fans doing what she does best: hitting three-pointers. She finished with 11 points hitting three triples.

Foul play: A very clean game from Oregon defensively found no one in any foul trouble.

 

This time, the defense did not travel. That's a wrap for the Ducks' 2017-2018 season

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This time, the defense did not travel. That's a wrap for the Ducks' 2017-2018 season

How Oregon lost: The 2017-2018 season is in the books. The defense did not travel on the road at No. 2 Marquette today. Golden Eagles senior guard Andrew Rowsey could not miss. The 1.75 foot extension of the NIT three-point line proved no different for the fourth ranked NCAA three-point shooting team at .415% as Rowsey finished with 29 points hitting 6-of-11 from behind the arc. No. 3 Oregon ends its season with a 101-92 loss at Marquette in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.   

The tempo was set high from tipoff. Marquette controlled the tempo forcing 13 total Oregon turnovers and capitalizing with 30 points off those turnovers and 36 fast-break points.

Of the first 15 points for the Golden Eagles, 13 of which came off of fast-break opportunities. Marquette hit seven of its first 11 from three-point range and jumped out to a 30-11 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Ducks had no defensive response for Rowsey, who got off any three-point shot he wanted or forced Oregon to fall for his shot-fake and draw the foul for three free throws. 

Oregon quickly fell into a 20-point hole and Marquette kept its foot on the gas until the final buzzard. 

The offensive production was there today for Oregon, shooting 54% from the field, but defensively, the Ducks could not find an answer for the Golden Eagles’ fast-paced tempo and hot shooting.

What it means: Although the 2017-2018 season may not have been the finish that the players, staff, and fans had hoped for, the Ducks finished with a 23-win season including a 10-win conference record in the eight season under head coach Dana Altman.

The last time the Ducks were in the NIT tournament, the following year’s team went to the NCAA Sweet 16 in March Madness. With a top incoming recruiting class, the future still looks bright in Eugene. Only four seniors graduating, including two starters, and a young team that saw valuable minutes throughout the entire season will be interesting to follow next season and where they end up.

High-flying Ducks: The Oregon big men got it done on the inside for the Ducks. Lead by redshirt senior MiKyle McIntosh’s 25 points, shot 15-of-18 from the free throw line. Junior transfer Paul White finished with 19 points and four rebounds. Sophomore guard Payton Pritchard, who came out strong with seven quick points, had the rest of his offensive production come late finishing with 16 points. Freshman Victor Bailey Jr., had another nice game once again off the bench finishing with 11 points, most of which this time coming from inside the three-point line.

Foul play: White finished with four fouls and McIntosh, freshmen Kenny Wooten and Troy Brown finished with three fouls.

Another triple-double; Another ankle-breaker; another day at the office for No. 2 Oregon

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Another triple-double; Another ankle-breaker; another day at the office for No. 2 Oregon

How Oregon won: Another triple-double, another ankle-breaking crossover, just another win for the Oregon Ducks. But it all came at the right time. Since defeating Stanford to claim the Pac-12 tournament title for the first time in school history, the No. 2 Ducks picked up right where they left off in round one of the NCAA March Madness tournament vs. No. 15 Seattle University with a commanding 88-45 win at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Oregon.

“I thought we played really well right from the get go,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “When I saw our team diving for loose balls, early in that game, I could tell that this wasn’t just another game that we were just going to go through the motions and win this thing. These guys really wanted to compete.” 

Seattle University coach Suzy Barcomb said of Oregon, “I truthfully do think they should be a Final Four team…”

Lead by her tenth career triple-double, sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu shined once again in the spotlight. Ionescu finished with 19 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds, and she accomplished all of this in just 31 minutes. With one rebound to go to complete her triple-double, the crowd of Oregon fans began to subtly boo when other Oregon players got the rebound. All in good fun and in support of Ionescu, the NCAA record-holder for career triple-doubles. At last, she finally grabbed her final rebound, was immediately taken out of the game by Graves, and for the remaining nine minutes of the game, Ionescu was pumping up her teammates from the bench.

Coming off a deep tournament run last season, the Ducks were hungry for more coming out tonight and in front of their home crowd.

“Less nerves? No, I think I was nervous, I think our team was nervous,” said Ionescu. “Seeding doesn’t matter, I think we learned that last year. We came out and we were hungry for wins, and we wanted to play and we hung in their with 2-seed’s, 3-seed’s, 4-seed’s, so seeding didn’t matter. It just felt different because we were at home and we had the crowd on our side.”

It was just clicking on both ends of the floor tonight for Oregon. What started on the defensive end was finished on offensive with swift ball movement and establishing both an inside and outside game. Oregon got off to a hot start forcing four quick turnovers getting hands in the passing lanes and deflecting balls. The Ducks held Seattle scoreless for just over five minutes. 

What it means: The Ducks will play the No. 10 Minnesota Golden Gophers in round two of the Spokane Region tournament at 7:30 PM at Matthew Knight Arena. Minnesota comes in as the number three scoring offense in the country, so Oregon will have to bring it on the defensive front once again.

“They have quick guards and they move the ball well, they shoot the ball well,” said Ionescu. “It will be a tough team, but I think we are prepared, especially playing through the Pac-12 and our preseason games. I think it prepares us for March, so I’m excited to play another game.”

High-flying Ducks: Five Oregon players scored in double digits tonight. Lead by Ionescu's 19 points, junior Oti Gildon came up huge off the bench finishing with 16 points and six rebounds. Sophomore forward Ruthy Hebard was once again a force down low finishing with 12 points and one rebound shy of a double-double. Senior Lexi Bando, playing in her final collegiate tournament, finished with 11 points on 3-of-6 from behind the arc. Finally, junior guard Maite Cazorla finished with 10 points and zero turnovers.

Oregon scored 54 points in the paint, partly due to Hebard and Gildon making their presence known down low.

Foul play: Freshamn Satou Sabally finished with three fouls. 

Up next: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 10 Minnesota at 7:30 PM at Matthew Knight Arena.

Oregon is Victor-(BaileyJr)-ious in round 1 of NIT

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Oregon is Victor-(BaileyJr)-ious in round 1 of NIT

How Oregon won: The Ducks picked up right where they left off in Las Vegas last weekend for the Pac-12 tournament: slow start, better middle, even better ending. In the first round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), the No. 3 Ducks hosted the No. 6 Rider Broncs at Matthew Knight Arena, in front of a mere 2,327 Oregon fans. The shooting struggles continued from the Pac-12 tournament into the first quarter, that is until Oregon freshman Victor Bailey Jr., checked in off the bench. Bailey hit seven three-pointers and co-lead Oregon to a first-round NIT victory 99-86 over Rider.

“I know the guys were disappointed, I was disappointed, at halftime,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman. “We were beat in every category. Second chance points, bad turnovers, easy baskets. You know our energy level was just really bad. No communication defensively. It was not a good have and we were probably fortunate to only be down eight, as poorly as we played.”

Oregon shot just 33.3% on 5-of-15 from the field in the first quarter and trailed Rider 21-15. Add that to nine first-half turnovers (dribbling off foot, bad passes, stepping out of bounds) and the Ducks were the definition of “rocky start”.

Altman continued, “Second half, we didn’t get off to a real good start, but once we started clicking, and got a few shots down, the energy level went way up. VJ (Bailey Jr.) really likes to play when the ball is going in. He did a really nice job shooting the ball and giving us some energy…”

Bailey Jr., finished co-leading the Ducks with 23 points off the bench shooting 7-of-8 from behind the “new” NIT three-point line (extend an extra foot and eight inches).

What it means: The Ducks survived and advance to the next round of the NIT and awaits the winner of No. 2 Marquette vs. No. 7 Harvard.

Last weekend where the Ducks relied on senior leadership from MiKyle McIntosh and Elijah Brown during the Pac-12 tournament, tonight it was the underclassmen. Freshmen Bailey Jr., and Kenny Wooten got it done on both ends of the court. Shot-blocking phenom Wooten added three more blocks to his season stats tonight. Although Rider did outscore the Ducks in the paint 50-34, Wooten still managed to make his presence known. A number of those Rider points came in the first half with mis-communication in Oregon’s zone and getting the ball behind the big men down low.

Wooten recorded a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

High-flying Ducks: With Bailey Jr., feeling it from downtown, that cause the Rider defense to push out to guard the perimeter leaving driving lanes more open for sophomore guard Payton Pritchard and freshman guard Troy Brown. Pritchard also finished with 23 points and added eight assists. Brown recorded eight points and seven rebounds. Elijah Brown had a quiet 18 points hitting 3-of-6 from three-point range.

Foul play: Troy Brown and McIntosh each finished with four fouls. Junior Paul White finished with three fouls.

Up next: The Ducks await the winner of No. 2 Marquette vs. No. 7 Harvard tomorrow night. Home court advantage is based on seeding, so if Marquette wins, Oregon will travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If Harvard wins, Oregon will host the next round of the NIT.

Big Dance hopes on the line for Oregon vs. USC in Pac-12 semifinal game

Big Dance hopes on the line for Oregon vs. USC in Pac-12 semifinal game

Pac-12 Semifinal: #6 Oregon (22-11, 10-8) vs. #2 USC (25-7, 12-6)


It’s been a dramatic journey for Oregon to reach the Pac-12 tournament semifinal game.

The Ducks trailed by as many as 11 points to Utah in the second half of the quarterfinal game, but a late rally and some last-minute heroics from MiKyle McIntosh and a game saving block from Kenny Wooten sealed the 68-66 victory over No.3 seed Utah

Oregon will face No. 2 seed USC at 8:30 p.m., Friday night. USC has topped Oregon in close victories in the schools’ two meetings so far this season.

On Jan. 18, the Trojans beat Oregon, 75-70, in Eugene and then earned a 72-70 victory over the Ducks at the Galen Center on Feb. 15.

USC’s Jordan McLaughlin has been a handful for Oregon this season. He had a near triple-double in the first meeting with 11 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists. In the second game, he had a double-double with 11 points and 11 assists.

USC had a first game bye and then held Oregon State to 31 percent shooting in a 61-48 victory to reach the semifinal game. Chimezie Metu had 22 points and 11 rebounds and two blocks in the Trojans victory over the Beavers.

Oregon has played eight straight games that have been decided by single digits, including three that went to overtime.  

Will the comeback Ducks strike again? Oregon is in a position where they likely need to win the Pac-12 Tournament to get to the NCAA Tournament.

The Trojans have the resume of a bubble team, another win would be a significant boost to their tournament resume.

Cristobal begins reshaping Oregon football today with start of spring drills

Cristobal begins reshaping Oregon football today with start of spring drills

Today won't technically be the first time that the Oregon Ducks take the field under new coach Mario Cristobal when spring drills begin. But in many ways it will be. 

The actual first time Cristobal led the Oregon football team onto a field of any kind occurred in early December shortly after Willie Taggart departed for Florida State, leaving the Ducks in disarray. 

Cristobal did his best to right the ship in time for the Las Vegas Bowl just 10 days later but he simply didn't have enough time to fix the mess at hand. The players, who lobbied for Cristobal to replace Taggart, didn't successfully make the transition from "Do Something" to disappointment and then back to contentment under their new leader (save for defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt being bent out of shape he didn't replace Taggart) in time to avoid a 38-28 loss to Boise State in Sin City. 

There was simply too much disruption in play, and that included star running back Royce Freeman electing not to play in the bowl game in order to avoid a potential injury before departing to the NFL. 

So, let's give Cristobal, the staff (those who returned) and the players the benefit of that doubt that what we saw in Las Vegas was an aberration and that the new era under a man who won national titles as a player at Miami (1989 and 1991) and as an assistant coach at Alabama (2015) begins today with a clean slate.

What Cristobal inherited was a team that should win at least eight games in 2018 given the presence of junior quarterback Justin Herbert, the return of several key players on what was a greatly improved defense, and a weak schedule that included three non-conference powder puffs. 

Reaching 10 wins, or more, will require maintaining the momentum created by Taggart, keeping Herbert healthy (UO went 1-4 in his absence last year due to a broken collarbone) and flushing the offense's showing in Las Vegas while recapturing the magic that had the Ducks averaging about 50 points per game during the regular season when Herbert was in action. 

"I think last year there was a foundation laid between all of us that gave us a chance to start building upon that but there's a big difference between winning seven games and winning eight, nine, 10, 11," Cristobal said.

To reach those levels the Ducks (7-6 last season) must have success against Washington, Stanford and the Chip Kelly-led UCLA Bruins at home, while also finding a way to win potentially tough road games at Arizona and Utah. 

The problem is that there is much mystery to unravel before anyone can rightfully believe that Oregon is going to find those 10 wins and contend in the Pac-12 North. 

Cristobal hasn't been a head coach since being fired from the same position with Florida International in 2012 after going 27-47. The Ducks are on their third coach in 15 months (Mark Helfrich was fired in December of 2016). Backup quarterback remains a huge issue. Wide receiver is in flux. The defensive line lacks depth. Freeman is gone. 

Plus, Oregon's aura as a dominant force has waned. The conference is not longer chasing Oregon. The Ducks are the one doing the hunting. And there's reason to believe that the hierarchy of conference coaches are not shaking in their boots fearful of the Cristobal era sweeping through the conference and laying waste to opponents. 

None of this is to say that Cristobal won't find success. He very well could. He also very well could not. 

We won't know the results for months. But that process begins today. 

Notes: UO will practice five times in March before taking time off for finals and spring break before returning to the field on April 3 to prepare for the spring game on April 21 in Autzen Stadium...Oregon will hold a practice at Franklin High School in Portland on April 7.  The Ducks practiced at Jesuit High School last spring.