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.