When the then-No. 12 Oregon Ducks celebrated a comeback, rivalry win on then-No. 25 Washington's home field last season, the Oregon upperclassmen wanted to ensure it was the beginning of something bigger than just the 2019 season.
“I want you to remember this moment,” La'Mar Winston Jr. told to a group of defensive freshmen. “When I leave, when everyone leaves. You have to make sure that everyone stays hungry.”
That hunger came from a 4-8 freshman season for Justin Herbert and Troy Dye. Both players could have cashed out to enter the NFL in 2019, but decided to return for their senior seasons. They came back to return Oregon to prominence and have the program set for the future.
One Pac-12 Championship, Rose Bowl victory, and pandemic later, much of the leadership that catapulted Oregon to victories through sheer mental toughness is gone: Justin Herbert, Troy Dye, La'Mar Winston, and the entire offensive line are all graduated; Penei Sewell, Thomas Graham Jr., Jevon Holland, and Brady Breeze all opted out to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Remaining in Eugene is an uber-talented but inexperienced team. In fact, Oregon fields the youngest roster in all of the FBS with 73.6% of the team being either freshman or sophomores.
After suffering back-to-back losses, Oregon had a redshirt sophomore on offense and defense talk to the media about the poor performances in Tyler Shough and Verone McKinley III.
Not only are these kids stepping into larger roles on the field, but they are trying to become leaders of the team, as well.
There's still some seniors on the team, such as Austin Faoliu, trying to teach the young roster how to win.
"We definitely try to drill it in the younger guys heads that we still got to play hard-nosed football no matter what," said Faoliu after the Cal loss.
Unfortunately, part of learning to win involves facing adversity and it's clear this Oregon team doesn't have the experience to respond to it and come out winners.
After a 41-38 loss to Oregon State, head coach Mario Cristobal said his team needs to use the feeling of losing as fuel to ensure they don't feel like that again. Other players mentioned they were excited to get the bitter taste out of their mouths the following weekend.
Despite everyone saying all the right things mentality-wise coming off the loss, Oregon lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2018 with a 21-17 defeat to a win-less Cal team.
Now, Oregon fans rather than see the loss to the Beavers as a weird, blip, it's seen as a part of a larger trend: losing to less talented teams on the road with one side of the football looking outmatched. Against Oregon State, the Ducks defense failed to stop the Beavs time and time again. Then one week later, Oregon's offense failed to score a single second-half point in the loss to Cal.
"When you lose football games you should be winning that's going to happen. But we know it's a team sport. We're going to hold each individual accountable and I've got to do better myself. It's just about moving forward," explained Shough.
"We're all going to be faced with adversity, we're glad to have it because there's a lot of growth that's going to come from this."
With the youngest roster in college football, the 2020 season was never about winning a National Championship even if players who returned for their senior season said that was the goal. It was first and foremost about developing the talented young players into studs to set up a dominant 2021 season.
But still with the Pac-12 having a down year and given all the talent up and down the roster, the expectation in Eugene is to win the conference, or at the least win the Pac-12 North.
"Obviously, the conference title is still up there for us and we're still going to keep drilling it inside the younger players' heads that we got to have a good week of practice, come to work every day with a blue collar mentality, and keep getting in work," added Faoliu.
The Pac-12 North will come down to Oregon-Washington on Saturday, December 12th. If Oregon wins and advances to the Pac-12 Championship, it finds itself one win away from a NY6 bowl and the 2020 season will be a bonafide success.
If Oregon loses, the Ducks will lose three games in a row, fail to qualify for the Pac-12 Championship and there will be no way to look at the season as anything but an utter failure.
Oregon can still have a good season despite the losses, but it needs to grow up by December 12th for that to happen.
The program longterm should be just fine, but the Ducks have an opportunity to make the 2020 season go from a learning opportunity to another, great success. Oregon just needs to take care of business on Saturday to do so.
One year ago, Winston Jr. told the underclassmen to stay hungry. Next weekend, he'll get his answer for if his words were heard.
Oregon (3-2) plays Washington (3-1) at Autzen Stadium at 1:00 p.m. PT on Saturday, December 12th.