C.J. Verdell

Instant Analysis: No. 13 Oregon edges Cal

Instant Analysis: No. 13 Oregon edges Cal

EUGENE – No. 13 Oregon edged out California in the Ducks’ Pac-12 Conference home opener in front of a sell out crowd of 54,766 fans and students.

The win, in which the Duck defense shined and the offense didn't wake up until the third quarter, improves the Ducks to 2-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time since 2013 and 10-1 under Coach Mario Cristobal at Autzen Stadium. Oregon (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) remains the only team in the North Division without a conference loss.

Here are the top four takeaways from the contest.

1. Sloppiness needs to be turned into consistency 

Oregon’s offense looked strong to start, pounding it on the ground with ease to reach the Cal 10-yard line in their opening drive. Then, a turn of events began a nasty spiral. A 15-yard penalty on Johnny Johnson III pushed back the ball and on the next play, quarterback Justin Herbert threw his first interception of the season. The pick ended a streak of 175 attempts without an interception for Herbert.

The Bears capitalized and struck first with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Devon Modster to Chris Brown, taking an early 7-0 lead.

It was the first first-half touchdown allowed all season by the UO defense and the first touchdown allowed since the opener against Auburn.

2. Turnovers and penalties haunt Oregon

The ugliness continued.

The Ducks had just two turnovers in four games heading into Saturday, which was ranked best in the conference and fifth in the nation. Oregon turned it over twice in the first quarter: Herbert’s interception and a Travis Dye fumble. To open the second quarter, Dye fumbled the ball again, totaling three turnovers in three possessions.

Oregon entered Saturday as the least penalized team in the Pac-12, averaging 4.25 penalties and 35.5 penalty yards per game. In the first half alone, the Ducks were flagged four times for 40 yards. 

3. Freshmen highlights

Spectacular individual performances from freshmen are not to be overlooked.  Mycah Pittman and Kayvon Thibodeaux both had shining, highlight-type moments. In his debut as a Duck,

Pittman began the game with two diving catches for 28 yards. After a shoulder injury sidelined the receiver in fall camp, it was impressive to see him leading the team and performing at such a high level in his first outing. Thibodeaux recorded his first full sack of his career in a big third down moment. The five-star prospect sacked Cal’s Modster and forced a fumble that the Bears recovered. Also of note, kicker Camden Lewis made his first career field goal to get Oregon on the board and close it to a 7-3 Cal lead. 

4. CJ Verdell injured

Starting running back CJ Verdell was off to a fast start (10 carries for 47 yards and two catches for 17 yards) before going down with an apparent painful right ankle injury. The sophomore was writhing around on the turf and holding his ankle. He was able to walk off the field with help from the training staff. He did not return to play and emerged from the locker room in a walking boot.

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More to come with quotes and videos from Coach Mario Cristobal and Ducks players.

Running back by committee: A recipe for success for the Ducks

Running back by committee: A recipe for success for the Ducks

Oregon Football has a long, storied history of talented running backs that have donned the green and yellow. In recent memory, the program has churned out stars such as LaMichael James, Royce Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner, Jonathan Stewart... The list goes on, and on, and on. 

For the most part, the Ducks have always had talented a running back corps, but each group had its bell cow. The one back that stood out as the number one guy. Even the two-headed monsters of the past had one back that you knew was the "the guy."

That may not be the case in 2019, and that's a good thing. 

The Ducks have a plethora of riches at the running back position, and they have found ways to use every one of their talented ball carriers. 

Through the team's first three games five different backs have carried the ball, with a different player leading the team statistically each week. 

In Week 1, CJ Verdell led the way. In Week 2, it was Darrian Felix. And last game against Montana, it was Travis Dye that carried the load. 

"I think that a tribute to the backs in their room, let alone what Coach Mastro has done with those guys. He's done an awesome job," said Offensive Coordinator Marcus Arroyo. "That group's gonna get a lot of touches all over the board, similar to last year. I think they've stepped up and they've done an awesome job."

Not only are the Ducks using multiple backs, they're doing so in an incredibly balanced fashion. The team has averaged 186 yards per game, but only one player has surpassed the 100-yard mark. On the season, Dye has 29 carries for 152 yards, Verdell has 30 carries for 149 yards, while Felix has 18 carries for 127 yards. 

There is no lead back, because there doesn't need to be. Instead, the Ducks have a true three-headed monster... and we haven't even talked about Sean Dollars or Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who have combined for 19 carries and 121 yards on the season.

Senior quarterback Justin Herbert said of his backfield mates, "It's a great problem to have so many of those guys. Each one of them can fill in. Shoot, we got four or five guys out there that we have complete trust and faith in. I know that they'll get the job done."

Offensive lineman Shame Lemieux, like Herbert, knows the Ducks are well-equipped to pound the ball. "Our running backs are incredible," said Lemieux.  "CJ's (Verdell) so fast and shifty. He's a stout runner, he's really ready to run downhill. I think Travis (Dye) is kind of a squirrely guy. He's just gonna take off like a little roadrunner... We're loaded, so I'm really happy to have that."

Now here is the scary part - The Ducks haven't even clicked yet. You see, we all know that even the best running backs need great offensive lines. They need the big guys up front to open up holes to give them running lanes. While the numbers say the Ducks have been successful in this regard, Lemieux thinks otherwise. 

"I don't think we've been doing a good enough job. I think we can even do better. Once we start playing to our standard I think it's going to open up even more and our running backs are gonna get more credit."

If this is how Oregon's three-headed monster looks when the offensive line isn't doing a good job, the Pac-12 should be terrified with what this running game will look like when Lemieux and Co. click. 

We'll see if they click on Saturday when they take on a Stanford defense that has allowed an average of 135.33 yards per game on the ground. Kickoff is set for 4:00 p.m. (PT) on The Farm.

Ducks can't allow meltdown against Stanford to destroy season

Ducks can't allow meltdown against Stanford to destroy season

EUGENE - The door to Oregon's locker room slammed shut while a player let lose an F-bomb loud enough to be heard throughout the third floor of the Hattfield-Dowlin Complex. 

Oregon had just lost a game that it won in every way but on the scoreboard.  

It read: 38-31, Stanford, in overtime. But it didn't tell the entire tale.

The Ducks (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) let this one slip away in mind-numbing fashion. A potential game-cementing touchdown erased by a pylon rule few understood. There was a bad snap that became an 89-yard touchdown for Stanford. A late fumble led to a tying field goal. A tipped pass for a touchdown in overtime won the game for Stanford.

It's the type of loss that could demoralize a team and send it spiraling into the abyss. Avoiding that is the first major challenge of new coach Mario Cristobal's tenure. 

"You've got to get right back on it and shake it off," Cristobal said. "Shake it off fast. You can't let this thing beat you twice."

Next up is a 3-0 California team that had this weekend off and certainly watched what transpired on national television. If you're Cal, you should be worried. The Ducks looked formidable against a top 10 team. Oregon met head on with a seemingly immovable object in No. 7 Stanford's defense and bullied the Cardinal all over the field Saturday night while the defense rocked one of the most consistently devastating rushing attacks of the past 10 years. Quarterback Justin Herbert looked like a future first-round NFL Draft pick. The front seven appeared to be the best in the Pac-12 Conference. Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell put on one of the best pass catching shows in Autzen Stadium with 14 receptions for 239 yards. 

Oregon led 24-7 in the third quarter with the ball deep in Stanford's territory. From that point on, Oregon seemingly won the game several times but ultimately lost it and a chance to make a national statement. 

So where do the Ducks go from here? That's up to them. This is a relatively young team with just six senior starters. They must lead the team back to a better place mentally, or this loss to lead to another at Cal with No. 10 Washington visiting Autzen on Oct. 13. Just like that, Oregon could be 3-3 and 0-3 in conference if the Ducks don't find a way to put this loss behind them. 

Oregon didn't simply lose a game. It most likely lost its best shot at winning the North Division and thus the Pac-12

"That to me is the biggest part that you have to address and you have to make sure you do your best work at as a coach," Cristobal said. "It could be very difficult and devastating for a lot. I know certainly that we all feel it. But, like we talked about in there, there is nobody feeling sorry for us on the other side of the conference and the other side over there in California. We are going to have to immediately get back to work at this."

The faces of each player that exited the locker room on their way down stairs to see family expressed sadness, frustration anger.

"We were up 24-7," one player mumbled to another, who just shook, his head. 

In the interview room, solemn faces put forth a positive spin. A sense that this team is equipped to recover within 24 hours. 

"Tomorrow's practice will show the true leaders of the team and the core of the team will come together," sophomore defensive lineman Jordon Scott said. "And once we go through meetings and watch the film we're going to flush it as a team and that's when we'll start preparing for Cal. The rebound is not going to be easy but by the end of the day tomorrow, everybody is going to be focused on Cal and this will be behind us."

That's the correct mentality. It's up to Cristobal to make sure the team follows through. 

"I feel like we have an outstanding team that knows how to rebound," Mitchell said. "We've got guys that can do the job. So that's not even a question. I already know everybody is going to come to work tomorrow and start preparing for Cal."

Oregon's rushing attack led by seven-headed monster

Oregon's rushing attack led by seven-headed monster

Who will be the next president of Running Backs University, also known as, Oregon Football? 

Turns out, No.24 Oregon (1-0) has a seven-headed monster leading its rushing attack. In the Ducks' 58-24 win over Bowling Green tonight, six running backs played and totaled 212 rushing yards with an average of five yards per rush.

Who makes seven? Quarterback Justin Herbert who finished with 41 rushing yards on six attempts.

Herbert was 10-of-21 for 281 yards passing with five touchdowns (an Oregon season opener record) and two interceptions.

"(Our running backs) are a young group that worked hard this offseason," Herbert said.  "I’ve got confidence in them.” 

Coach Mario Cristobal made a statement today in his first season opener as UO's head coach. The dominant victory removed the unease left by the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State in Crisotbal’s debut and set up the Ducks to dominate their nonconference opponents.

"We wanted to spread the ball out a little bit and give each guy a turn,” Crisotbal said. "For the most part (the running backs) had some pretty good success. Whatever form that works to keep moving the chains and scoring points, is what we are going to do."

Ready for the running back monster break down?

Redshirt freshman CJ Verdell led the Ducks with 51 yards on 13 carries and showed glimpses of his breakaway speed. 

Sophomore Darrian Felix barreled for 38 yards on eight attempts. He did not look afraid of contact, and his explosive lateral quickness makes him an intriguing option.

Freshman Travis Dye, who enrolled early at Oregon for spring football, rushed for 37 yards on seven attempts. He is the younger brother of UO junior linebacker, Troy Dye.

After the game, Troy Dye praised his younger brother’s first college football performance but also poked fun at his sibling. "At the end of the day he's still a bum," Dye said. 

Redshirt Senior Tony Brooks-James, who started the game, finished with 27 on five attempts. He utilized his explosiveness during one 15-yard run and on a 53-yard reception.  

Senior running back Taj Griffin only rushed once for four yards but took a screen pass from Herbert 83 yards for a touchdown. 

“We all know what Taj can do when he has some space," Cristobal said. 

Cyrus Habibi-Likio, a redshirt freshman, scored his first college touchdown and finished the game with five rushing yards on one attempt. 

“(Habibi-Likio) is a big power guy that can make things happen,” Cristobal said.

[WATCH: Cyrus Habibi-Likio, the next LeGarrette Blount?]

Going forward, will Oregon's stat line show seven rushers? Maybe not. But it sure did give reason for optimism for Oregon's power-tempo offense. 

Said Cristobal: “Will it be like that every single game? It’s hard to do that every single game.”

Oregon's RB situation has reached boy band status

Oregon's RB situation has reached boy band status

Oregon appears to be going with the boy band approach to the running back position. Oregon's depth chart lists redshirt senior Tony Brooks-James as the starter followed by the word, "situational" for the backup position. 

That's because the Ducks, who open the season Saturday at home against Bowling Green, have yet to identify a clear backup. The plan for now is to shuffle up to five other running backs in and out of the game: Redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell, sophomore Darrian Felix, senior Taj Griffin, redshirt freshman Cyris Habibi-Likio and freshman Travis Dye.  

"They all deserve to play," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. 

Adding to the madness is the fact that Brooks-James doesn't appear to have established himself as the clear No. 1 back, but instead he is the best among the group. Consequently, we could see as many as four to six running backs in a given game. 

This isn't good news for Oregon. The most successful boy bands of all time had a clear front man, such as Michael Jackson (Jackson 5) and Justin Timberlake (NSYNC). The same can be said about the most successful Oregon teams. One, maybe two running backs got the job done. Not five or six. You only roll with that many when you don't have a clear leader and maybe a sidekick.  

This is an unusual approach for the Ducks, or any other team for that matter.

For the first time since 2013, Oregon does not have a clear No. 1 running back. Oregon's front man the past four years, Royce Freeman, is now with Denver in the NFL, leaving the Ducks to use a running back by committee until someone emerges. Brooks-James is the starter, but Cristobal didn't make it sound like he is the clear top dog. 

"We've all seen through the years that he has flashed some greatness...," Cristobal said. "When we come off the sideline he deserves to be the first running back out there." 

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for your lead running back. It smacks of being loaded with reservations that Brooks-James is the go-to, 20-carry-per-game guy.

Oregon faced similar questions in 2013. That season, sophomore Byron Marshall rose to the occasion to rush for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. The following season, UO moved Marshall to wide receiver because the Ducks had Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Taj Griffin at running back.

Oregon has been set at the position ever since. Prior to 2013, the Ducks featured Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James, LeGarrette Blount, Jeremiah Johnson and Jonathan Stewart, dating back to 2006. 

Oregon would be quite pleased if Brooks-James performed this year as Marshall did in 2013. But it appears that that doesn't prove to be the case, Oregon is prepared to give a ton of players a chance to contribute. 

Having a glut of good running backs is not a bad thing when all is going well. It truly doesn't matter who is carrying the ball when the holes are huge and the offense is rolling. We saw that in 2016 when Royce Freeman went down at Nebraska but the trio of Kani Benoit, Brooks-James and Taj Griffin ran wild for a combined 205 yards.

But when Oregon needed a steady running back to grind out games against tougher opponents in Freeman's absence (or when he returned but was hindered by a bruised sternum), that guy was not to be found and it hurt Oregon.

The easiest part of being a running back is jolting through a huge hole. The toughest part is finding a couple of yards when they don't appear to be available. That's what made Johnson, Stewart, James, Barner and Freeman so great.  

Brooks-James failed to rise to the occasion in 2016 but did show flashes of being a great back. Now, two years older, he could be ready to answer the call. 

"I've never had (a back) that fast before, in my career," new UO running backs coach Jim Mastro said. "That's a strength. Obviously, when you can take the ball and any minute go 100 yards, 90 yards, that's unique. He's being a great leader. He's took on the role of trying to be the guy. He's done some really good thing."

Again, not exactly a clear declaration that Brooks-James is the man. 

Cristobal said he hopes that each running back's unique skills can help the team. Verdell is a good downhill runner. Dye can juke anyone with his jump cuts. Felix is an elite athlete. Habibi-Likio offers size. Griffin is a prove home run hitter. 

Splice them all together in a lab (the one we all know exists in the bowels of the Hattfield-Dowlin Complex) and Oregon would have the perfect running back. Right now, Oregon simply has a glut of talented backs backing up a senior yet to show that he can carry a team's rushing attack. 

Cristobal said that UO's up-tempo offense would provide plenty of opportunities (80-90 plays per game) for all of the backs to display their talents. The first three opponents, which includes Portland State and San Jose State, should provide easy victories and plenty of opportunities for Oregon to give all of its running backs a fair look. 

"They are all going to get their touches," Cristobal said. 

But once Pac-12 play starts, Oregon would be better off if the field behind Brooks-James has shrunk and he has established himself as the MJ or JT of the 2018 Oregon running game. 

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

Oregon's promising 2017 season ended with a wild two weeks that saw Willie Taggart depart for Florida State, coach Mario Cristobal take over the program, recruits decommit left and right and then the Ducks fall flat during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, the 2018 season could see Oregon return to Pac-12 prominence. That is, if a lot of variables play out in the Ducks' favor. We will take a position-by-position look at the team to discuss what must happen in order for Oregon to rise again in 2018. 

Other position entries: QuarterbackRunning backsReceivers/Tight endsOffensive lineDefensive backs; LinebackersDefensive line.   

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Today: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges. 

Key departures: Senior Royce Freeman moved on to the NFL after breaking nearly every school record imaginable.  Versatile senior backup Kani Benoit is also gone.  

Projected 2017 starter: Tony Brooks-James, RSr., (5-9, 175),

Key backups: Darrian Felix, Soph., (5-11, 178); C.J. Verdell, RFr., (5-8, 192); Taj Griffin, Sr., (5-11, 178); Cyrus Habibi-Likio, RFr., (6-0, 208). 

What we know: Freeman is gone. Let's all take a moment to reflect on his greatness.

Now, let's take a moment to reflect on what his absence could mean for Oregon.

Yikes!

Then toss in the loss of Benoit. 

Double yikes!

Oregon hasn't lost this much running back talent in one offseason since maybe ever. But, in typical Oregon tradition, there is a potentially great running back waiting in the wings. 

Brooks-James has rushed for 1,557 yards in his career on 226 carries (5.9 per carry) and has scored 14 rushing touchdowns. If he managed to put up those same numbers in one season, the Ducks will be in business. 

Essentially, Oregon needs Brooks-James to become the next Kenjon Barner, who after backing up LaMichael James for three seasons, rushed for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior in 2012. 

What we don't know: Can Brooks-James be that guy? And, will he truly need to?

At a listed 178 pounds, it might be a lot to ask of James to carry the ball 20 times per game and survive the season. If he isn't up to the task, the Ducks do have options, albeit of the unproven variety. 

Felix saw minimal time as a freshman and gained 182 yards. The real wild card is Verdell, who by all accounts is the next great UO running back in waiting. He redshirted in 2017 due to injuries and ample depth already in place. 

We can't ignore Griffin, who was moved to wide receiver last season but still received some carries. He has 848 career rushing yards in his career on 6.1 yards per carry. 

Habibi-Likio has a lot of ground to make up on the depth chart in order to crash the rotation next season. But he does offer more bulk at 208 pounds than every other running back, except maybe Verdell, who packs 192 pounds on his 5-8 frame.  

What must happen for Oregon to contend: Clearly, Oregon must be able to run the ball well in order to succeed. Ideally, the Ducks will have a clear No. 1 back, and that man should be Brooks-James. But he doesn't have to match the level of play displayed in the past by the likes of Jonathan Stewart, James, Barner or Freeman. Brooks-James could simply be what Byron Marshall was in 2013 when he rushed for 1,068 yards and 14 touchdowns while Thomas Tyner chipped in 711 rushing yards and De'Anthony Thomas went for 594. 

If Oregon gets that type of production out of its top three running backs in 2018, the Ducks will be just fine. 

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 3)...: Someone compliments WR Dillon Mitchell. 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: Quarterbacks, Wide receivers/Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive lineLinebackersDefensive backs.

Today: Running backs.

New Ducks: Darrian Felix (5-11, 194, Fort Myers High School, Fort Myers, Fla.),  C.J. Verdell (5-9, 195,Mater Dei Catholic High School, Chula Vista, Calif.) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis High School, Mountain View, Calif.).

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210) and Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

The situation: Oregon is set to return four running backs that combined for nearly 2,200 yards rushing last season.

For that reason, finding playing time for any of the three incoming freshmen could prove to be impossible.

None of them has a chance to beat out Freeman for the starting job. Chances are that Brooks-James is too experienced and talented to be unseated at No. 2.

The only way one freshman would have a chance to rise into the rotation would be if Benoit transfers and/or Griffin is slowed in his return from the knee injury he suffered late last season.

While all three incoming freshmen were three-star recruits, Verdell is the highest-rated among them. Rivals.com had him as the 26th-ranked running back in the nation. He rushed for 2,399 yards and 36 touchdowns on 9.2 yards per carry as a senior.

Habibi-Likio, who says he also hopes to play linebacker or safety, wasn't quite as productive as Verdell but brings more size and power to the party. 

Felix is a burner with more size than Griffin. 

The verdict: Unless something gives, Oregon will have seven scholarship running backs on the roster next fall. That means the three freshmen will redshirt if all four returning backs are healthy and ready to go. If not, one of the freshmen could make a mark as a backup or on special teams. But figure that at least two freshmen running backs will redshirt in 2017.