When Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal gave his opening statements in the introductory press conference 10 months ago, he thanked administration, his family, players and the people of Eugene
When he started talking football, his message about how he wanted Oregon to play was clear: be as physical as possible.
“Make no mistake about it, when talking about the program and the brand of football we want to play, we do want to be that program,” he said. “That’s physical at the line of scrimmage — a tremendous amount of investment in the offensive and defensive lines.”
In the early part of the season, the commitment to the running game was clear.
But the Ducks lost their identity. Their mid-life, or mid-season, crisis came in the form of relying too much on the passing attack. The offensive line struggled, and Oregon strayed too far away from the physical running Cristobal wants. Against Washington State and Arizona, the team paid for it. Cristobal, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and the Ducks recommitted to the run against UCLA, and they won.
“It all starts with the run game,” Cristobal said. “The way that we’re built. The lack of depth that we have at certain skill positions, we’re built to do it a certain way. When we don’t do it … we [are] in scramble mode.”
But the rushing game was far from perfect against UCLA, which has the third-worst rushing defense in the Pac-12. Utah, Oregon’s next opponent, is the Pac-12’s best.
Even with star quarterback Justin Herbert, Oregon is a run-first team. Oregon ran 17 more times than it threw in the statement win over Washington. The Ducks ran 10 more times against Cal in their only Pac-12 road win with Herbert at quarterback.
“That’s where our offense starts,” Herbert said. “It starts with the offensive line and running backs.”
It’s where it finishes, too. Oregon shifted away from the run in the loss against Washington State. The Ducks ran for three yards in the first half. By the time the second half came, Oregon was down 27-0 and had to throw the ball.
The Ducks made the same mistake against Arizona, but for the whole game. The offense failed to muster any successful running game as one of the worst Pac-12 rushing defenses dominated.
“Yeah, we weren’t very good that first half over at Washington State, and obviously [against Arizona] we were really, really poor,” Cristobal said.
So the Ducks buckled down and said “enough is enough.” It was time to get back to the running game against UCLA. Oregon won 42-21, rushing for 200 yards.
“I think we’ve heard all week that today was about establishing our identity, and that was being able to physically run the football,” offensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton said. “I was proud of how we all came out and were committed to that, and the offensive staff was committed to that. It just gives us that much more confidence in our abilities.”
Oregon ran on its first five first downs. So the commitment was there, but the impact wasn’t dominant against a bad rushing defense. The Ducks only had two runs over 10 yards, one of which was Tony Brooks-James’ 54-yard touchdown run.
The Ducks are good on third-and-short situations, though. They converted 6-of-8 attempts when rushing, a number they were happy with.
Oregon’s rushing struggles are puzzling. Individually, the offensive line is talented, but they’ve been inconsistent. They ran well early in the season but rank seventh in rushing yards in the conference in Pac-12 play only.
Some of the inconsistency is because of injury. Oregon lost its freshman starting left tackle Penei Sewell for the season in the game against Washington, so the Ducks moved Throckmorton from right tackle to left tackle.
But Oregon’s overall offensive inconsistencies can’t be causated only to injuries. After three easy nonconference games, the first symptoms showed in the second half of the Stanford loss. Oregon rushed for 6.3 yards per rush in the first half, but only 2.5 in the second as its lead crumbled away.
Now the Ducks must go on the road and face the Pac-12’s second-best overall defense. Utah is allowing only 100 rushing yards per game, and Oregon has trouble winning on the road.
It is not the time for offensive line turnover, which Oregon will have. Junior center Jake Hanson was called for targeting in the second half against UCLA. He was ejected and will miss the first half against Utah.
When Hanson was ejected, Throckmorton moved to center and freshman Steven Jones was put in as left tackle. At times, starting center Dallas Warmack was out and backup Jacob Capra was in. Warmack has been fighting nagging injuries all season.
“We do it in practice,” Cristobal said. “We move these guys around a bunch. At some point in time, you’re going to have to perform in that situation. Yesterday in practice, we mixed them around even more. They expect it now. It’s like musical chairs at practice now.”
So the Ducks are piecing together the offensive line — not a great week for that, given the opponent.
“It’s the best defensive front in the Pac-12, arguably the nation,” junior left guard Shane Lemieux said. “They have a really stout defensive line that they rely on, and they have two really veteran linebackers that are not scared to come down and get you.
“We got a really big test. It’s our kind of football.”