Mario Cristobal came in to change Oregon’s identity.
Oregon was known to be a “hurry-up” team that included lots of flashy play mixed with speed and not a lot of physicality. Cristobal, in his second year as head coach, wanted to change that identity. He wanted to mold the Ducks into a team that can compete with the most physical opponents in the country.
Despite showing flashes of physicality and power running on Saturday’s game against Auburn and at times last season, Oregon’s identity slipped away from them. The Ducks had an abysmal second half running the ball, which was one of the factors that led to their demise and a gut-wrenching loss.
Cristobal and the Ducks will need to re-establish their identity this week against Nevada, and the rest of the season, to show that they have not shied away from showcasing that new brand of Oregon football.
“A lot of people always think that being the old Oregon, that 10-year run, and stuff like that, it’s cool and all...but we want to prove a point,” Cyrus Habibi-Likio said at Oregon media day. “Making a statement that it’s a new era, but we’re still as successful if not even more successful and that’s a big goal.”
During his time at Alabama, Cristobal got a front row seat to how the Crimson Tide dominated teams with their ability to run with physicality while not compromising speed and finesse. In his final season at Alabama in 2016, the team was ranked seventh nationally in rushing yards, and the Tide produced a Heisman Trophy running back in Derrick Henry in 2015.
However, this is Oregon. Not Alabama.
Last season, Cristobal put his imprint on this new era of Oregon football with its game against then-No. 7 Washington. The Ducks rushed for 177 yards on 49 attempts against the conference’s second-best rushing defense. But it was about more than just the 177 yards rushing. It was about Oregon beating their bitter conference rival.
On the final play, Cristobal decided to run an inside zone for running back CJ Verdell behind a wounded offensive line that led to the game’s walk-off six-yard rushing touchdown. Not only did it beat a top-10 team, it solidified what Cristobal’s new philosophy was about.
“Coach Cristobal just told us that we are a downhill team, and we were going to keep running downhill,” Verdell said following the win. “I was just glad the coaches put their trust in me to run the ball.”
Following the win over Washington, the Ducks lost their identity of being a power-run team that could succeed against legitimately good defenses.
After the 2018 season, Oregon went into the offseason focused and ready to come into 2019 as a more physical team.
“Coach Cristobal has put an emphasis on physicality and power up front on the offensive and defensive line,” center Jake Hanson said.
Oregon got its chance to show what had been culminating over the offseason and prove their physicality against an SEC team in Auburn. Auburn boasted, arguably, the best defense line in the country, but Oregon had a veteran offensive line to counter.
The Ducks proved early against Auburn that they could be a physical power-running team. Oregon ran the ball 12 times for 67 yards in the first quarter alone, but then they began to lose their identity.
The rushing attack, following the first quarter, only mustered 23 yards on 21 carries in the final three quarters. Injuries that arose during the game may have factored into Oregon’s demise: Verdell, who started at running back, missed the entire third quarter with an injury. His co-starter, Travis Dye, was limited for the entire second half due to an injury of his own. Despite several Ducks being banged up, it could have simply been that Auburn adjusted to what Oregon was doing and the Ducks had to pivot.
“I thought we were moving along pretty well in the first half,” Cristobal said following the loss. “It wasn’t a matter of the run not being called, as the defensive look dictated the ball being spit out there. It ends up being more plays in the pass column then the run column.”
Oregon, despite the numbers, called 16 plays that were runs. With the RPO (run-pass option) attached to 11 of the 16 run plays, Oregon only ran the ball seven times. As opposed to strictly run plays, the Ducks let Auburn decide the outcome of the play.
“The RPO game, we felt like, was going to give us an advantage,” offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “There were times that we could have handed the ball off on other looks.”
With Oregon losing their physical-running identity, it dictated their inability to pass the ball downfield in the second half.
Aside from establishing physicality, Oregon will need to avoid the type of self-destructive plays that have cost them games in the past.
Last season, Oregon imploded against Stanford. The Ducks had a commanding lead heading into the second half, but a self-sabotaged third quarter and fumble by Verdell in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter led to a 38-31 overtime loss.
Oregon found themselves in similar territory on Saturday against Auburn. The Ducks struggled with costly turnovers, poor offensive drives and mismanagement of the clock that factored into Oregon’s loss.
With Nevada coming to Autzen Stadium, Oregon will need to re-establish their identity.
The Ducks, following their debacle against Stanford last season, went on to beat two top-25 teams in Cal and Washington that included two strong team rushing performances.
Oregon welcomes the 47th best rushing defense to Eugene on Saturday, but Oregon has proved that it can run right into the teeth of the nation’s best. For the Ducks to avoid a meltdown like they did last season, they will need to re-establish their identity of a physical running team that can maintain throughout an entire season.
“We feel strongly that we have a real good football team with our goals still sitting in front of us,” Cristobal said. “Certainly looking forward to getting back to Autzen Stadium in front our fans, our home crowd and get back to playing this Saturday.”
Follow Gabriel on Twitter @gabe_ornelas