EUGENE — There should be no debate as to exactly when it happened. And by “it” I mean, when the University of Oregon football program emerged from a fog and assumed the identity of their Miami-born, MMA-sparring, sled-worshiping head football coach Mario Cristobal.
Oregon beat Washington 30-27 on Saturday at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks pile-drove the Huskies in overtime. Pounded them, especially on the final play. Not with glitzy uniforms or a trick play or a future first-round NFL Draft pick doing all the work with his arm. Rather, Oregon punctuated the win with pure beef, on a six-yard overtime touchdown run by CJ Verdell.
Signature moment. Not just for the quarterback. Not just for the coach. But for the entire program. What is Oregon football? It’s tough. It’s resilient. It looks you square in the eyes. And all of that feels ahead of schedule, too. Whatever the case, this is Cristobal’s baby now, even if he waves it off. It became so in four quarters and a thrilling overtime.
“I just like the way Oregon football plays,” Cristobal said. “This isn’t a Mario Cristobal thing… I’m a lineman, brother.”
We all know how he means that. Humble. No-nonsense. Lunch-bucket. Now, that’s the Ducks. That — and 587 uniform combinations.
Cristobal was hired as an assistant a couple of years ago. He was promoted to head coach 309 days ago. But Oregon didn’t truly become identifiable as Cristobal’s program until Saturday. It hadn’t really assumed his identity, or any true defined identity at all, until it found a way to win a close game against a credible opponent.
Oregon got physical with Washington. There was no proof before Saturday that the Cristobal-era Ducks knew how to close a game out. But what became clear in one afternoon is that they sure know how to give you a fat lip. Oregon’s 177 rushing yards are the most this season by any opponent against Washington’s defense.
“The investment is starting to pay off,” Cristobal said. “You see knock back. You see finishing down field.”
Justin Herbert leapt toward the sky as Verdell ran into the end zone. Fans poured out of the stands and ran toward the celebrating players. The replay of the winning score will show a crushing block by Jacob Capra. And that back-up right tackle Brady Aiello pancaked the Huskies’ defensive tackle, and on the other side Shane Lemieux sealed off the back side, clearing the way for Verdell to break arm tackles and reach the end zone. And so maybe it’s not surprising that Cristobal darted toward the line of scrimmage after, wading through the chaos, where he eventually found Aiello and Lemieux.
Once there, Cristobal leaned close and pulled their foreheads against his — right side and left — for an extended hug. It was like they were like two 310-pound children and he was home from a long business trip. In fact, the whole program feels like its back from an extended trip, doesn’t it?
Said Aiello: “This game means so much to us.”
The Ducks were out-gained by Washington (437-379). Herbert was not great. His passing line: 18 of 32 for 202 yards and two touchdowns. There were 13 NFL scouts present, including a Denver Broncos contingent of four led by John Elway. Not sure he was blown away watching Oregon chase Jake Browning around the field, and match Chris Petersen’s defense punch for punch with an offensive effort that was a real grind. In the end, facing a third and goal from the 6, you figured Cristobal would put the game in Herbert’s hands and thrill us all.
He sort of did, too.
But as Oregon prepared the snap the ball, the Ducks first-year coach walked up the sideline, away from the end zone. He got to the 40 yard line before someone in the coaching box noticed the Huskies were going to drop eight defenders into the end zone. Petersen’s team was betting the Ducks would put the ball in Herbert’s hands too and it was going to narrow the passing windows. And so Cristobal sprinted from the 40 to the goal line, and called timeout.
“I almost pulled a hamstring running down there,” he said.
Three weeks ago, Oregon blew the lead, and the game, against Stanford. The Ducks were the better team. And so you were forgiven if you had reasonable doubt about UO finishing the Huskies off late. But Cristobal and his assistants changed that final play on third an goal. They instead decided to put the ball in their offensive line’s hands. Sitting 18 feet from victory, on third down, Oregon decided to run the ball.
It was the most Mario Cristobal thing ever.
“We were going to attack them where we felt we could continually move the ball,” Cristobal said.
The stakes just got raised. We’re going to learn a lot about Oregon in the coming weeks. Can they win when everyone expects them? Can they beat a talented team (Washington State) on the road? Will they drown in an inflated sense of self? Those are new questions for a program that has its third head coach in three seasons. These aren’t Mark Helfrich’s Ducks, or Willie Taggart’s Ducks. These Ducks, coached by Cristobal, would have used their bare hands to turn those other teams into a wad of silly putty.
Thing is, Elway doesn’t really know it. He left early. The Broncos scouts weren’t in attendance to see a college team forge its identity. They weren’t at Autzen Stadium for the entertainment. Like the other NFL scouts, Elway came to see Herbert, and maybe, Browning, too. Elway exited the building with five minutes remaining and the game tied at 24. Denver has the Rams to worry about on Sunday.
So if you bump into Elway or any of the Broncos’ scouts and they ask you what happened to Oregon, don’t tell them. Not about Washington’s missed field goal at the end of regulation. Or about Herbert’s clutch throw in overtime. Don’t give them any of the delicious play by play.
Just tell them this: Mario Cristobal happened.
Source : https://www.oregonlive.com/sports/oregonian/john_canzano/index.ssf/2018/10/canzano_oregon_ducks_win_over.html