As fans, it’s hard to let go of the past. Oregon fans still cling to the glory days at the beginning of the decade, when the Ducks were on the doorstep of a National Championship.
But it’s not just the title-contending seasons that fans long for. So accustomed to scoring seven touchdowns a game and breaking 70-yard touchdowns routinely, fans became spoiled and not only wanted to win, but win pretty. Chip Kelly’s Ducks were a Ferrari. They were fast, sleek and they won with style. In comparison, Mario Cristobal’s Ducks are more like a pickup truck.
Fans had reservations about Cristobal’s on-field product entering 2019, because the team — particularly the offense — looked boring and not nearly as impressive as Kelly’s. Cristobal wanted to play bully ball in the modern era. Had the game started to pass the former lineman by?
Eight straight wins (and counting) later, I think we have our answer.
Cristobal, contrary to those who doubted him, is not only an elite recruiter and excellent ambassador for the program. He’s a great football coach. His success this season is proving the naysayers wrong, as he has the Ducks poised to return to the college football elite.
Cristobal’s Offense Is Perfectly Fine
Skeptics of Cristobal questioned whether his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, SEC-style approach would work in 2019. And to their defense, it’s a valid concern. That type of football doesn’t win championships anymore.
But Cristobal hasn’t been living under a rock for the past 20 years. He knows that running it up the gut 30 times a game isn’t going to cut it. An offense doesn’t have to run at a breakneck tempo or throw it 60 times a game to be successful, but it does need to be multi-faceted. To his credit, Cristobal has accepted this fact and has taken steps to diversify Oregon’s offense.
For all of the heat that offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo has taken, Cristobal has wisely stuck by his side and allowed him to implement more of his creative system. And the hiring of running backs coach Jim Mastro is starting to pay off, as the vision of the Oregon running backs has noticeably improved. The result of Cristobal deferring to the expertise of his coaching staff is an offense that does a brilliant job of playing to the strengths of its personnel, capable of winning in a variety of ways.
The advanced RPO schemes that the Ducks use take advantage of quarterback Justin Herbert’s best attribute: his intelligence. He’s not the runner former Oregon quarterbacks were, so the spread-option scheme that many clamor for would be a complete misuse of his skill set.
Likewise, the Ducks’ big, mauling offensive line is best suited for controlling the line of scrimmage on downhill runs and protecting Herbert on long-developing play-action pass plays. They’re not the offensive lines of old, which weighed less than 300 pounds and could race up and down the field in an ultra up-tempo system.
Finally, Oregon’s smaller, more athletic receivers and running backs are perfect for the quick screen game that Arroyo has implemented. Instead of running them downfield into traffic, where their small frames may not be able to handle the punishment, the coaching staff gets them out in space where their talent really shines.
Cristobal, Arroyo and Mastro don’t have a scheme that’s as revolutionary as Kelly’s was when he came to Oregon. But a team doesn’t have to score 100 points or rush for 500 yards every week to get the job done. The goal is to win and win consistently.
By coaching to the skill sets of his players and accentuating their strengths, Cristobal has managed to create a far more diverse offense than many expected. The Ducks can run all over teams that scheme to take Herbert out of the game, and they can punish those that load the box. Cristobal has proven far more adaptable than many gave him credit for, and that’s the reason his offensive system is getting the job done.
What About the Defense?
While all of the attention was on Oregon’s lackluster offense in 2018, few recognized an Oregon defense that also showed some concerning signs. Realizing that the Ducks wouldn’t be able to rise to the top of the Pac-12 without a much improved defense, Cristobal made the bold move of parting ways with Jim Leavitt and bringing in little-known defensive coordinator Andy Avalos.
The move flew under the radar nationwide, but it has proven to be one of Oregon’s best hires in recent memory. Perhaps the biggest reason why Cristobal’s Ducks are having so much success right now is because of their emphasis on playing fast, physical, ball-hawking defense.
They may not get the same fanfare, but the 2019 Ducks are nearly as dominant on defense as the early 2010s Ducks were on offense. Oregon is holding teams to just over 15 points per game and less than 315 yards per game; both rank in the top 25 nationwide. The Ducks are on pace to have their best defense of the decade, and oh by the way, they lead the country with a whopping 17 interceptions.
Cristobal deserves a boatload of praise for refusing to settle for mediocrity on defense and finding someone who was able to make the Oregon defense a force to be reckoned with. The Ducks’ secondary is now one of the best in the country, as players like cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who struggled under the previous regime, have turned into superstars. And the Ducks’ pass rush is downright unstoppable at times because of Avalos’ wild blitz packages.
The vast improvement of a defense that was solid at best prior to Avalos’ arrival has complemented Oregon’s offense beautifully. Against Washington, for example, after the Ducks’ defense settled down in the second half and forced a couple of stops, which allowed the Oregon offense to pound the ball with its rugged line against a suspect Husky front seven. The ball control of the Ducks’ offense matched with the shutdown capability of its defense wore down Washington and got Oregon its biggest win of the season.
Ultimately, naysayers were so consumed with the aesthetics of the Kelly era that Cristobal’s “mundane” product seemed like a significant downgrade. But the most exciting teams rarely turn out to be the best teams in the end. Cristobal re-shaped the team from top to bottom in order to build them in the mold of a championship contender: a complete, physical, disciplined football team that can win in a variety of ways.
Right now, the Ducks have a top-20 offense and a top-20 defense, per SP+ (an opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency). Cristobal’s squad is pretty much good at everything, as the well-rounded bunch has the ability to not only drop 40 points in a flash, but also hold a team without a touchdown if necessary.
Doubters don’t have to like how it looks, but they can’t deny that Cristobal’s method is working. What’s more, with incoming elite talent and better recruiting classes on the way, this is just the beginning.
The Ducks are for real. And so is their head coach.
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Eugene Johnson
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.
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