Cristobal’s Biggest Lesson? The END GAME

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck Analysis

We know that Mario Cristobal is still relatively new as a head coach in a Power-Five conference, and many of us have sputtered about his learning curve. Strategies and tactics that many of us “Greybeards” have watched over the years with other coaches seemed to be either unknown or ignored by this coaching staff. Now granted, going from 7-6 to 12-2 as Pac-12 and Rose Bowl Champions is quite pleasing and the most we could ask for, yet to reach the elite level … more learning at the top needs to take place. The concerns I’ve written about in the past concerning the “End Game,” appear to have been put to rest in the final moments of the 2020 Rose Bowl. And I could not be happier.

You know the drill. You recall how Oregon was stuffed on a fourth and one against Auburn, and it wasn’t even close. It has happened a number of times this season. Even Kirk Herbstreit spoke of our difficulty in that area and how puzzling it was considering the big and experienced offensive line of Oregon. In the Rose Bowl we witnessed an extraordinary play by Troy Dye, where he stripped the ball to create a fumble, which was recovered by the Ducks in Wisconsin territory. On fourth down, Oregon tried to blast for the needed yardage up the middle in the “A” gap and got stoned. The turnover in enemy territory was wasted…

Getting yards against Wisconsin was tough for CJ Verdell.

Yet being fair, it did not always go that way, as the Ducks went for a fourth and short against the Huskies inside their own 40 yard line at crunch time, and made it as they did against Utah in the Pac-12 Championships. We all have a tendency to remember the ones we missed. (Right?) My “End Game” philosophy developed over the years of watching Our Beloved Ducks has become…

“First downs at the end of the game with a narrow lead are as important as touchdowns earlier in the game; both are needed to win, so do what it takes to get those first downs!”

I still groan thinking of times that Rich Brooks would plunge the running back into the line three times to burn time off the clock and then punt it because “we’re going to win it with defense.” Coach Cristobal views it differently in that he wants to impose his will and demonstrate to all that Oregon is tough, and there is no doubt that the Ducks are tougher than other times in the past. But these “End Games” will turn against you in a hurry with the sophistication of modern college offenses, especially when you see a Saturday where Ohio State plants 56 points on Michigan and Alabama scores 45 points and loses?

It seems to me that you have to suck it up and call the tough play, whether it is an end-around by Terry Obee to beat the Huskies on the last play of a game, or a pass to secure a first down to run out the clock. But that has not been the Cristobal method … until now.

This was the greatest of stages for Coach Cristobal to learn from.

Oregon got the ball back with five and a half minutes to go in the game and it was urgent to burn the clock. Mario showed new guts on that drive, as Herbert threw to a TE, who dropped the easy pass. That surprised me, as well as showing why coaches sometimes don’t like to take that risk at crunch time. (The injuries to TEs Cam McCormick and Jacob Breeland were especially felt in this game) So the Ducks had to punt and give the Badgers a chance at victory…

Yet the defense came through again and gave the ball back to the Ducks with about two and a half minutes left to burn. On second and nine, we saw Justin Herbert throw a brave pass into the middle of the zones for a clutch completion and first down to Micah Pittman. One more first down to secure the game and it was third down with three yards to go with 70 seconds left…

You know the next play (above), but it sure is fun to see it again! Everybody knew Oregon was going to run the ball, but for the third time in final five minutes–Oregon passed the ball, and this time got the first down and secured the win in the 106th Rose Bowl.

How big was this change in strategy and philosophy? Could it help Coach Cristobal blast future fourth and ones with an “A” gap dive play because opposing coaches are wary now of the pass or play-action? What does this say about the head coach and his ability to be flexible enough to be open to what works, as opposed to sticking to what he wants to do? There are tons of items to contemplate in what we witnessed at the end of the Rose Bowl as well as their overall implications. The best part? He has more to learn and grow, and yet Oregon is 12-2!

“Oh how we love to ponder Our Beloved Ducks!”

Charles Fischer    (FishDuck)
Eugene,Oregon                                                                                                                                                                        Top Photo by Tom Corno

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