Football players and coaches will tell you to the man that there’s no such thing as a “good loss.” They’re all wrong! The Oregon Ducks’ loss to Arizona State on November 23rd, 2019 was not just a good loss, it was a great loss, and I’m here to convince you.
As I said in this article way back on January 14th, 2019, the Ducks could suffer a loss to Auburn and still make the playoffs if they won out. Many scoffed at my overly optimistic views on the upcoming season in the comments. But after that close loss to Auburn, the Ducks reeled off nine straight wins and were ranked sixth in the nation. Would my generous prediction for the season come true with a trip to the playoffs?
After waltzing through the early schedule and easier foes, the Ducks struggled with the Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars, scraping by 35-31 and 37-35 in the two games. But all the Oregon faithful were very relieved that we’d finally exorcised the demon that was their recent habit of losing to WSU. Beating the Huskies? Yeah, that’s nice, but you know, we’ve done it 15 out of the last 17 games.
During this nine-win streak the Ducks crushed Arizona 34-6 and put a 56-24 beatdown on 22nd-ranked Trojans, where they forced four turnovers and scored 56 points on only 63 plays. Always nice to crush the Trojans, no matter how hapless they are.
Looking past Arizona State (who was 5-5 at the time, with several very close losses), Oregon had only the Civil War at Oregon State left, followed by Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The trajectory to the playoffs was there. Nine straight wins, a 10th vs. Oregon State almost already in the rear-view mirror, and … one … more … win against Utah, and we’re in. Back to the playoffs.
If the Ducks had beaten ASU they would have had a much harder time with Utah than they did, because they wouldn’t have been as galvanized as a team. The broader definition of “galvanize” is to shock someone into taking action, and I believe the ASU game certainly did that, a difficult a pill as it was to swallow.
But a more specific definition of galvanizing is a process of hot-dipping steel or iron into molten zinc to protect it, to make it stronger and more resilient. The ASU game was the Ducks’ collective hot-dipping as well, and they came out stronger, more resolved, and more cohesive on both sides of the ball. This certainly showed in Pac-12 Championship Game where the Ducks were underdogs (ranked 13th) to the fifth-ranked, 9-1 Utes, who were riding an impressive eight-game winning streak.
The Ducks’ defense held the Utes offense to goose-eggs in the first half, gave up 15 in the third quarter, and zero in the fourth in a dominating 37-15 victory. Utah was outmatched in every phase of the game from start to finish. Oregon was a dominating cohesive team if I ever saw one, absolutely manhandling one of the best and most physical teams in the country.
Even a close win against Utah would probably have landed the Ducks in the playoffs where we’d have met LSU. Would they have played better than Oklahoma? I believe so, yes. Would they have won? I don’t believe so, nope.
In fact, if Oregon’s offense had played like it did in the Rose Bowl, the Ducks would probably have been blown out just like the Sooners were. It would have been more like the loss to Ohio State in the 2015 championship game, a 21-point loss, where Oregon simply wore down and couldn’t keep up in the fourth quarter. We’ll never know, and that’s probably a good thing.
The ASU loss did more than knock Oregon out of the playoffs; it brought the coaches together and players together in a new way. The Auburn loss was tough, but that was in Texas a million years ago to an SEC team. The bitterness of that loss had long since faded, and strolling through the PAC-12 (with relative ease) was causing some complacency to seep in.
The ASU loss put a spotlight on a few glaring issues. First, with Justin Herbert playing his worst game in forever (two horrible, horrible interceptions), the defense would have to be lights out to keep the game close. It wasn’t: the secondary seemed to simply forget the fundamentals for most of the game, giving up three (yes, three) huge bombs to a freshman quarterback, and some critical first downs that sealed Oregon’s fate.
The loss also dropped Oregon out of consideration for the playoffs, despite what came next. Having that shadow removed from every discussion led to blowouts of OSU and Utah and another Pac-12 title. It led Oregon back to relevance, the top 10, and another trip to the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl is literally unlike any other bowl game. It is still the championship game for the best Pac-12 team, regardless of what’s going on with the playoffs. Ninety thousand-plus people pack into this idyllic setting that has more football history and lore than any other location in the country, college or professional. That, and a gritty win over Wisconsin, again, is what a great loss can get you.
So here’s to great losses — may they be always few and far between. And the next time someone comments “there’s no such thing as a good loss,” you can pull this game out of your back pocket and make a case that in 2019 the Oregon Ducks not only had a good loss, they had a great one.
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