The Mental Game: Oregon’s Last Hurdle from Being Elite?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck Editorials

In retrospect, the final result of the last season was the best that I could reasonably see the 2019 edition of Oregon football achieving. I was more pessimistic at prediction time last August due to my concerns about the offense, but in the end it was the mental component of the competition, not the Xs-and-Os or a particular strategy from the Duck coaching staff that made the difference. To me, 12-2 was as-good-as-it-gets, and I only arrived at that conclusion after the season was over and I could ponder the campaign as a whole.

Many of us on this site lamented the Auburn loss and put the blame on the head coach’s inexperience, his choice of play-calling at crunch time, and the lack of scoring when it counted in the second half. Indeed, Mr. FishDuck raises his hand as one of those parties. Yet, I now come away with a different view as to the result. I believe that loss helped the Ducks last season. The reason comes down to one aspect overlooked coming into the 2019 season: the lack of the mental aspect; the “been-there” hardening of resolve that comes with a veteran, battle-tested squad.

Past Oregon teams were in epic games such as this Rose Bowl with Russell Wilson, Kiko Alonso and John Boyett.

The Oregon teams of 2008 through 2015 experienced reams of big contests on the road, and in front of nationally televised audiences for BCS games, Rose Bowls, and National Championships. Those teams were mentally forged for the next challenge and they were accustomed to being “the hunted” in the ongoing gauntlet of teams trying to take them down a peg.

The 2019 team, both the coaches and the players, had no such experience residing in the top-ten and having a target on their backs.

Thus, if the Ducks had pulled out the win against the Tigers, I have no doubt that being undefeated and ranked in the top five when going into the contest with Washington would have this mentally inexperienced team feeling full-of-themselves. They had no experience being the hunted, and the Huskies would have wanted the game so bad they could smell blood. As it turned out, even with our A-game, it was all the Ducks could do to pull out the win while receiving Washington’s A-game in return.

In other words, an Oregon win in Dallas could have set the Ducks up for a big loss in Seattle. The reeling from that emotional loss could have easily caused a dip in confidence, and places the win over Washington State at home the next week–a game decided on the final drive, mind you–in serious jeopardy. It would not have surprised me at all to have lost both those games after beating Auburn, and those two consecutive losses would have fueled the fire to finish off winning the remainder of the season for, again, a 12-2 finish.

Same result due to the mental inexperience: 12-2 was as good-as-it-gets in 2019.

Winning at Cal will be no easy deal this year…

Looking at the next season, (whether 2020 or 2021) there is an entirely different mental mindset due to the 2019 season; big games were won last year in Seattle and at home. Massive underdog games (in most eyes) in the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl suddenly make this current team much more savvy to the big-game pressures and knowing what it takes to win. The big disappointment in Tempe was also an experience that will help this team to be better suited to play a dangerous Cal team next season in Berkeley.

I am quite sure that the coaching staff learned a ton and now is better equipped to remind and prepare players for the mental challenges that come with being christened the front-runner for the 2020 Pac-12 conference championship. The prior campaign was a crucial learning year for players and the staff, yet I cannot help but wonder if any of these lessons have to be learned by the coaching staff twice? It has happened before…

Is the mental game the final hurdle to break into the elite?

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

Charles Fischer   (FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon
Top Photo by Eugene Johnson

Spencer Thomas, the Volunteer Editor for this article, is an attorney for the Social Security Administration in Atlanta, Georgia, and coaches football at Hillgrove High School in Powder Springs, GA.

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