Nick Saban looks on with his arms crossed.

Saban says, OFFENSE WINS; is Mario Cristobal Listening?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck Editorials 36 Comments

We all grew up hearing “Defense wins Championships,” and the early Nick Saban National Championship teams at Alabama epitomized this mantra. Yet college football has begun to change: Alabama scored 45 points against Auburn in 2019 and lost, and it took over 50 points to win the SEC Championship in 2020 over No. 7 Florida (52-46). Everyone watched the carnage as the Tide stuck 52 points on Ohio State in the National Championship game. The narrative concerning what it takes to win the big prize is clearly changing.

The first seismic shift occurred last fall when Nick Saban told ESPN

“It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore. It’s just like last week. Georgia has as good a defense as we do an offense, and we scored 41 points on them (in a 41-24 Alabama win). That’s not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game.

I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”

From Twitter

Joe Burrow and LSU set the world on fire in 2019 scoring 48 points per game to win the National Championship.

I should clarify; while the fans felt the shock waves of Coach Saban’s remarks, the majority of the college coaching community (especially in the SEC) had already been making seismic, offensive shifts for years.

A few weeks ago in a Zoom call with high school coaches in Louisiana, Saban expanded upon his remarks, further explaining why defense will not win a ‘Natty in 2021…

“We have a good defense. I mean, we gave up 19.0 points per game last year and that was first in the SEC. 19.0 points per game. That is 6 points above what we feel is average, which is giving up 13.0 points per game, and it’s first in the SEC. The game is different now. People score fast. The whole idea, like I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you’re going to win. Whoever rushes the ball the most, for the most yardage is going to win the game.

You’re not going to win anything now doing that.”

Could you hear Knute Rockne turning in his grave, the heads of current coaches and fans exploding across the US? This sacrilege to all we have known did not stop there…

“Because A, the way the spread is, and the way that the rules are, to run RPOs, the way the rules are that you can block downfield and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, I mean those rules have changed college football. No-huddle, fastball has changed college football. So I changed my philosophy …

We have to outscore them.”

This is perhaps the greatest college coach in history with seven National Championships, the defensive guru who fought against, but then adopted, the Spread Zone Read No-Huddle Offense. He has demonstrated that of all the attributes that define his greatness … perhaps adaptability is his biggest?

I have written many times about how Oregon averaged 43 points a game during the entire nine year Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich offensive span. And many have taken me to task for wishing for “the good-ol’ times,” reminding me how those days will never return (Get over it Charles!). Yet the Ducks are the only college football program in history to average 45 points or more for five straight seasons, as they did at Oregon under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich from 2009-14.

Why would Cristobal change what was working so well? 

Eugene Johnson

If you have tough sledding against San-Fricken-Jose-State … then that is a clue.

It was only three games into the Cristobal era when I declared in September of 2018 that “this offense will not take us to the promised land.” I was savaged on a number of other sites with personal insults. Yet my prophesy could not portend the horrendous actual results of the Oregon offense under head coach Mario Cristobal.

What have Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama averaged in scoring the last three years?  Because to win a National Championship, Oregon would probably have to beat one, if not two of them to get the crown. Over the same three-year span that Cristobal has been head coach at Oregon (2018-2020) those three teams averaged 44.81 points per game, more than my fantasy of where Oregon should return to at 43 points per game. What was the reward to Oregon fans for Cristobal dumping the classic Oregon Spread offense?

Oregon averaged 30.70 points over the same three years.

(And people wonder why the Ducks lost some games they shouldn’t have?)

Kevin Cline

Other teams wanted some of this; Kenjon Barner ran through the Trojans for 321 yards in one game.

To add insult to injury … it is well documented that Clemson copied the Oregon offense in 2010 and subsequently augmented it with their own variations. Head Coach Ryan Day at Ohio State was a player and coach under Chip Kelly at New Hampshire. Nick Saban brought in as offensive coordinators Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin, both of whom coached against Oregon in the Pac-12 and knew our offense well. This trend of high offensive scoring began with Oregon, and now the Ducks can’t score more than 21 points to beat Cal in 2020?

Cristobal dumping the Spread Zone Read No-Huddle offense was the worst strategic coaching decision at Oregon since Mike Bellotti implemented the “Edge” defense under DC Rich Stubler in 1996.

There IS Hope on the Horizon…

I believe that Cristobal moved away from the Oregon Spread offense so that nobody later could say he was riding Chip Kelly’s coattails. He wanted to do it his way. But while Cristobal’s offenses have lacked an identity, his hiring of Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator has given fans hope, since the newest trend to attack defenses is through the RPO concepts (Run-Pass-Options) of which Moorhead is recognized as one of the foremost known national leaders.

Duck Territory Video

OC Joe Moorhead discussing 2021 Spring Football.

Coach Moorhead’s innovation was demonstrated often this last fall, and with full spring and fall camps–along with so many starters returning–the fans of Oregon and Cristobal may both get what they have been lusting for: an offense that is different enough from Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich to satisfy Cristobal, with the potential of the high-scoring glory days necessary to win in this new era.

Suffice it to say that it will add tons of drama and entertainment for us all to watch play out this season because….

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

Charles Fischer   (Mr. FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon
Top Photo from Twitter

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Mr. Saban. You say offense wins championships but, you have not developed a championship winning quarterback in the NFL ever. The last Alabama quarterback that was not only a starter but won a championship was Joe Namath. It’s easy to stand in the pocket and wait behind a massive offensive line for a receiver to get open. Let’s see you develop a quarterback that can put the team on their back and lead them to a win. Sorry NFL, Mack Jones is not that quarterback. I am willing to bet that Alabama will not develop an NFL QB until Saben retires.


We probably will never really know the “why” of abandoning the Blur Spread.I doubt that it was a fundamental underlying desire of MC to do it his way, or avoid the perception of riding on BBC’s coattails.

Rather, I suspect that Coach Cristobal was instilled with The U’s smashmouth straight ahead attack, that was further reinforced by Saban’s former styles and strategies of former times as MC assisted there. Cristobal has shaped his Oregon teams to his foundation, background, and perspectives.

Now, will he as CEO set lofty benchmarks for offensive production and get out of the way letting the offensive gurus produce? Or will he impose the Big 10 and SEC offenses of the 1990’s?

Go Ducks.


Last year I predicted that Shough would wind up in the transfer portal….this year I’ll predict that Butterfield will be next.

No offense to Anthony Brown, who should have never been brought in to start with, but his talent level is below both JB and Thompson. He’s experienced….he’s also a middle of he road QB with middle of the road stats and a middle of the road record.

Former Charger coach Anthony Lynn got a lesson a few months ago – against his will I might add – “when you have talent YOU PLAY IT!!!”
Keeping Thompson and/or JB on the bench in favor of AB will result in a decent season where the Ducks will neither win the Pac 12 or be invited to the Big Dance.

If Thompson isn’t ready play Butterfield. He’s got a year in the system. He’s a smart kid with a good pedigree who can throw the ball down the field which by the way is where good offenses are headed…..RPO’s are OK in a limited role but just look at the High School 7 on 7 camps – it’s about throwing the football….it’s what great QB’s do.

If nothing else he’ll gain experience, they’ll be a better team by season’s end and of equal importance is next year …. if AB plays and JB and Thompson sit JB will transfer after the season (he know’s he’s better than AB) and next year when all this big time talent has some experience Oregon will enter the season with an inexperienced QB….it’ll be painful.

I like Mario but he doesn’t know offense and he doesn’t know QB’s (see Herbert, Justin)….and if Moorhead’s gonna be run heavy with his QB’s as opposed to down the field throwing then Butterfield doesn’t really belong and we’ll have to see about Thompson…if he’s still around.

PS….big time receivers aren’t gonna go for watching the QB run 15-18 times a game….some of them may be in the portal also if the coaches don’t go pass heavy.


So a few points I think should be noted. While the offense in 2020 was pedantic at best I don’t really feel concerned from the season as a whole. there were just way to many issues last year for the season to really mean anything to me. So while Cal held us to 20 points which should be concerning I just can’t put any value on the year.

I think Cristobal has a few things right. I actually think his thought process of marrying ground and pound can work BUT it will not work alone. it needs to paired with speed and in my opinion a myriad of zone-read, RPO, and air-raid. I earnestly can’t name a single offense that is wildly successful that hasn’t used some aspect of multiple offenses to really adjust and keep their opponents on edge.

I know this spring has been all about the QB and people watching who is going to win the spot. but personally I think we should be focusing on OL. 2020 spring Oregon had 4 spots to fill with only 11 scholarship players(No one could have guessed Penei sitting out at the time). of those 11 two were freshman and they also had 3 additional Walk ons. I just don’t think that is enough to really develop and push talent at the positions.

This year oregon currently has 16 scholarship players and an additional 3 WO’s. Players should be pushed significantly this more in that regard.

I am also excited to see what Moorhead can do this year. I think Miss state made a terrible mistake in letting him go in favor of the oddball from Palouse Washington. I Also can’t wait to see his ability to coach younger players on the roster including Thompson, Butterfield and ashford.


I mean to be fair to Oregon/ Pac12. The SEC knew what the wanted and made significantly more attempts at having the conference ready well before the Pac12 did. As for bama, they also returned 4 oline, 2 elite WR, and a top RB. Add in that they returned their OC so they don’t have to learn a new system and that adds up.

I think this still speaks to the discrepancy in talent that Clemson and bama have. I mean oregon may have returned talent but no one here can tell me that redd and jj3 are comparable to waddle and Non-QB heisman winner Smith.

I do agree I think the bar this year for Oregon should be ~38ppg or more. their needs to be improvement. As fans we shouldn’t be complacent and we should have the talent to post no less than 28 points pac competition.

What is more concerning for me about Cristóbal is the dud games that have happened every year. 2020 – OSU, CAL, ISU. 2019 – Auburn, ASU. 2018 – WSU and AZ.


Ground and pound won’t work alone, or when it is predictably called. The tendency of Cristobal to, seemingly at least, call the run up the gut in critical, and predictable situations will continue to kill the program even with the RPO.

A diversity of plays and schemes is critical, but we also need a grandmaster at play calling. Right now we have, what seems like, an apprentice with a hammer, instead of the project manager running the show.


In 2019 the Ducks averaged just over 35 points a game and they went 12-2. In 2018 the Ducks averaged just over 33 points and went 9-4. Obviously, the idea is to have more points than your opponent, but I don’t think you can pick an arbitrary number to meet. In 2010 Alabama was running closer to 60 plays per game, while in 2020 they were running 80 plays per game.

When you have 20 more plays per game, you should be expected to score more and expected to give up more points. It has been the reverse for the Ducks. They are now running closer to 60 plays per game, rather than the 80 they ran in 2010. It is really is how efficient are you on offense. Remember when Andrew Luck was QB at Stanford? Their Offensive Efficiency was top 5 in the nation with a ground and pound offense.

I understand their QB was a generational talent, but their philosophy was run the ball first, second and third. The problem with Cristobal’s ground and pound philosophy is it isn’t as efficient. Cristobal needs to release his grip on the offense, which I think pretty much everybody has been saying for 2 years now.


Maybe, the Ducks only had 1 undefeated season during their run of 45+ and only 1 other season with 1 loss. I don’t think scoring 45+ points is necessarily what is needed to win games. It is being efficient on offense, which Cristobal has not been.


Charles Fischer, Nick Saban, and me. You just couldn’t ask for a better think-tank for offensive football. I well remember talking to Charles deep into the night and adding “uh-huh” to his thoughts.

Seriously, I think there can be no greater indictment of the offense we run than to watch what happened with Justin Herbert when he went to the pros and was allowed to shift out of second gear. Did you see that coming? I didn’t, and I was a three-time intramural all-star!

How odd is it that we were the embodiment of offensive innovation during the Chipster’s reign and then when the rest of college football found out how right we were and adopted our schemes, we employ our inner Bo Schembechler? Innovators gotta innovate! Winners gotta innovate! In the Cristobal era, Ducks gotta run the ball into a stacked line until the cows come home, and every running back on the roster has a concussion.

Saban is right. Charles is right. Uh-huh.

Mike West

I actually did see that coming (JH shifting to second gear once he got to the NFL). For two reasons…1) JH had the elite set of WRs his freshman and sophomore years. He was ready for them his sophomore year (he CLEARLY did not have that kind of talent his junior and senior years, not to mention no Rolls Royce or Thomas Tyner) and 2) Cristobal shut the offense down in 2019 because his defense WAS elite enough to stop the best (and I’d argue had they played Auburn their second or third game, they would have obliterated the Tigers as two of Auburn’s TDs were super mental mistakes).

Plenty of Pro Scouts got Herbert completely wrong, including those that said he refused to pull the trigger into tight windows. I completely disagreed with the majority of them because I saw enough in 2017 to convince me THEN that he was going to kill it in the NFL (because he had confidence in his WRs to throw into tight windows with authority).

Obviously, many perspectives arise when we analyze our Ducks. I myself had plenty of go arounds about Arroyo (who is not as genius as Moorhead, but can hold his own in my opinion). I was able to at least justify my position when it seemed clear MC was holding JM back on offense.

Then I looked at the Cal game. I must tell you, Shough misread so many plays we literally left 28 points on the board, in my opinion. I’m talking handing off when he shouldn’t have, running when he shouldn’t have, and missing wide open receivers downfield. Cal IS NOT, nor will be talented enough to stop the Ducks’ offense.

Shough left because even Brown was going to beat him out this year. I personally believe MC left JM to his devices and Shough disappeared as that happened.

I doubt Brown is THE GUY, but the freshman won’t be ready. Too bad, because even with sub elite WRs, Moorhead knows what to do, and he is on Chip’s level. I don’t believe many people recognize the craftiness Moorhead showed with MC’s fight in a phone booth offense. Had Shough performed, I believe the team had the chops to bury even ISU’s decent defense. My opinion. And that is despite the absolute train wreck Avalos designed on defense last year.

I was going to post my own comment, but I’ll leave it here instead. I actually believe MC recognizes he needs to get out of Moorhead’s way, and make sure the defense steps up enough to slow teams down. Both LSU and Bama won their titles slowing juggernaut offenses down. You still need a talented defense. Defense won’t be enough anymore.

As FishDuck mentioned, you can’t harass WRs anymore. Otherwise, defenses would resemble the NFL of the sixties. Those dudes were brutal, and you best believe, you had to have monster RBs to deal with the Darth Vader defenses from that era. You don’t need hypersonic speed, but you need enough. All it takes is an OL to give Moorhead’s QB four seconds. He’ll chew you up if you give his QBs that much time.


Couldn’t agree more! Cristobal’s approach to the game seems to reflect out of the way he played the game—-without the ball, on the line, as a game of strength, leverage, and positioning. Perhaps this colors the way he looks at how to win a game. While, of course those aspects are essential, so is……moving the ball! I agree with Charles, And Saban: more emphasis on THAT, please! Look at how Cristobal underutilized the AFC Rookie of the year! We can only hope Moorhead prevails in leading our Offense.

Joshua Whitted

Definitely a thought-provoking article. Well put, Charles. I have often defended Cristobal’s offensive direction, as I think there’s more than one system to use that can put up 40+ points per game, and I was willing to see if his new offensive direction could achieve the same goal.

With the addition of Moorhead, and the addition of more true spread and RPO concepts as you stated, I think it’s realistic to expect us to be scoring 40ish points per game in the near future. But something you have said from the start is really hitting me now, and I believe you answered it accurately in your article. “Why change what was working?”

While I do think there are other systems that can put up big numbers, why overhaul a scheme that was already doing that? You said it: 45 points per game for five straight years! Looking at it objectively, it’s downright nonsensical for a coach to seemingly abandon such a scheme.

I don’t know why this sticks out to me so much now, and it didn’t so much at first, but it really is problematic. I mean, Alabama just brought in Bill O’Brien to replace Sark, and Saban said on live television during the spring game that they’re not going to overhaul their offense because they have a new coordinator. What they ran last year worked to perfection, and while they’ll always make tweaks to the system, it makes no sense to go away from what was working just because they brought in someone new.

I think your statement in the article answered my initial question perfectly: Cristobal wanted to win his way, not on the coattails of Kelly.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, as our offense is evolving. It’s just crazy it has taken Cristobal three years to essentially conclude that the Kelly offense (or a version of it) is the one that he needs to implement, when it was already there from the start.


And in baseball news, our Ducks take two out of three from the Trojans down in LA.

In a bit of weird news, the Saturday game won 13-4 by Oregon had starting pitcher Cullen Kafka exit after 4 innings with a 12-3 lead yet he doesn’t get the win due to an arcane rule that you have to throw 5 innings to get the win. Kafka faced 21 batters, yet the win goes to Caleb Sloan who pitched two innings and only threw to 7 batters. Rules stipulate that the “official scorer” gets to decide which pitcher beyond the starter gets the W.


The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote over 2,500 years ago that “Change is the only constant in life.”

Lou Farnsworth

Thank you Charles for an article that clearly and effectively summarizes the FACTS as they are in the real world. Most of us tend towards optimism, but that optimism must be tempered by reality. And that reality is that to be serious contenders for the Championship, we MUST be able to put up and average of 45+ PPG.

Do we have the talent and the coaching, (RPO Joe), to put up those kind of numbers? I think that on paper we do. Whether the CEO, (Cristobal), gives a free enough rein to Moorhead to accomplish it is, as you pointed out, is a different question entirely. We can only hope and pray to the Great Mallard in the sky, that Coach Moorhead gets that green and yellow light.

Great article Charles.

David Marsh

Sounded like the offense was having a good time during yesterday’s scrimmage.

The second year of Moorhead’s offense will be telling.

The offense had some depth and expirence across all positions and hopefully we starting seeing it pay dividends.

Santa Rosa Duck

Ever the optimist, I think this is the year the Christobal system comes together. Justin Herbert is superb but he did not have a number of top receivers to throw to. This year, we should have a good QB in Anthony Brown who will have a deep receiver group to throw to. An offensive line that has seasoned and hopefully running backs that stay healthy. I expect to see 40+ points per game and a greatly improved defense over last year. GO DUCKS!


Nice article Charles, thank you.

I posted this insane statistic the other day on a older post.

It seems to me we have the athletes, we just need Super Mario and Joltin’ Joe to turn them loose!


I was excited to hear Cristobal talk about bringing power to the offensive scheme we had when he began coaching at Oregon. I was even more upset when I saw, what you saw Charles, the outcome of his actions, his tendencies we have seen over and over on offense.

Last year we had the #62 ranked defense, and the #42 ranked offense. Neither of these outcomes were acceptable, in my opinion.

Fortunately the talent level on defense continues to exceed anything we have seen before. We also have new leadership which should continue to allow for growth on defense.

On offense, hope springs eternal has to be the mantra for the Oregon Duck Fan. The question, yet to be answered, is can Cristobal’s predilection for a predictable simpleton offense be broken? Will we see an offense unfettered by Cristobal’s proclivity to give a defense exactly what they want, and know is coming, in critical moments? I think so, and look forward to seeing it happen!


I appreciate your concern with the lack of offensive production. My thoughts when MC was hired was that his recruiting reputation would attract better athletes – with more strength and power .

This would help UO football overcome the stronger and more powerful teams that beat us up during the Kelly years. For example, Stanford hurting De’anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota. Stanford’s strength overpowered our finesse linemen.

I believe the offense always has an advantage over the defense. You must be able to attack all areas of the field AND not be predictable. If the defense is expecting sweep run trap.
Misdirection is best when calling plays. Coach Moorhead gave me a taste of what he is capable of last season. I was wowed when TE Johnson showed a new dimension against WSU.

A defense will get lucky and have the perfect call to stop your play. But a good play caller will take advantage of the defense.

It is so obvious that offense must score to win! Your article today using Lou Saban should end the debate forever! Thanks for your research and writing!