Mario Cristobal Can’t Turn Talent Into Production

Joshua Whitted Editorials

No matter how many top-five recruiting classes he signs, no matter how many high-profile coordinators he brings on staff, and no matter how many of his players would run through a wall for him, Mario Cristobal will not come close to winning a championship until he properly develops talent.

Stanford’s upset of Oregon on The Farm wasn’t a fluke; it was the latest example of Cristobal’s glaring inability to get his roster to play even close to its fullest capability. The Ducks and Cardinal aren’t comparable on paper. According to the 247Sports Talent Composite, Oregon has more than twice as many former blue-chip (four and five-star) recruits on its team than Stanford. And Stanford actually happens to be one of the most blue-chip-laden teams in the Pac-12.

The Ducks should be running laps around every team not named USC in the conference based on talent alone. Oregon’s roster is closer in caliber to Clemson’s and Oklahoma’s than it is to Washington’s and UCLA’s. So, why have the Ducks continually failed to play like a dominant football team? Because Cristobal has failed time and time again to actually develop his four and five-star recruits into good college football players.

Cristobal’s recruiting accomplishments have been well-documented. He’s one of the best in the country, and the Ducks will continue to be among the most talented teams on paper for as long as he remains the head coach.

That means absolutely nothing if he can’t turn that talent into production.

Oregon’s Troubling Season

Based on the talent disparity alone, the Cardinal shouldn’t have even been a challenge for Oregon. In fact, none of the Ducks’ opponents so far this season, aside from Ohio State, had any business hanging with them. Sure, games aren’t won on paper, and good teams run into tricky matchups from time to time. But not every week.

Oregon should have shut down Stanford.

This isn’t the Stanford of yesteryear. Its offense ranks outside of the top 100 in yards per game, its running game has been nonexistent for a couple of years now, and its defense, while solid, is nowhere close to the vaunted units that led to upset wins over Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich’s Ducks years ago. A good coach, with a roster as loaded as Oregon’s, would have run away with this game.

Perhaps more appalling was Oregon’s showing against Arizona. Despite the final score, the Ducks were clinging to a five-point lead entering the fourth quarter, and Arizona had a very real chance to pull off a monumental upset. Oregon did force five turnovers, which is the reason it won the game, but as we saw last week, when Oregon forced none, turnovers are highly volatile. Relying on them to win consistently isn’t a recipe for success. It’s especially unsettling that a team with a top-10 roster needed every one of those turnovers to beat a team that might well be the worst in the Pac-12.
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Even Oregon’s narrow victory over Fresno State is cause for concern. The Bulldogs are a really good Group of Five team, but they’re not the Mountain West juggernaut that their performance in Week 1 against the Ducks would suggest. An Oregon offensive line that should have dominated an overmatched defensive front got manhandled for much of the game, generating a paltry 3.8 yards per carry. The Ducks’ secondary and linebackers had loads of trouble defending crossing routes underneath, and they were far too late to react to throws 10-plus yards down the field outside the numbers in one-on-one off-coverage.

Rushing yards were hard to come by against Fresno State.

Fans can blame injuries, the refs, a hostile Stanford road environment (I couldn’t even type that with a straight face), or any other excuse they can come up with for both Saturday’s loss and Oregon’s underwhelming performance for much of this season. But frankly, no matter the circumstances, the product that Cristobal has put on the field for the majority of the year has been unacceptable.

Cristobal has done such a phenomenal job acquiring so many gifted athletes that actually winning games in a dismal Pac-12 was supposed to be the easy part. Yet the Ducks have hardly resembled even a top-25 team for all but one game this season.

Despite loading the secondary with four and five-star prospects such as Mykael Wright, Dontae Manning and Steve Stephens, the defensive backfield has looked lost at times. Star linebacker Noah Sewell has made highlight-reel hits, but he’s been a liability in coverage this season, with just a 55.8 PFF coverage grade, which ranks 371st among FBS linebackers. And he’s Oregon’s highest-graded linebacker in coverage. Oregon has stopped next to no one in the passing game, ranking 112th in passing defense.

Manning (left) and Stephens (right) give up a completion.

Offensively, Anthony Brown’s poor play has clearly been the biggest issue (talk about an article that didn’t age well), but the players around him aren’t helping his cause. Oregon’s bevy of elite recruits at receiver have failed to make an impact, as no player on the roster has been able to consistently separate down the field or make contested catches. There’s no reason Devon Williams, Mycah Pittman or Kris Hutson — all former blue-chip recruits — shouldn’t be stars in this offense. Instead, none of them have been able to make more than an occasional impact.

The list goes on and on, with essentially each position group on the roster failing to perform at the level it should based on its level of talent. This isn’t to blame the players; many of them would be stars elsewhere. Their coaches are failing them.

Right now, Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings, which rank teams based on predictability, factoring in how they have performed (regardless of whether they win or lose), have Oregon ranked 31st. A team with the prestige of Oregon, with a fourth-year head coach who has recruited as well as Cristobal has, should not be underperforming so dramatically.

A scheme or quarterback change might make the team better for now, but they still wouldn’t solve the overarching problem. After all, we know Joe Moorhead’s offensive system works; Penn State finished 19th in total offense in 2017 with less supposed talent than Oregon. And the Ducks fielded a higher-rated quarterback than Brown last season, and the result was more of the same.

Benching Brown won’t solve all of Oregon’s problems.

The bottom line is, Cristobal and his staff are not sufficiently coaching up their players. That won’t change with a new scheme, and it won’t change with a new quarterback.

Until Cristobal does a better job of developing the players on his roster, College Football Playoff appearances and National Championship aspirations will be pipe dreams. The Ducks will continue to get tested by — and every now and again lose to — teams that get the most out of their rosters despite being overmatched on paper.

The Ducks’ loss at Stanford wasn’t shocking because Oregon’s “elite roster” has looked anything but for much of the year. Unless that changes, Oregon fans can kiss the College Football Playoff goodbye.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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