There were a lot of issues to unpack in Oregon’s running back room in the aftermath of Saturday’s agonizing football loss to Stanford.
CJ Verdell, who asserted himself as the featured back for most of the game, had to bounce back from his costly last-minute fumble during Sunday’s practice.
Tony Brooks-James is mending an ankle injury, and Taj Griffin is looking for a new home after announcing his decision to transfer out of the program.
“CJ has got the full support and trust of his team,” coach Mario Cristobal said during his Monday news conference in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. “Difficult moment for anybody in their career to go through something like that. Tremendous lesson learned obviously.”
Verdell rushed for 115 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown, while averaging 5.8 yards per carry against a Cardinal defense that had allowed an average of 104.7 rushing yards through its first three games.
But the redshirt freshman coughed the ball up with 51 seconds in regulation, which led to Stanford marching down for a tying field goal and eventually escaping Autzen Stadium with a 38-31 overtime victory.
Cristobal said he doesn’t second-guess himself about trying to get a clinching first down with Verdell running the ball. Oregon could have had Justin Herbert kneel down to bleed the clock down to 10 or 15 seconds before punting.
“I would rather not send the punt team out there and risk a potential issue with the punt team,” Cristobal explained. “That was the decision, and obviously it didn’t work out, but that’s the train of thought behind it.”
Brooks-James, a fifth-year senior, injured an ankle during the game but should be able to help Verdell carry the load when the 19th-ranked Ducks play at No. 24 California on Saturday at Memorial Stadium (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
“We feel he’s going to be OK, so we’re counting on him going this weekend,” Cristobal said of Brooks-James, who was limited to six carries for 27 yards with a 7-yard touchdown against Stanford.
Brooks-James, who has rushed for 200 yards this season, is still listed as the starter on the depth chart. Verdell is Oregon’s leading rusher with 314 yards.
Three other players, including Herbert, have more rushing yards than Griffin. The speedy senior had six carries for 31 yards this season.
Griffin will be able to take advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule this season and finish his career somewhere else as a graduate transfer in 2019.
“Any time a student-athlete has a decision to make that’s in the best interest of himself, we support it 100 percent,” Cristobal said of Griffin’s decision to leave in search of more playing time. “Certainly we wish him well and will help him.”
Austin Faoliu was wearing a protective boot Monday after suffering an ankle injury against Stanford. The sophomore defensive end is questionable for Cal.
Oregon’s starting defensive line — Faoliu, nose guard Jordon Scott and defensive end Jalen Jelks — have played well throughout the season. Gary Baker and Drayton Carlberg provided some quality depth while combining for seven tackles against the Cardinal.
“The combination of all those guys playing together results in some really productive play,” Cristobal said. “We did a really nice job in the run game.”
Stanford finished with 71 net rushing yards with Oregon sacking quarterback K.J. Costello twice for losses totaling 19 yards. Last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up, Bryce Love, finished with 89 yards and a touchdown.
Cristobal also was pleased with his offensive line after Herbert passed for 346 yards and the Ducks rushed for 178 yards.
“You see some great moments of physicality at the line of scrimmage, you see some really high-level execution on both sides of the ball,” Cristobal said. “Then you see about 10 percent of the time where the breakdowns were pretty significant and resulted in some really big plays and changed the momentum.
“Some of them were self-inflicted, those are the painful ones.”
Cristobal and the vast majority of his peers around the country have praised the new redshirt rule, which allows players to participate in up to four games and still retain the year of eligibility.
The rule gives coaches the flexibility to play new or developing players sporadically without burning their redshirts.
One unintended consequence of the rule change has been the opportunity for players like Griffin to transfer without penalty after getting a feel for their role over four games.
“I think at points in time throughout a young man’s career, it’s time to keep going or it’s time to do something else. I don’t ever judge that,” Cristobal said. “For us it’s very simple, we do right by our guys until the very end. Whether there’s agreement or disagreement on playing time, it doesn’t matter. You’re always respectful throughout the entire process. That’s what you owe everyone, that’s what everyone owes each other in these processes.
“So I think that when a young man explores those options or whatnot, I really have no problem with that at all.”
Oregon will be looking to bounce back at Cal and win its Pac-12 road opener for the first time since a 41-24 win at Colorado in 2015 …
The Ducks have won eight of the past nine meetings with the Bears. The 52-49 loss in Berkeley two years ago spoiled a spectacular six-touchdown performance by Herbert in his first road start …
Assistant Jim Leavitt’s defense has held the last three opponents to less than 100 net yards rushing. The last time Oregon had such a streak was in 2003 (at Arizona, vs. Michigan, vs. Washington State).
“There’s never going to be a consolation prize with a loss. We don’t operate that way,” Cristobal said. “It can destroy your psyche if you do so. The reality of the matter is it’s not difficult to see their progress as a team.”