Mario Cristobal was back inside the media room at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex on Monday, the same place where he sat 36 hours earlier and tried to explain a devastating loss.
This time he was singing a slightly different tune. It sounded like ... Taylor Swift?
“Shake it off,” Cristobal said, and to underscore the point: “If it’s in you and you haven’t shaken it off, there’s no way you can convince anyone else to shake it off.”
Shaking off Oregon’s 38-31 loss to Stanford starts with the head coach. A quarter of the way through his first season, Cristobal faces a referendum: to help the Ducks regroup or preside over the undoing of a promising season.
This is just a hunch, but I don’t think Saturday’s loss is going to KO the Ducks. Partly because I don’t think their coach is going to let it.
If it’s possible to strike the perfect tone after blowing a 21-point lead, Cristobal has done that. His demeanor after the game, at least in front of reporters, was one of controlled emotion. He didn’t yell and berate, didn’t pout, didn’t deflect blame. He clearly wasn’t happy, but his composure never cracked.
By Monday, Cristobal was back to the upbeat confidence he usually projects. He seemed loose and at ease, like a coach who knows there’s no reason to panic.
“We played the type of football we want to get to playing on a consistent basis, for about 90 percent of the game,” Cristobal said. “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.”
You know what? He’s right. For three quarters, Oregon looked like the best-case version of itself: a lovechild of Nick Saban and Chip Kelly with a No. 1 pick paying quarterback.
Oregon’s offensive line looked like the one we heard about in the preseason, big and mean and dominating at the point of attack. Justin Herbert and play-caller Marcus Arroyo were picking apart Stanford’s defense, and Dillon Mitchell was putting to rest those pesky questions about Oregon’s receivers.
It was hard to watch all of that and not feel encouraged about Oregon’s potential. But it’s also hard to get too excited, knowing the Ducks have nothing but heartbreak to show for their efforts.
“There’s never going to be a consolation prize in a loss,” Cristobal said. “We just don’t operate that way. I think you can destroy your psyche that way if you do so.”
The Ducks have only themselves to blame for letting the game slip away. But seeing that loss in the light of day, it wasn’t as though they did everything wrong. They did a few things wrong, and their mistakes came at the worst possible times.
Turning first-and-goal at the 1-yard line into a touchdown the other direction is inexcusable. So is fumbling inside the final minute when you’re trying to protect the lead. The Ducks could have overcome the first one — and did, by scoring a touchdown with 4:39 remaining in the fourth quarter — but the second one was a back-breaker.
After hearing Cristobal’s explanation Saturday night, and again Monday, I’ll defend the decision to run the ball rather than taking a knee. The alternative was to punt back to Stanford with time on the clock or attempt some kind of goofy fourth-down play, both of which seem riskier than a simple handoff.
I’ve seen a few references to Washington’s end-game strategy Saturday against Arizona State, which involved quarterback Jake Browning scrambling around on third down to exhaust the clock. But do you know what the Huskies did on second down? They handed the ball to their running back, just like Oregon did. The third-down play worked because Arizona State didn’t have a timeout and Washington could snap the ball with 45 seconds on the clock.
The Ducks had roughly 10 more seconds they needed to kill. In theory, they could have had their punter run 50 yards backward for a safety, but that seems excessively complicated compared to a low-risk handoff that could end the game.
Losing on a late fumble is a tough thing to swallow, but it’s not a reason to tear up the playbook or question everything you believe. It just means the Ducks need to go back to work.
“You take it, you eat it, you learn from it, and you go,” Cristobal said. “There’s no looking back. There’s no dwelling. You just roll.”
If Oregon handles this moment correctly, we should see a galvanized football team Saturday night in Berkeley. The Stanford loss was brutal in so many ways, but the Ducks know what they need to do.
Shake it off. Swiftly.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.