TUCSON, Ariz. — Walking down the stadium steps before Saturday’s game, I happened to catch a snippet of conversation between two Oregon fans in the crowd.
These fans had come all the way to the desert to watch their Ducks, and with kickoff 45 minutes away, they were talking about ... Oregon State?
“Watch out for the Beavers,” one guy was saying. “Jonathan Smith has something going.”
It was that kind of day in the Pac-12. Washington, USC, Stanford and Oregon lost. Cal, Arizona and Arizona State won. And at the end of the day, people were talking about the Beavers, who snapped a 22-game road losing streak by overcoming a 28-point deficit at Colorado.
What the (bleep) is going on?
Duck fans have been asking that question quite frequently the past two weeks. After beating Washington to put themselves in the Pac-12 North race, the Ducks promptly bowed out by getting thumped at Washington State and losing 44-15 Saturday night at Arizona.
Saying the Ducks have been bad would be too generous. They’ve been something worse than bad. They’ve been boring, which is one thing an Oregon team never should be.
"This is a legitimate gut check," coach Mario Cristobal said.
Everybody loved Cristobal’s lunch-pail approach when the Ducks were diving up the middle against Washington. Finally, an Oregon team that can win the line of scrimmage! That blur offense was so 2011!
Two weeks later we’re seeing that Washington game in a different light. What looked like a heavyweight fight was actually just two teams that can’t pull away from anyone, including each other. Playing Arizona and Washington State, teams that can strike as quickly as the Ducks once could, has made Oregon look frumpy and predictable.
It’s no longer clear what Oregon is trying to accomplish on offense. After going three games without a carry, Tony Brooks-James got the start at running back and ran for 20 yards. CJ Verdell, who topped 100 yards in three straight games to open Pac-12 play, carried six times for 14 yards.
"We felt Tony had a really good week of practice," Cristobal said. "He just showed he was ready to go. We had confidence in him as an explosive player to give us a chance to make some explosive plays."
As a team, Oregon rushed for 84 yards against a defense that ranks No. 102 in the FBS against the run. If the Ducks can’t move the ball against Arizona, what can they do?
Oregon has a veteran offensive line and a first-round pick playing quarterback. The Ducks should be better than this. It’s great that Cristobal is cleaning up on the recruiting trail, but I don’t see this as a talent problem, at least not entirely.
Saturday was Cristobal’s eighth game as Oregon’s head coach. In three of those games — the Las Vegas Bowl, last week against Washington State and Saturday — the Ducks have looked woefully unprepared. That’s something Cristobal needs to fix, because blowouts like that past two are going to catch up with him pretty quickly.
Let’s not put all of this on Cristobal, though. Jim Leavitt earns $1.7 million per year to coordinate Oregon’s defense. The Ducks have yielded at least 20 points to everyone but Portland State, and they’ve regressed in both pass defense and total defense.
I’ll say it again: The Ducks should be better than this. They’re young in the secondary, but they have a three-year starter at linebacker in Troy Dye, a run stuffer in Jordon Scott and two talented edge-rushers in Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins. This year was supposed to be a step forward, but instead it’s been a step back.
Oregon’s assistant coaches aren’t available to reporters after games, so Cristobal and his players have been the ones to answer for these past two embarrassments. Maybe the one-voice policy is what Cristobal wants after games like this. But when you have system-wide failures like this one, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
"It starts with myself first, and all of us as coaches," Cristobal said. "The bottom line is, it's just not anywhere near a performance that's good enough for us or what we've become accustomed to."
I couldn’t help but pause when I heard those Oregon fans talking about the Beavers before the game. On a topsy-turvy day in the Pac-12, it was Oregon State — a team that hadn’t won a Pac-12 game since beating the Ducks in November 2016 — that came out on top.
I’m not saying the Beavers, a week removed from losing 49-7 to Cal, are ready to overtake Oregon for Civil War supremacy. But I think that fan was right about Smith, and right that OSU is a team trending in the right direction.
Suddenly, I’m not so sure the Ducks can say the same.