Mario Cristobal wasn’t really paying attention to the rise of Oregon under Chip Kelly.
“I was on the East Coast,” Cristobal noted. “Hard to really fix in and kind of know exactly what went on and whatnot. Obviously, (Kelly) did a great job.”
Kelly compiled an astonishing 46-7 record as the Ducks’ head coach from 2009-12, a remarkable run that included two Rose Bowls, a Fiesta Bowl and a BCS title game appearance.
During the same period, Cristobal was a first-time head coach at Florida International, where guiding the dilapidated program to a Sun Belt championship and the first bowl win in school history on a shoe-string budget was quite a feat in its own right.
Now Cristobal and Oregon are focused on Kelly and UCLA as the two coaches continue the process of trying to restore glory to their respective programs Saturday at Autzen Stadium (4:30 p.m., Fox).
Cristobal gets to run out behind the motorcycle with the slumping Ducks (5-3, 2-3), while Kelly will be checking out the visiting locker room for the first time with the rebuilding Bruins (2-6, 2-3).
“It’s just part of what goes on,” Kelly said of his first trip to Autzen since leaving for the NFL. “We’ll go out the other locker room to the other sideline. I know it’s a great experience, our players are excited about it.
“It’s one of the cool places in the Pac-12 to play. The fans are unbelievable, and it will be a good experience for our team.”
There is uncertainty at quarterback on both sidelines.
Justin Herbert went through concussion protocol after taking some shots during Oregon’s baffling 44-15 loss at Arizona. He practiced Wednesday, but Cristobal said he would monitor the potential NFL first-round pick throughout the week before making a decision on his playing status.
The Ducks will likely be without Herbert’s favorite receiver, Dillon Mitchell, due to a concussion suffered against the Wildcats.
“Nothing has to change,” running back Travis Dye said of the offense possibly being without its starting quarterback, top receiver and left tackle Penei Sewell. “We’ve got to pound the rock more.”
Kelly is not expecting Braxton Burmeister, who passed for 74 yards with no touchdowns and an interception during the Ducks’ 31-14 loss at the Rose Bowl last season, to start against the Bruins for the second consecutive year.
“They’ve obviously got an outstanding quarterback, one of the top quarterbacks in the country,” Kelly said. “Everything runs through (Herbert), so he’s got to be the focus and attention that you’re worried about in terms of what they do offensively.”
UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson missed last week’s 41-10 loss to Utah with a shoulder injury. Michigan graduate transfer Wilton Speight, who was just 20-for-40 passing with two interceptions against the Utes’ bruising defense, took the first-team reps again Wednesday.
Arizona’s Khalil Tate, after watching Rhett Rodriguez start in a loss at UCLA, came back from an injury to light the Ducks up for 189 yards passing and three touchdowns.
“Obviously a little bit similar in terms of quarterback preparation,” Cristobal said. “UCLA always has really good players. They’re in a hotbed of talent.”
Oregon went 1-4 last season when Herbert was out with a fractured collarbone. Burmeister, who split the first-team snaps with true freshman Tyler Shough during Tuesday’s practice, is 4-for-8 passing for 27 yards this season.
“He was thrown to the wolves, now that’s a tough situation,” Cristobal said of Burmeister’s rocky 2017 season. “Schematically there’s always things that you have to do, just like we’re doing right now, to enhance the opportunity for a guy to make plays.
“He’s got a lot of confidence. It shows the way he’s practicing. He’s done a really good job, and so has Tyler. Both those guys have done a good job.”
Even with Herbert, the Ducks have taken two steps back since beating Washington three weeks ago.
Oregon was outscored 50-8 in the first halves of the back-to-back road defeats, in which Herbert was a combined 49-for-92 (53.3 percent) passing with three touchdowns and an interception.
The Ducks abandoned the running game due to the early deficits and allowed Herbert to get pulverized at the goal line with under a minute left in the lopsided loss in Tucson, Ariz.
“There’s calls in games when you win and and calls in games when you lose where you’re like, ‘Man, I wish I would have done that,’” offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “I think you go into the game plan thinking you’re going to do something, and you’ve got to evolve throughout it.”
During the postgame handshake, either Cristobal will be exhaling after a much-needed victory or Kelly will be walking off the field a winner, just as he did 26 times in 28 home games at Oregon.
“We’re so engrained in working at what we’re doing in the program and re-establishing it,” Cristobal said. “I think you have to recognize great things that were done by him and all former coaches here. …
“So I think you have to give it it’s due respect, and we do.”