On paper, Oregon was viewed as a dark horse candidate in the Pac-12 championship race before the season kicked off.
Justin Herbert, a coveted NFL prospect, was entering his third year as the starting quarterback. The offensive line returned four redshirt juniors with significant starting experience. Jim Leavitt’s defense had plenty of pieces in place to take another big step.
And following the 30-27 overtime win over Washington on Oct. 13, the Ducks were in a strong position in the North Division.
But after falling to 6-4 overall and 3-4 in conference play with a 32-25 loss at Utah, the honeymoon between a faction of Oregon’s fan base and Mario Cristobal seems to be over.
The first-year coach was asked about the difference between the outside expectations from the view inside the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.
“I think what we all know is evidently clear, in coming to Oregon, that you have to rebuild a program,” Cristobal said during his Monday press conference. “It’s not a turn-key operation. In doing so, there’s going to be bumps in the road sometimes. It’s not going to be perfect. Are there some great moments? Without a doubt.”
Cristobal noted that his offensive line was controlling the line of scrimmage early in the season, which allowed the running game to thrive and Herbert to execute the play-action passing game at a high level.
During Oregon’s 5-1 start, the offense averaged 209.5 rushing yards with 16 rushing touchdowns. Herbert completed 63.1 percent of his passes for an average of 268.8 yard per game with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Ducks averaged 43 points and allowed a 24.8 points per game during the first half of the season.
Cristobal’s team, which lost starting left tackle Penei Sewell to injury during the dramatic win over the rival Huskies, is 1-3 since.
During Oregon’s three lamentable road losses, the offense has averaged 86.3 yards rushing with one rushing touchdown. In the home win over UCLA, the Ducks ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
In the last four games, Herbert has completed 55.4 percent of his passes for an average of 252.0 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
Oregon has averaged 26.5 points and given up a 32.8 points during the stretch. Defensively, the Ducks allowed an average of 361.8 yards through the first six games and an average of 444.5 over the last four games.
“We want to be consistent, we want to be perfect. It takes work and it takes development,” Cristobal said. “Those things come with preparation, it comes with execution, it comes with a lot of things that factor into growing a program and rebuilding a program back to the level that you want it to be, and then elevating it past that.”
Cristobal will face another Pac-12 rookie head coach with a 6-4 overall record when the Ducks host Arizona State on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
It’s safe to say Herm Edwards, who had not coached at all in 10 years and not at the collegiate level since 1989, has dramatically exceeded the outside expectations for the Sun Devils, who can win the South Division by beating Oregon and Arizona.
Cristobal has his own way of saying “You play to win the games!” — Edwards’ famous press conference meme from his days coaching the New York Jets.
“When we don’t win, of course we’re going to be disappointed. We’re big on the whole Bill Parcells thing, there’s no medals for trying,” Cristobal said. “We highlighted to our team, when you are working hard and you are rebuilding a culture, the painful steps that come with it, you can’t skip them sometimes.”
Despite the sting of what happened in Salt Lake City, Cristobal believes his team took an important step forward by overcoming a 12-point deficit to take a 29-25 lead in the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, there’s progress. We’re not to where want to be, and it’s not going to magically happen,” Cristobal said. “Development, enhancing the caliber of talent at each position group, pushing everybody from a competition standpoint, coaching it better, teaching it better and galvanizing it. I tell the team, the way of the world right now is, ‘Hey, throw your hands up. Wow, this is not perfect.’
“That’s not the way we’re going to be. This requires people that will not flinch when things get tough. it requires people to have nerves of steel, thick skin and be able to go to work, and that’s what we do.”
Starting running back CJ Verdell “tweaked” his neck against Utah but should be able to return to practice this week. Backup running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio suffered a quadriceps contusion, which forced him to spend Saturday night at a Salt Lake City hospital.
“A pretty significant one, where he was so swollen he could not get back on the plane at the risk of flying and a blood clot,” Cristobal said. “He came back OK, he flew back (Sunday), he’s doing very well, much better than expected.”
Two starters who left the game, inside linebacker Sampson Niu and left tackle Steven Jones, are in concussion protocol.
Adrian Jackson fell awkwardly on his shoulder recovering the blocked punt to set up Oregon’s final touchdown. The true freshman is expected to be able to return to practice as early as Tuesday.
Next men up
If Niu and Jones are not cleared, the staff will have a contingency plan at both injury-riddled positions.
Sophomore Keith Simms, who had eight tackles against Utah, will get the start at the inside linebacker spot opposite Troy Dye, if Niu is ruled out.
Oregon has already lost the top two players on the depth chart at the “Mike” linebacker position, Kaulana Apelu (fractured leg) and Isaac Slade-Matautia (shoulder).
Cristobal said true freshman MJ Cunningham and walk-ons Nate Heaukulani and Nick Wiebe will continue to be groomed as backups.
Calvin Throckmorton, who had to start at center against the Utes due to Jake Hanson’s targeting penalty against UCLA, will be back at the left tackle spot.
George Moore saw some action late in the game at Utah. Cristobal said sophomore Jacob Capra and redshirt freshmen Alex Forsyth will continue to get reps at multiple positions as potential fill-ins along the offensive line.
“You do have to have a so-called emergency plan, in case it does get to that point,” Cristobal said.
Despite leading the Pac-12 with 1,002 receiving yards, Oregon junior Dillon Mitchell is not one of the 11 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, which honors the nation’s best receiver, regardless of position. Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry and Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside were the conference’s only representatives on the list released Monday. …
Two of the players who will be honored on “Senior Night” at Autzen Stadium, defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins, have combined for 27.0 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in home games over the last two seasons. …
Linebacker Troy Dye, who could also be playing in his home finale should he decide to enter the NFL draft, has led Oregon in tackles 18 times in his 34 career games, including six of seven in Pac-12 play this year.
“It’s hard to tell what team is going to be able to beat who,” Cristobal said of the parity in the Pac-12 this season. “I think that’s a positive for the entire conference, and ourselves included, that no matter who we play on our schedule, that everyone has an opportunity, everyone has a chance to win. It’s not going to be about the most talented team showing up, it’s going to be about the team that plays best. I think that’s encouraging for every team on a week by week basis in the Pac-12.”