In World War I, the Battle of Verdun was fought over seven months, 700,000 men died and when it was over the two armies were still in the same place they started.
The strategy was senseless and brings to mind Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal’s strategy facing a fourth-and-one with five minutes to go against Auburn at the Tiger 41-yard line and a 21-20 lead.
Quarterback Justin Herbert was injured on the play before and, because of that, was forced by rule to sit out at least one play before being allowed to re-enter the game. Unfortunately, the head coach and staff forgot this rule and wasted two timeouts trying to get Herbert back in the game. Once it sunk in, backup quarterback Tyler Shough was thrown into the game to be the designated handoff guy.
Cristobal elected to run a battered CJ Verdell into the teeth of an Auburn defense that allowed 90 yards for the game, 20 in the second half and was poised to slant toward the left side of the Oregon’s offensive line.
Verdell was lined up 9 1/2 yards from the line of scrimmage in the backfield, received the handoff 7 yards deep and encountered a wave of Auburn blue 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The play had no chance from the start and the Duck offense was now dead.
Cristobal is intent on making a statement of the “physicality” of the Oregon offense -- the inside running game, to be precise; the matchups of the big men in the trenches, and why shouldn’t he? He’s the offensive line coach, after all. His scope of battle is more intent on the challenges for his offensive line than the rest of his arsenal, like speedy running backs, wide receivers and a quarterback who, if he played for any other team in the Pac-12, would be considered a genuine Heisman candidate.
The head coach has indicated that his quarterback is not a runner, which means that because the defense does not have to assign a man to cover the quarterback on an option play, that defender can join the rest of the defense to cover a gap and mass against the running game.
Watching Auburn’s raw freshman Bo Nix in his first varsity college game kill the Ducks with his occasional option runs and pass scrambles, was in stark contrast to Oregon’s quarterback handing off and running, for his life when his pass protection broke down, which was often. But, Auburn’s head coach, who has already won one national championship, has a reputation for offense: wide-open, power, anything but siege-like.
The Ducks had only 10 men on defense when Auburn scored an easy 11-yard touchdown to cut the Oregon lead to 21-20 as Nix hit an uncovered wide receiver for the score. The kicking team, offense and defense had 15-yard penalties. The Ducks missed an extra point-distance field goal, fumbled backward to the other team for an 83-yard gain (beating last year’s record 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Stanford), and had to take a timeout on the first play of the game because they couldn’t get their play called in time.
There were many more mistakes and Auburn made a bunch of them, too.
But it would be a mistake to overlook the good things for Oregon. The intensity and effort was outstanding, remarkable. Herbert, when given time, was mostly sharp, but his average per completion was only 8.6 yards (compare to Oregon State quarterback’s average of 10.9 in a loss to Oklahoma State). Duck receivers, hampered by the loss of front liners, dropped only one pass and made many outstanding catches, demonstrating drastic improvement from last year’s group.
Oregon’s defense gave up 200 yards rushing, but was tough in the red zone and showed a fierce pass rush, non-existent last season. The secondary came up with two interceptions and tackled well in space. Overall, the tackling and pursuit to the ball by the entire defense was much improved over last season.
The punter averaged 48.9 yards per kick and Javon Holland was an explosive weapon returning punts and Travis Dye looked good returning kickoffs. There were many good things the Ducks accomplished against a good football team.
But once again, after three years of suffering the indignities of being an also-ran, Oregon booted its chance at barging into the national limelight. With that over and done, it remains to be seen whether the Ducks can finish higher than third in the Northern Division of the Pac-12.
It’s up to Cristobal. You can slug it out in the mire of the trenches like the French and Germans did at Verdun or you can race to victory like Patton did in liberating Bastogne.
The crucial stats for the Auburn game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Auburn 5.1; Oregon 4.7 (leader wins 86 percent of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversion — Oregon 5 of 16 (31%); Auburn 8 of 18 (44%) (leader wins 83 percent of the time)
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 3 of 4 (75%); Auburn 5 of 6 (83%) (leader wins 75 percent of the time)
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 31.5-yard line; Auburn 35.7-yard line (leader wins 72 percent of the time)
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 2; Auburn 2 (leader wins 73 percent of the time)
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. He conducts a weekly coach's corner from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the 6th Street Grill.