SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was difficult at times for the senior class to see Oregon football through rose-colored glasses.
They had three head coaches in as many seasons. They went through growing pains together during the 4-8 season that cost Mark Helfrich his job and the 7-5 season that Willie Taggart parlayed into a lucrative contract at Florida State.
They signed the petition for Mario Cristobal and executed the game plans of Marcus Arroyo and Andy Avalos to near perfection during No. 13 Oregon’s 37-15 victory over No. 5 Utah in the Pac-12 championship on Friday at Levi’s Stadium.
Here are five takeaways from the Ducks’ Rose Bowl-clinching win:
1. Justin Herbert and his classmates leave a championship legacy
Oregon’s third Pac-12 title since the conference expanded in 2011 was well earned as the seniors overcame the aforementioned adversity.
Playing the role of underdog and spoiling the Utes’ coronation made this championship run even sweeter.
“They were probably overlooking us. Everyone in the country was picking them to win, so they probably got a little comfortable,” senior left guard Shane Lemieux said. “You can’t overlook the Ducks, you can’t overlook physicality, you can’t overlook a great offensive line, great running back, great quarterback. You’ve got to be ready to play all four quarters with us.
“We threw a punch, and they just quit before we did.”
2. Pac-12 parity party
The “conference of champions” will not have a team selected for the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season and the fourth time in the six-year history of the format.
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, the selection committee chairman, has to be wondering what the benefit was of scheduling Auburn.
Would the Ducks be in the playoff at 12-1 had they opened the season with a cupcake?
“You can go through your conference and win your conference, especially one where you play nine conference games like we do, that has to and needs to carry a lot of weight going forward,” Cristobal said. “Because, look, these guys will tell you they want to play the best teams in the country all the time. They is no way that we're going to go away from that mentality to try to schedule down to appease whatever.
“I guess I should stop there before I get myself in trouble.”
3. Kickers come through
The unsung heroes in the Pac-12 championship game were the Ducks’ fifth-year senior punter and true freshman placekicker.
Blake Maimone helped the Ducks avoid disaster with a 57-yard punt from the 1-yard line after Jake Hanson and Justin Herbert miscommunicated on a snap for a 20-yard loss.
And Camden Lewis, who had been struggling to split the uprights since hitting the game-winner against Washington State, made three field goals.
“Satisfying for sure. I had a bumpy season, but I know what I’m capable of and I’m proud I could do that for my teammates,” Lewis said. “Blake’s punt was big-time. Those are the things we practice for. That was an incredible punt. That changed the momentum for us.”
4. Mountain West-bound?
Arroyo and Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley are both reportedly candidates for the UNLV job.
If the Pac-12 championship game was an audition, Oregon’s offensive coordinator might be at the top of the list. Arroyo will likely also be on Fresno State’s list of targets after one of his mentors, Jeff Tedford, stepped down due to health issues.
Avalos, Oregon’s first-year defensive coordinator, would be at or near the top of the candidates at Boise State if Bryan Harsin moves on to a bigger program.
“The coaching carousel, that’s never going to go away and it’s always going to be what it is,” Cristobal said last week. “We have really good relationships here and opportunities are going to come up for coaches. I’m always in favor of helping guys, if they have a better situation and a better opportunity to better their careers, as it relates to their goals and their families.”
5. CJ Verdell is special
The diminutive sophomore running back is prone to getting “banged up” throughout the course of a long Pac-12 season.
But Verdell always gets back up and saved his best performance for the nation’s top-ranked rushing defense with 208 yards and three touchdowns.
“Hearing they're the most physical team in the Pac-12 made us want to come out here and work even harder," Verdell said.
The hard work paid off. Now Verdell will make a run at the Rose Bowl.