Ducks writing a comeback story fans would be fools to miss
Oregon's 38-31 overtime loss to Stanford Saturday night was as painful and frustrating as they come, but it revealed something vital about the state of the program.
The important thing that Mario Cristobal and the Ducks have achieved is culture change.
The pride is back. The work ethic is back. This team cares. They made two horrendous errors that cost them the game, but the effort and commitment were superb. They beat Stanford at the line of scrimmage. They stuffed a fourth and one. They moved the football throughout, responded to adversity to take a ten-point lead in the fourth quarter.
It took a series of awful miracles for The Cardinal to win, and like the veteran organization they are, they took advantage of them.
By contrast, Oregon is an exceptionally young team. They've played a dozen true freshmen. They only have 10 scholarship seniors on the roster and they're about to lose one of the ten (Taj Griffin has declared he's ready to seek a transfer after being little-used in his final season of eligibility.)
Last year the Ducks lost to Stanford 49-7. In 2016 they were lifeless and punchless, a team going through the motions in a 4-8 season. Jake Browning wagged their finger in their faces, swaggered to the sideline and chortled to his teammates, "They're done, They don't care."
That happened a lot in the last hours of the Mark Helfrich era. The team visibly quit. Players skipped workouts and showed up on game day spiritless and disinterested. They even lost to Oregon State for the first time in 8 years, the Beavs ramming the ball down their throats for the entire fourth quarter.
In Willie Taggart's one-year tenure the Ducks recovered their swagger but disconnected their brains. Oregon had the worst penalty yardage in the country and couldn't execute the offense when Justin Herbert went down.
On Saturday the Ducks had four penalties for 32 yards. In 9 short months, Cristobal, this staff and this team have transformed the attitude and focus in the program. They lost a battle to Stanford in the most agonizing way possible, but in doing so they revealed themselves to be cohesive, resilient and dangerous.
The Ducks held Stanford, mighty smash-mouth Stanford, to 71 yards rushing on 24 carries. In the third quarter they had third and goal at the one with the opportunity to take a 31-7 lead. With 51 seconds to play they needed just one more play to take a knee and ice the game. This wasn't a beat down. It was an escape, a Houdini act, a sick cosmic joke.
In the aftermath, it's absolutely clear that this Webfoot squad has the talent and culture to beat any team left on the schedule. Provided they respond to a crushing setback with unity and resolve, they can move on to achieve a very successful season, perhaps even 10 wins and a major bowl.
Keep in mind that the PAC-12 Conference has had just one undefeated team in league play over the last 10 seasons, Oregon in 2010. They're not even out of the title race.
In Ernest Hemingway's novel "The Old Man and the Sea" an aging Cuban fisherman captures a trophy marlin and learns, a man can be defeated but never destroyed. How a man responds when he looks over the bones of his defeat, that's what defines him.
There are no moral victories, but this team is clearly more disciplined and vastly improved. The effort Saturday night was tremendous. "The gap is closed," Cristobal said. Oregon is back, ready to be a force on the national stage. There's a sound plan in motion, featuring exceptional player development and hard-driving recruiting energy. There are no barriers to success at Oregon. None.