By: Eric He
SANTA CLARA – 24 hours ago, the future of the Oregon football program was in limbo. With Mark Richt’s surprising retirement from Miami on Sunday, rumors swirled around Mario Cristobal returning to coach at his alma mater.
Would he spurn the Ducks, hours before they were to play in the Redbox Bowl — and, more importantly, leave a program after bringing in the nation’s sixth-ranked recruiting class in 2019?
The answer was clear to Cristobal. On the bus on the way to practice on Sunday, he heard the chatters.
“It got a little bit noisy,” he said. “Felt it was good to address it before it became noisy.”
So he called a team meeting, and told his players in no uncertain terms: “This is where I want to be. There was no waffling. It was put to bed quickly.”
Coupled with a 7-6 win over Michigan State on Monday at Levi’s Stadium, the 24-hour period went from potentially catastrophic to one worth celebrating. Tack on quarterback Justin Herbert’s announcement last week that he would return for his senior season, and 2018 could not have ended on a higher note for Oregon.
“Games like that typically have not gone in our way over the last few years,” Cristobal said. “This culture has changed the program. I feel like we’re just getting started.”
The game itself was nothing to write home about.
For three quarters, Herbert and the high-powered Oregon offense was stymied: 11 drives, 10 punts.
But for one drive early in the fourth, it came together. There were two first-down passes to Jaylon Redd. Then, two strikes to Herbert’s favorite target, Dillon Mitchell — the latter a 28-yard perfect throw in the back of the end zone.
Six plays, 77 yards, a minute and 40 seconds. Paydirt, and a 7-6 lead.
That drive wiped out a frustrating offensive performance for the Ducks. They managed just 203 yards of total offense. Their run game was stifled by the Spartans’ No. 1 rushing defense, which held Oregon to 37 yards on 27 carries. They did not cross midfield until the fourth quarter. They held the ball for nearly 15 fewer minutes than Michigan State.
Herbert, too, was rattled by the Spartans’ defense. He completed 19-of-33 passes for 166 yards, his second-lowest total of the season. But the projected top selection in the 2019 NFL Draft before his decision found a way on that one key drive.
“Things haven’t always gone our way this year, but we battled through together,” Herbert said. “We won our championship today.”
Oregon, which finishes its season with a 9-4 record, is a program on the rise. According to Cristobal, it starts with the culture change on the team.
“I can’t speak enough about these guys and what they represent as competitors,” Cristobal said. “I’m not an old man but I’m not a young man. You’re not going to find guys like this. It’s great to see them achieve that next-level success and continue elevating the program.”
Cristobal continued: “If they showed up on the bus by themselves without a coaching staff, they could get the job done.”
On the field, in a nationally-televised interview, Cristobal affirmed his commitment to Oregon.
“I’m a Duck,” he said, to rousing cheers.
The players followed with a chant: “Cristo-bal, Cristo-bal, Cristo-bal.”
Cristobal is back. Herbert is back. The incoming recruiting class is tops in the Pac-12.
It should be a fun 2019 for Oregon.