Last night, Oregon Football closed the chapter on this season’s less-than-thrilling non-conference game schedule.
After sealing three victories and heading into Pac-12 play undefeated, one would think Oregon and its fans would be full of optimism as they look ahead to next Saturday’s ESPN GameDay and first Pac-12 opponent match up against Stanford.
Instead, Head Coach, Mario Cristobal said the team was “just not content” after last night’s game against San Jose State.
Despite walking away with the 35-22 win, the team’s performance was inconsistent and at times, left fans concerned about the road ahead. Honestly, I was in that boat. . .until today.
Like most sportswriters, I typically write a post-game wrap-up soon after the game. Last night, the words wouldn’t come.
Sure, I could have talked about “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” or even put together some post game quotes with a fun photo gallery. But I didn’t. Instead, I slept on it.
When I decided to cover Oregon Football, I never set out to talk much about stats or to write generic game recaps. There are already a lot of good writers doing that. Instead, I really hoped to connect fans to the team, telling back stories and connect those stories to the field (with a healthy dose of X’s and O’s of course).
Sometimes, diving deeper takes some time.
So last night I closed my laptop and watched Pac-12 After Dark. And stewed.
Despite some positive takeaways from Oregon’s first three games, it was hard not to be critical (and a bit worried) about how the Ducks might fair in the Pac-12. Has the secondary ironed out enough wrinkles? Can the passing game make enough improvements before David Shaw comes knocking? It short, the questions overshadowed the answers and lingered until this morning.
Then it hit me. Oregon is in really good hands.
Since taking over as Head Coach, Mario Cristobal has made several references to the team’s “DNA,” a simple and perhaps easily dismissed cliché. Until today, I hadn’t thought much about it.
Hold that thought.
As Oregon faces the Pac-12, a conference known to beat itself up, it usually takes a certain X-factor to emerge on top. For example, Chris Peterson (enough said), Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense (before teams were prepared for it), and Marcus Mariota plus veteran playmakers (again, enough said).
Back to “DNA.”
From the moment Coach Cristobal set foot on campus as an offensive coordinator, it was evident he was the real deal. He was confident, articulate, and incredibly knowledgeable. He was also very intentional with his words. So when Cristobal says things often, like “DNA,” it’s noteworthy. And maybe, just maybe, it could be the X-factor Oregon needs right now.
So what exactly is Oregon’s “DNA?”
Lining the south side wall of the Ducks’ practice field, “Commitment Discipline Effort Toughness Pride” have replaced WillieTaggart’s “Do Something”. I have read the words several times over the past few months and looked for evidence of them actually meaning something. That evidence wasn’t hard to find and perhaps it may just further explain that whole “DNA” reference.
In less than a year as Head Coach, Cristobal made it clear implementing a winning culture starts from the top down and Cristobal has walked the walk.
In his first press conference as Head Coach, Cristobal did his best to assure the Oregon fan base he was committed to the program and here to stay.
“The best think I can communicate is my heart and soul is in this one,” Cristobal said.
Cristobal went on to talk about how his family had integrated into the community, fell in love with Oregon and would have to be dragged out kicking and screaming. Of course, this is college football and anything could happen, but it was clear Cristobal was as committed as he could be and would expect the same from his staff and the players.
Make no mistake; this Oregon team is focused, serious and disciplined. They may be young and make mistakes, but they are locked in. The staff, led by Cristobal, has done a great job honing in the fine details and most notably, cleaned up the penalty woes of the past couple of years.
The proof is in the pudding.
After averaging over 9 penalties last season, Oregon has had 3, 5, and 6 penalties in the first three games this season.
Also notable is the maturity of the players, both old and new. I’ve covered the team for a few years now and typically there are at least a couple loud or rowdy players coming and going from practice and media interviews. So far this season, I haven’t seen one. Players are dialed in and there seems to be a demand for excellence.
“For us to reach and obtain our goals, everyone’s got to play at a championship level on a rep by rep basis,” Cristobal said after the team’s September 9th win against Portland State.
This pursuit of excellence is seen in the coaching staff’s focus on smallest of details. From posture adjustments on the line to making sure a running back’s feet are positioned correctly, players are challenged to be better, even if it’s not easy.
“He’s strict with the little things,” said senior running back, Tony Brooks-James, said of running back’s coach, Jim Mastro, earlier this season.
“He’s so strict he even wants your toe pointed a certain way on a certain step. . . .As soon as you do it right, you’re like, ‘Dang! If that’s the end result, I’ll do it right every time.
Players are obviously buying into the process, even when it isn’t easy. If that’s not discipline, I don’t know what is.
Another big example of Cristobal’s demand for excellence could easily be seen in all three non-conference games this season. When most fans and media questioned why Cristobal opted to keep starting quarterback, Justin Herbert, in the game despite a fairly large lead, he had a simple answer.
“Regardless of whether it was a comfortable lead or not, the comfort part has nothing to do with it, either does the score,” said Cristobal. “We want to play good football. We want to play Oregon Football.”
Effort and Toughness
Another word Cristobal has also used over the past few weeks is “earn.” He has made it clear that nothing is given on this team and every bit of playing time is earned, on and off the field. He has instilled a competitive culture and expects players to step up every day.
Cristobal also talks frequently about, and demands, physicality, something the Ducks definitely needed a dose of.
So far this season, Cristobal and the training staff’s focus on physicality and toughness is paying off, especially at the line of scrimmage. There is a remarkable difference on each side of the line and with Cristobal and Co-Defensive Coordinator, Joe Salave’a’s, expertise, things will only get better.
From making sure uniforms are tucked in properly, to regularly supporting other Oregon Sports, Coach Cristobal shows tremendous pride in Oregon Athletics as a whole.
And it doesn’t stop with him.
The whole Cristobal family, along with the assistant coaches and their families, are regularly seen in and around Autzen stadium, decked out in green and yellow. They are also very present on social media, interacting with fans and players and the community. Despite the numerous collective programs they’ve been a part of, it’s as if they’ve been bleeding green and yellow for decades.
Pride. It matters. After all, it’s easier to fight for (and sell) something you believe in?
Still with me?
All of this matters. Some will call it “fluff;” that’s ok. I stand by it.
See, behind the scenes, in front of cameras and on the field, Cristobal has proven to be a solid coach. He’s proven he can walk the walk. There’s work to be done of course, but Cristobal has instilled the team with good “DNA” from the top down.
Maybe it’s time (for now) to take a deep breath and trust the science experiment brewing in Autzen.
Follow Nichole Brown on Twitter @UOgridirongirl