BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Favorable 2018 schedule could put Oregon back on track

TRIBUNE PHOTOS: SAM WASSON - New Oregon coach Mario Cristobal watches with defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt (right) as the Ducks fall to Boise State 38-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl.It's been quite a journey for Oregon and its seniors in the past four seasons.

There was the high of January 2015, winning the Rose Bowl and playing Ohio State for the national championship behind Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. There was the drama-filled 2015 season, with a 62-20 blowout loss to Utah at home, a huge win at eventual Pac-12 champ Stanford and then the infamous Alamo Bowl when QB Vernon Adams went out injured and the Ducks blew a 31-0 lead and lost. There was the downfall of 2016, a 4-8 record that included giving up 70 points to rival Washington, a season-ending loss to Oregon State, the firing of Mark Helfrich and expulsion of virtually everybody on the football staff.

Then there was 2017, a comeback season under new coach Willie Taggart and his purported all-star staff, a season derailed somewhat by the absence of QB Justin Herbert for 5 1/2 games, a season that featured Royce Freeman and his rise to greatest UO running back of all-time (at least statistically), and a season that included Taggart's departure and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal's ascension to head man.

But the season ended with a disappointing 38-28 loss in the Las Vegas Bowl, as a spirited Boise State team mostly dominated Herbert and the Ducks, allowing only 47 yards rushing and keeping them from crossing midfield until midway through the third quarter. The Broncos rode QB Brett Rypien, receiver Cedrick Wilson and others on offense — as Freeman stood on the sideline, opting not to play to avoid injury and hurting his stock as he prepares for the NFL. (Wilson, an NFL prospect himself, not only played but played hurt).

And just like that, it's over.

The era is over of Oregon Ducks who hark back to glory days of Pac-12 titles and national cache.

Once playing for the national championship, the program and its seniors lost 15 of the past 26 games since the Alamo Bowl.

Every Pac-12 team has beaten the Ducks since 2014.

The domination of the Northwest has ended, as Boise State has joined Washington, Washington State and Oregon State as teams to beat Oregon in the past couple years.

But if progress is incremental, 2017 was one baby step forward. The Ducks lost two fewer games. While offense moved and scored with Freeman and Herbert (and with backup Braxton Burmeister against Cal and Utah), the defense improved under new coordinator Jim Leavitt. In 12 regular-season games, the Ducks gave up 28.2 points, 359.8 yards, 129.9 yards rushing (second in the Pac-12 to Washington) and 32.4 percent on third-down conversions (second to Washington State). Last year, the Ducks gave up 41.4 points, 518.4 yards, 246.5 yards rushing and 48.5 percent on third-down conversions — all 11th in the Pac-12. In 2015, the Ducks gave up 37.5 points and 485.3 yards, both 12th in the Pac-12.

The "what if?" crowd might look at Herbert's absence and figure the Ducks would have finished much better than 7-6. But the Ducks might have beaten only UCLA among their four losses without Herbert, games in which opponents outscored them 151-34.

A record of 7-6 sounds about right; this writer picked 6-6 for the regular season.

Now, with a soft nonconference 2018 schedule and home games against Stanford and Washington and Chip Kelly's UCLA — and no meeting with USC — a 10-win season appears possible.

Then again, does the Vegas Bowl performance under Cristobal portend things to come?

The Ducks went from a low of being 5-6 after Herbert's absence to a high after beating Arizona and then scoring 69 points in beating Oregon State, and then to another low of watching their coach covertly jump ship to Florida State. Then it was back to a high when players lobbied for Cristobal's hiring, and it worked, and then to another low of showing uninspired football and flaming out in a bowl game despite playing for their chosen new coach.

The veterans associated with a national championship game season went out with a whimper.

Who really knows what the future holds?

Cristobal put a spin on the Ducks after the Vegas Bowl effort.

"Guys, the entire season, just fought hard, trusted each other," Cristobal said. "They never stopped fighting. They always competed, because that's what they are, competitors. I told them I wish I would have done a better job for them. I'm going to take that upon myself, and our coaching staff.

"This team has no quit in it. ... There's trust and belief in that locker room."

The Ducks did fight back from 24-0 down Saturday with two almost miraculous defensive touchdowns by Troy Dye (86 yards on a fumble recovery) and Tyree Robinson (100 yards on an interception).

But Cristobal's offensive line couldn't assert itself against Boise State's front seven, four turnovers hurt, and Herbert and his receivers failed to go downfield. The Ducks scored their first offensive points nearly 50 minutes into the game.

The Ducks had 10 penaltes for 95 yards. Barring a South Florida meltdown in its bowl game, the Ducks will finish last in the country with 122 penalties and 1,148 penalty yards; South Florida was Taggart's previous team, by the way.

"When you're building a program, or rebuilding, and you want championship performances, you can't allow mistakes," Cristobal said. "So, in all this stuff, there's a tremendous amount of teaching, and that's what we have to focus on — teaching. Because ranting and raving and doing all that kind of stuff, it doesn't help anybody get better. We've got to make sure that we buckle down, that we understand the opportunity that we had, learn from it and be ready to push forward."

Among the seniors in their final game: star offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby, Charles Nelson (who made no impact) and two Portland guys — defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux from Jesuit High and kicker Aidan Schneider from Grant.

Mondeaux played an excitable game, showing some emotion, even after feeling "worn out" from the build-up.

"I thought we were pretty focused and locked in," Mondeaux said. "We just didn't show up at the game like we wanted.

"Bummed about the loss, last game playing. Appreciation for all the seniors, excited for all the young guys."

Schneider kicked four extra points to put a cap on his rags-to-riches story as a former walk-on player. He went 63 for 63 on extra-point kicks and 9 for 12 on field-goal attempts this season. He holds the all-time UO mark for field goals (51), and he finished second (behind Freeman) on the UO career scoring list with 365 points. He was 51 of 60 on field goals in his career (85 percent), which unofficially would be the Pac-12 record, eclipsing Kai Forbath of UCLA (84.16 percent, 2007-10).

So, a new era has begun with Cristobal.

"The program's on an incline, in great hands with Cristobal," senior running back Kani Benoit said.

The distractions are presumably gone, too, although it remains to be seen which assistants stay or leave.

Crosby put the bowl loss into his perspective.

"It sucks," he said, "but you lose occasionally if you play enough football."

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