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JASON SAYS/JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Oregon seniors reach Rose Bowl heights after turbulent seasons

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Willie Taggart was all smiles after his first game in 2017, but his departure was one of the challenges for Oregon on the path back to a Pac-12 championship.The Oregon Ducks were "weak" mentally and physically, and with such an unusual statement from a new head coach in early 2017 the program moved in another direction, which ultimately led through growing pains to a return to glory, a Pac-12 Conference championship and the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 against Wisconsin.

Mind you, many of the same players, as well as coaches and administrative folks, had been part of or watched closely as the Ducks made the Rose Bowl (2009), played in the national championship game (2010), won the Rose Bowl (2011), won the Fiesta Bowl (2012), won the Alamo Bowl (2013), won the Rose Bowl and played in the first College Football Playoff title game (2014) and then arguably could have been called the Pac-12's best team with Vernon Adams healthy in 2015.

The Ducks fell down, obviously, and it started with some bad losses and the penultimate embarrasment, blowing a 31-0 lead (without Adams) and losing to TCU in the Alamo Bowl, 47-41. Then-coach Mark Helfrich hired another defensive coordinator (Brady Hoke) and recruited another grad transfer QB (Dakota Prukop), but things wouldn't work out in 2016 as the Ducks went 4-8.

The Ducks were routed by many teams, including Washington 70-21, and lost the Civil War game to Oregon State (the Beavers' only win in the series from 2008-19). It was later revealed that basically Helfrich had lost control of discipline in the program and slipped in recruiting.

But, had Helfrich, Chip Kelly's successor, really lost control or simply needed to reevaluate, retool and be given the opportunity to survive one bad year? After all, Justin Herbert started at quarterback, Troy Dye at linebacker and a group of redshirt freshmen on the offensive line — all would become the players at the heart of Oregon's 2019 Pac-12 championship.

Well, the program turned on an axis in December 2016 when Oregon fired Helfrich, and hired Willie Taggart as head coach. An ultra-successful regime was kicked to the curb and the new guys in town promised big changes.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Troy Dye and his classmates had three head coaches in four seasons at Oregon, including Willie Taggart as a sophomore in 2017.Taggart, who had coached at Western Kentucky and South Florida, authored the "weak" comment, as he and new assistants — including master recruiter and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal — moved forward with a philosophy of size, physical strength and toughness, and without respected strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe, the architect of athletes from 2009-2015 and for years before then.

In the first week of offseason workouts, Taggart's strength and conditioning coach, Irele Oderinde, worked out players so hard that three ended up in the hospital for rhabdomyolysis ("rhabdo"), which occurs when substance from muscle releases into the bloodstream.

Taggart weathered the public relations storm, in part by blaming the media for supposedly overblowing the issue, and the Ducks went on their way. After an opening 77-21 win over Southern Utah, a team picked seventh in the FCS Big Sky Conference in 2017, Taggart proclaimed, "How about those Ducks?"

The Ducks ended up being a bowl team, but only after they lost four out of five games with Herbert injured and out — a continuation of UO's problems developing backup quarterbacks. With Herbert returning, Oregon routed Oregon State 69-10 and made the Las Vegas Bowl at 7-5. Meanwhile, the Ducks made in-roads in recruiting. Things looked up.

But, Taggart took his show to Florida State, bolting Oregon unexpectedly. Players felt betrayed. The UO administration actually offered Taggart a pay raise to stay. (The phrase "blessing in disguise" comes to mind here).

Enter Cristobal, and scores of players who went to Athletic Director Rob Mullens to lobby for the former national champion offensive lineman at Miami to be the head coach. It worked. Cristobal recently recalled how the players backed him.

"Indebted and gratitute beyond what words can describe," Cristobal said.

Well, in the whirlwind of being hired, recruiting and preparing for the bowl game, Cristobal's first of two bowl games (so far) didn't go well. The Ducks couldn't cross midfield until midway through the third quarter in the 2017 Vegas Bowl against Boise State (a loss, 38-28). But a good recruiting class had been signed and more recruits came on board the following February — including star offensive tackle Penei Sewell — and Herbert, Dye, the O-line and others returned for another step forward in 2018. Oh, and Cristobal hired Aaron Feld, the burly strength and conditioning coach known for his handlebar moustache, short-sleeve shirts in cold and rain and boisterous sideline presence.

Last season against Stanford, Cristobal opted not to have Herbert take knees to kill time, CJ Verdell fumbled in the closing minutes and the Cardinal rallied to beat the Ducks, 38-31 in overtime — the first of a few questionable decisions by Cristobal. The Ducks recovered and exacted revenge on Washington, which had outscored them 108-24 in two previous meetings, winning 30-27 in overtime after Washington's kicker missed a short, potential game-winning, field goal in the last seconds.

Consecutive slow starts and losses followed at Washington State and Arizona, and questions arose about Cristobal and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo's handling of offense. It wasn't flashy, explosive Oregon from the past, but a methodic and conservative attack in line with Cristobal's plan to make the Ducks more like successful SEC teams (i.e. Alabama, where he coached previously).

The 2018 Ducks finished 9-4, winning the Redbox Bowl 7-6 against Michigan State — with one good offensive drive and 11 punts. Cristobal and players celebrated heartily; it was a big step, the Ducks won with defense and toughness.

Then 2019 arrived, and the Ducks again landed a stellar recruiting class highlighted by ESPN's top-rated recruit, defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. Cristobal hired Andy Avalos away from Boise State — remember the Vegas Bowl? With Herbert, Dye and the offensive line considered the best in the land, Oregon was No. 11 in the AP preseason rankings. With a few bumps along the way, the Ducks became deep and physical, offensively efficient (for the most part) and defensively stout (holding seven opponents to 10 points or less).

Auburn beat the Ducks, 27-21, on a TD pass with nine seconds left. Oregon won nine games in a row, before a couple Herbert picks and Arizona State's offense burned Avalos' unit in the Sun Devils' 31-28 win, eliminating the Ducks from the College Football Playoff conversation.

But it didn't bother the Ducks (11-2), who beat Oregon State and then dismantled No. 5-ranked Utah 37-15, proving to be the more physical team, in last week's Pac-12 championship game.

It put a big exclamation on Oregon's rebuild, a nice reward for Dye, Herbert and others who experienced Oregon's generational low point and three head coaches. They will finish their careers at the Rose Bowl, having set the stage for future glory.

Cristobal, it appears, will land another top-10 recruiting class next week. It appears, also, that the Ducks will be looking for a new offensive coordinator, with Arroyo expected to become UNLV head coach.

The Ducks have a national presence again, and Cristobal won't shy away from stiff competition as the program chases a national championship. Next year it's FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, national power Ohio State and bowl team Hawaii on the schedule, all at Autzen Stadium, to go with the nine-game Pac-12 slate. The Ducks have a big-time team on almost every schedule for the next decade.

"(Players) want to play the best teams in the country all the time," Cristobal said. "There's no way we're going to go away from that mentality."

Nobody is calling Oregon weak anymore.

Florida State, meanwhile, fired Taggart midway through his second season.


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