Fiesta Bowl next for opportunistic Oregon
Go ahead and put that asterisk next to 2020 on the list of Pac-12 football champions. Make it deep purple for Huskies' fans, or bold black for Buffs' believers.
There was going to be an asterisk next to 2020 no matter who ended up winning the Pac-12 championship game. That it's a 4-2 Oregon team no doubt ruffles more than a few feathers around the conference.
But that's not Oregon's fault. It wasn't Oregon that denied 4-1 Colorado the chance to play USC. It was Oregon that had the best player on the field in the Pac-12 championship game (Kayvon Thibodeaux). And credit Oregon for being opportunistic, scoring 14 points off turnovers in their 31-24 win over the Trojans for their second consecutive Pac-12 championship game win (and conference-best fourth).
The challenge for the Ducks is representing the conference well in the Fiesta Bowl. As long as both Oregon and Big 12 runner-up Iowa State (8-3) can get to Glendale, Arizona with enough players, it should be an interesting matchup. No. 10 Iowa State has a balanced attack (192 yards rushing/249 passing per game). After a strange opening loss to Louisiana, the Cyclones are 8-2, with close losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma (in Saturday's Big 12 title game).
The instinct for Oregon's rivals to root for Iowa State on Jan. 2 is understandable. But it might be self-destructive.
Looking to 2021, and the hope that normalcy returns to life, the Pac-12 could be a very good and compelling conference. But, unless its top programs — and, yes, Oregon has become a Pac-12 flag-carrier in the national conciousness along with USC — play elite football in the spotlight, the conference will continue to be looked at as something less than the SEC and the Big Ten.
• Turns out USC was a good matchup for Oregon. USC's stunning inability (or unwillingness) to run the ball played into Oregon's hands by letting Thibodeaux and his mates up front dominate the line of scrimmage.
Run defense was a problem for the Ducks at times this season, but they didn't really need to worry much about it against the Trojans.
• The insertion of senior Anthony Brown at quarterback in short-yardage situations was good to see, and a move that paid off as the former Boston College quarterback threw third-down touchdown passes to Jaylon Redd and Travis Dye, and a key fourth-down completion to tight end DJ Johnson.
"Just a different look, big body, he can run the ball as well, you saw the touch he put on that (fourth-down) pass," coach Mario Cristobol said. "He's a really good player and he deserved to play somehow some way. Not only that, but he provided an advantage for us in the RPO (run-pass option) world. He executed really well. We all appreciate Anthony for hanging in there throughout the season."
• For now, it remains sophomore Tyler Shough's team. He has been inconsistent and played with less confidence in the last three games, but credit opposing defensive coordinators for making Shough uncomfortable.
Oregon hasn't had a consistent set of available receivers and tight ends, which appears to have impacted chemistry for Shough — whose two TDs against USC were throws to tight ends. Of his eight completions, his 14-yard TD to tight end Hunter Kampmoyer was the deepest throw Shough completed in the game. His two other significant completions came on short throws to Dye and Johnny Johnson III.
Oregon converted five of 13 third downs — running the ball four times on third-and-7 or longer (converting once). Cristobal said the Ducks thought they could break big plays against USC's personnel on the third-and-long runs, but it felt like they were trying to take pressure off of Shough.
• With CJ Verdell unavailable, redshirt freshman Sean Dollars averaged 7.4 yards on seven carries. Cristobal said Dollars started to show his potential as the scout team back heading into last season's Rose Bowl and that "his future is through the roof."
• The Pac-12 championship was part of a pretty nice week for the Ducks and their coach. On Dec. 17, Oregon announced a new contract that will pay Cristobal $27.3 million through the 2025 season. That's not the kind of money an SEC or Big Ten program could pay, but it makes Cristobal the third highest paid coach in the Pac-12 (up from 11th). Given the way he's recruiting, it would now be surprising to see Cristobal leave a good situation in Eugene.
• Oregon signed 21 players in the early signing period, a 2021 class rated the fifth best in the nation by Rivals and sixth best by ESPN and by 247Sports. Included are Oregon's first five-star quarterback (Ty Thompson) and five-star offensive lineman (Kingsley Saumataia).
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