Fiesta Bowl leaves Ducks wanting more
It's easy to look at the performance in the Fiesta Bowl and say the 2020 Oregon football team underachieved.
By the standards proclaimed by coach Mario Cristobal, that's certainly true of results on the field.
In finishing 4-3 in this most bizarre of seasons, the Ducks didn't beat any particularly daunting foe (sorry USC fans). They squandered a game at Oregon State, were shut out in the second half by a mediocre Cal team and were fortunate to outscore UCLA.
Then, against the Cyclones, Oregon looked like a team that wasn't sure it could win.
The Fiesta Bowl looked like a neighborhood pickup game where the older kids wouldn't let the younger kids touch the ball. And, when they did get their hands on it, the Ducks didn't seem to have a clear idea of what to do.
Some of the credit for that must go to Iowa State's defense and its unique scheme, with five defensive backs testing quarterbacks' decision-making on each snap. Take away Oregon's three scoring drives in the first half, and the Ducks' seven other possessions netted 93 yards from 22 snaps.
Throw in five giveaways (and zero takeaways), and Oregon really didn't give itself a chance in the Fiesta Bowl.
"It's a game of execution. In critical situations, we didn't execute well enough. We didn't coach well enough," said Cristobal, stating what was obvious to anyone watching. "You can't compromise your physicality, your execution, your focus and your effort. When you turn over the ball like we did (it is) hard to overcome."
I'm not sure Oregon's focus, effort or physicality was the problem. A highly motivated group of Iowa State seniors delivered a lesson that Cristobal and company will take into 2021.
Much was made of the Ducks having the fewest juniors and seniors in NCAA Division I football this season. But Cristobal, publicly, was having none of the argument that youth was Oregon's undoing. Said the coach: "Young or not, it's still going to be about winning (the game). So, a lot of good lessons learned. A lot to be excited about. And a lot of fuel that we can use in the offseason to get better."
Turning the page will begin after a couple of much-deserved weeks at home for the players who sacrificed time with family to make a go of the 2020 season. Other processes on the front burner for Cristobal and his staff include meeting with seniors to decide if they want to return for one more season and helping the 13 incoming freshmen enrolled for winter term to get their bearings.
The Ducks' coach compared Iowa State's leadership and determination with what his senior-led 2019 team had. His more accurate comparison, though, was describing the Cyclones as Stanford-like.
"If they can get you in third-and-manageable and third-and-short and keep moving the sticks, they're going to continue bleeding the clock," he said. "They're going to snap the ball with anywhere from 10 to 3 seconds on the play clock and time will get chewed up."
Oregon's defense played well. The goal-line stand after Travis Dye's fumble and the stop after the botched punt-return fumble were big-time responses.
Iowa State's Brock Purdy played like the best quarterback the Ducks have faced this season — remember, they faced backups against Stanford and UCLA. Purdy was 20 of 29 passing for 156 yards and a touchdown on a blown coverage by Oregon. He threw in a couple of drive-sustaining scrambles.
Cyclones running back Breece Hall rushed for 136 yards and two short touchdowns. The leading rusher in the nation, Hall was effective, but not game-breaking the way some backs (including Oregon State's Jermar Jefferson) were against the Ducks earlier in the season.
Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibobeaux said the trouble for the defense was giving Iowa State too many yards on first downs.
"You know, if you start off and you win the first down, it will be easy to win the next two," Thibodeaux said. "But … we kind of lost some of the early plays, so they kind of got in a rhythm before we did."
On the flip side, the Ducks too often didn't execute on first down, leading to long-yardage scenarios on second and third down.
The Oregon offense looked like it has much of 2021 — capable of producing, but wildly inconsistent.
The decision to give Anthony Brown a run at quarterback looked good early — especially on the 98-yard second-quarter touchdown drive. But it's fair to ask — and it was asked multiple ways during postgame press conferences — whether the QB shuffle was part of the reason Oregon never found its footing in the second half.
At the same time, Iowa State's domination of possession time was a huge factor in discombobulating Oregon's offense. Cristobal said the Ducks intentionally slowed down their offense in the second half to give the defense time to rest.
Whether it was a lack of tempo, quarterbacks looking over their shoulder or a well-disguised defense, the Ducks couldn't find any spark in the second half.
We've seen this before. The Ducks' offensive struggles were reminiscent of Oregon's losses to Oregon State and Cal, as the Ducks made costly mistakes and their offense was blanked in the second half.
Going 0 for 6 on third down (and 0 for 1 on fourth down) prevented Oregon from doing exactly what Iowa State did: sustain drives by getting solid gains on first down and converting manageable third downs.
"They outplayed us and they out-coached us on third down, they certainly did," Cristobal admitted.
Special teams also were a nightmare for Oregon. Cristobal said DJ Johnson wasn't to blame on the pooched kickoff that Iowa State recovered, part of a critical 14 points in 13 seconds for the Cyclones just before halftime. It was a perfect kick, one that the Ducks didn't react to correctly. Oregon then hurt itself just before halftime with a holding penalty that erased a tough catch in the end zone from Mycah Pittman. That series also included Brown throwing wide to an open Devon Williams in the end zone.
In the aftermath of the Fiesta Bowl, talk about the quarterback position dominated the discussion. It figures to be a hot topic from now until the scheduled Sept. 4 opener against Fresno State. Will Shough's experience and time to work with Joe Moorhead make him the starter? Will Brown stick around for another season of college football (and was that possibility one reason he played so much in the Fiesta Bowl)? Or will five-star recruit Ty Thompson, one of 13 incoming recruits starting at Oregon this winter term, be too talented to keep on the sidelines? And, could another touted QB already on the roster, Jay Butterfield, compete to play?
Thompson's arrival is but one example of the talent influx coming to Eugene. The Ducks probably won't be ready to challenge Ohio State on Sept. 11 in Columbus, but they will be expected to turn the experience gained through seven games (and the discipline required to get through this season) into far more consistent football — the kind of football that not only earns the Ducks a spot in a major bowl game, but that delivers an Oregon win.
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