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Oregon football's new, physical mindset gets its biggest test at Washington

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Pollack: Oregon's defense has been unbelievable (1:15)

David Pollack has loved Oregon's defense since the Ducks lost the season opener to Auburn. They've allowed only 25 points in the past five games. (1:15)

EUGENE, Ore. -- At halftime against Cal, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal made his way to the Ducks' locker room when he heard a commotion inside. Linebacker Troy Dye's voice boomed through the door.

The senior was hot. A 7-0 deficit at home was unacceptable, and he felt the need to say something loud and significant.

Cristobal and his coaches snuck inside as Dye lit into his teammates. Dye was raw, emotional and energetic. "It was passionate and had a lot of energy and juice to it," Cristobal said.

It was a reckoning for a team stumbling along and over itself.

Dye's energy filled the room, and his teammates perked up. He kept going, with players leaning on every word.

Dye became so overwhelmed with emotion that he ... puked.

Maybe it was the speech, or the aftermath, but something changed in the Ducks. After giving up 118 passing yards to Cal's backup quarterback, committing four penalties (as many as they had the previous two games combined) and turning the ball over three times in Cal territory, Oregon turned it around. With superstar quarterback Justin Herbert playing one of his more inconsistent games of the season, the Ducks took over and outmuscled one of the Pac-12's grittiest teams en route to a 17-7 triumph.

Oregon grinded out a win in the type of game that used to give this program problems. The more physical the game, the more easily the Ducks crumbled. Now, though, these are the games Oregon craves.

"Two years ago, we probably would have walked out of that game losing 42-3," senior offensive lineman Shane Lemieux told ESPN. "It was a gritty game, and we came back. We took it over in the second half because that's the way we trained in the offseason -- we trained to finish. We consider ourselves a second-half team now, and it really hasn't been that way the last couple of years at Oregon."

Oregon -- the birthplace of zigzagging, high-flying spread concepts -- is aiming to be the new standard in physicality in the Pac-12. This rebrand has been building since Cristobal was promoted to replace Willie Taggart, who left for Florida State after one year, following the 2017 season.

Cristobal's vision has been clear: Bring an SEC mindset, style and philosophy to Eugene to create a more physical, punch-you-in-the-jaw Ducks team that can take the top off a defense and pummel you in the trenches.

A 21-6 win at Stanford, for years the face of physical Pac-12 football, and the comeback win against Cal were steps leading to the real test: winning at No. 25 Washington (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) on Saturday.

If the 12th-ranked Ducks (5-1, 3-0) are going to reach Pac-12 supremacy and possibly slip into the College Football Playoff, the grind-it-out style this team has embraced has to be kicked into overdrive against a Washington team built similarly, inside and out.

"Our players understand that on the road in this game, nothing but our very best is going to be good enough," Cristobal said.


Since being worn down in that painful opening loss to Auburn, the Ducks have flipped the script on opponents.

In the past five games (all wins) Oregon has shown flashes of the old Chip Kelly-like Ducks by hanging 157 points and 1,710 yards on Nevada, Montana and Colorado while clawing its way to scoring just 21 against Stanford and 17 against Cal.

Offensively, the plan is to throw by establishing what Lemieux calls an "SEC, power, run-the-ball-downhill kinda team." The past two weeks against Cal and Colorado, Oregon ran the ball 76 times for 442 yards, 188 of those between the tackles, which was good enough for third in the Pac-12.

Defensively, Oregon has been dominant, suffocating opponents to a degree that would make their SEC brothers proud. The longest pass Oregon has given up went 38 yards in the Auburn game, and nearly 30% of opponents' rushes have gone for zero or negative yards this season.

Unlike in years past, the Ducks' mode of navigating through games no longer rests on the theatrics of their offense. Second halves have turned into grind time for the Ducks, and it has been hell for Pac-12 opponents.

"I think the fans are still even trying to get used to it," Lemieux said. "We're not the team that's going to blow people out of the water with, like, trickery and all that kind of stuff. We have our foundation ... playing a physical, downhill-running, stopping-the-run-on-defense football team."

And, boy, is that defense good. It's the Pac-12's best, allowing the fewest points (8.7), passing yards (160.2) and total yards (267.7) per game in the conference. It also has a Pac-12-leading 50 tackles for loss, 21 sacks and 12 interceptions.

Since allowing 27 points to Auburn, Oregon has allowed fewer than 10 points in five straight games, the longest such streak by any team since Michigan had a five-game streak in the 2015 season and the program's longest such streak since 1958 (also five straight), according to ESPN Stats & Info. Oregon has allowed just one touchdown (to Cal) since the opener, and the Ducks' four total touchdowns allowed are tied with Wisconsin's tally for fewest in the FBS.

"Our point is to play our brand of football and for people to fear our brand of football," freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux said.

The offense can thank the defense for delivering when things have been shaky, but since the second half of the Cal game, the Ducks have found some offensive rhythm.

The Ducks scored on three of their seven full drives in the second half versus Cal. In last week's 45-3 drubbing of Colorado, Oregon scored on two of its first three drives and five of its last seven full drives, including four touchdown drives in a row in the second and third quarters.

Lemieux said the win over Colorado was the Ducks' most complete game of the season, with Oregon generating more than 500 yards and limiting Colorado to fewer than 300. That game also showed the right blend of explosion and power -- on both sides of the ball -- to maneuver through the Pac-12.

"We just want to continue to build that brand inside our building," he said.


Part of Cristobal's more physical brand comes from his time as an assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama, but his blue-collar coaching mentality started blooming when he was FIU's head coach from 2007 to 2012.

Cristobal took over a program void of any real tradition or proper resources and was quickly met with 17 ineligible players, embarrassingly low GPAs and graduation rates, and an APR so low that the program was down a handful of scholarships.

Without a true home stadium, the team used an intramural locker room during the week and gutted a couple of racquetball courts to make a strength room. There were Costco runs to buy 10 gallons of low-fat chocolate milk and bags of PB&J essentials to make sandwiches for players every night.

One time, the buses didn't show up to take the team to its scrimmage at the Orange Bowl, so coaches used their own vehicles to transport players.

"It was awesome. I loved that part. I really did," Cristobal said. "I loved it because we had to figure everything out on our own. We had to create processes."

That process helped him bring one of the nation's worst football programs its first conference title in 2010 before he was unceremoniously fired in 2012.

Cristobal cut his teeth at FIU, and he has brought that same hard-hat approach to Eugene by continuously putting his players in uncomfortable situations in an attempt to have them almost "like" being uncomfortable. From moving practices without notice to changing stretching locations, Cristobal is constantly switching things to disrupt order.

"Sometimes people think that people just fly out of the womb just really, really tough," Cristobal said. "You have to rep certain types of things and create adversity and create breakthroughs as it relates to adversity."

Cristobal understands that the mother of all learning is repetition, so the hard stuff is done over and over. The hard stuff is picked apart more and more. Drills are done not until players get them right but until they can't get them wrong.

"It's paying off," Cristobal said, "but the best part about it is our guys, they aren't looking for compliments. They don't want me on the radio or in print talking about how great they are. They want to know that tomorrow's practice, that I'm gonna bring the most energetic, constructive, critical me and the rest of the coaching staff to challenge them so they can get better. They know there can't be any movement, any development without the challenge.

"They f---ing work," he said. "They let us push them, man."


The old, souped-up engine that used to power Oregon isn't dead by any means. But it has been adjusted to save power for when it's needed.

That has been an adjustment in itself for a lot of players who arrived idolizing De'Anthony Thomas and the power of numerous bubble screens.

And, yes, that style worked when Kelly was around, but Cristobal is thinking long-term with his approach. He isn't just seeing what Alabama and Clemson have done with their power spreads and smothering defenses. Like LSU has done with its new, all-out assault on secondaries, Cristobal is adapting for the present while preparing for the future.

"I think the entire Pac-12 is getting more physical," he said.

With that in mind, Cristobal is making sure he has options for success. He doesn't want to put everything on his all-world quarterback, so he's developing a power run game that last season was second in the Pac-12 in rushing between the tackles (1,317) and this season has been magnificent on the perimeter, leading the Pac-12 with 724 yards outside the tackles.

Redd, the receiver, is all-in when it comes to the run game.

"You have that mindset that it might not always be that game where you get this amount of stats or whatever," he said. "It's all about the stats that nobody sees on film."

Cristobal is also combating ever-improving Pac-12 defenses by creating an almost superhuman defense to neutralize scoring threats.

So here comes Washington, which has struggled to find consistency all season, presenting the perfect opportunity for Cristobal and his crew to put their evolution to the test.

Although Washington has fallen victim to both Cal and Stanford, the Ducks are almost staring at themselves in the mirror. Both teams have big, burly future NFLers on their offensive lines protecting a big-armed, sharp-shooting quarterback. Both are in the top five in the conference in rushing because of downhill running games. Both have stingy defenses squeezing the life out of quarterbacks.

"They look like they always look like: really big and powerful guys up front on both sides of the ball," Cristobal said. "A lot of talent all over the field. As talented a team as you'll see in the country and very well-coached."

Raising the stakes? Playoff possibilities!

Oregon has a 9% chance to reach the CFP, and ESPN's Football Power Index ranks Washington as Oregon's toughest remaining opponent (60% chance to win). If the Ducks win, their chance to reach the playoff climbs to 15%, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor; a loss drops it to 1%.

A lot is on the line for Oregon, but the Ducks aren't beating their chests to signal their arrival. They're still chasing a new standard in Eugene, and beating Washington on the road is a major step toward that.

"We're gonna keep grinding it at it, brother, because that's what we want to do, and that's what we want to be," Cristobal said.