It’s been a roller coaster of adversity all season for the Ducks. But each time, No. 19 Oregon has responded in a positive way. Heading into their week nine matchup against Arizona, the biggest question needing to be answered is if the Ducks have the capabilities to not let the worst loss of the season define them?
Last week, the Ducks went into Pullman, Washington on an extremely high note, dispatching their hated rival Washington 30-27 in overtime the week prior. Instead of capitalizing on that momentum, Oregon was smashed by Washington State, finding themselves down 27-0 at the half before a late rally came up short in the 34-20 loss.
“We like to operate this whole thing like you would in real life as each player being the head of their own household as a future father where what are you supposed to do when you get hit with adversity? Are you going to buckle and kind of get it in and let the rest of our household see you down and out,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “That's not the way it works… we'll never let it work that way — we're fortunate that we have really good leaders that understand that.”
It’s the worst loss of the season for the Ducks (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) because they had a chance to seize the Pac-12 North division lead but now find themselves almost completely out of the race, and in fourth place. They looked unfocused, undisciplined and just bad altogether in the first half against the Cougars, being completely demoralized on both sides of the ball.
Each time the Ducks have been tested with adversity this season, they’ve responded.
Following the heartbreaking loss to Stanford, Oregon went on the road the following week and smacked Cal in a win. Then the Ducks found themselves in trouble multiple times against Washington and each time, responded in a big way that led to the victory.
They’ll have to prove it again this week against an Arizona squad, who’s in desperate need of a win and might see its star quarterback return just in time.
Also, the Ducks will have to do it in another hostile environment down in Tucson. The Wildcats (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) do a good job of packing the stadium and making it loud, adding to the lore of the “Pac-12-After-Dark” theme taking place with the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
“The league is very good and ultra-competitive so sometimes you almost cannibalize yourself as a conference where good teams are playing good teams,” Cristobal said. “It's anybody's game going into Saturday… that's why planning and execution and preparation are so important.”
But, the rally in the second half against Washington State unearthed something in Oregon, something the Ducks didn’t know was there.
When it couldn’t get worse, Oregon didn’t just roll over. Quarterback Justin Herbert started finding Dillon Mitchell and Jaylon Redd — CJ Verdell started lowering his head and running hard — the offensive line started playing physical and nasty. The same defense that was torched in the first half dug deep and played with pride, holding one of the nation’s best offenses scoreless through most of the second half.
Oregon learned that it has heart — it has fight — and most importantly, it has leadership. Linebacker Kaulana Apelu, one of the few senior starters, took it upon himself to right the ship.
“Lana's a tremendous leader — super-high energy guy, student of the game, pushes his teammates, challenges his teammates, wants it as bad as you could ever imagine,” Cristobal said of Apelu. “Besides the ability, tremendous heart in everything he invests in trying to make those around him better.”
In the end it wasn’t enough. It was still a loss in a game where so much was on the line. With the North division crown almost completely out of reach, the Ducks are playing for pride. A 10-2 or 9-3 season is still possible, and almost unbelievable considering how bad the Ducks have been the past two years.
“The sun will rise tomorrow. You have two choices; you can get on your feet and get up or lay down in bed,” Apelu said following the latest loss. “Knowing this team, knowing myself, we’ll get up (and) get ready to go.”