By SPENCER McLAUGHLIN
Contributor, 750 The Game
The Oregon fanbase appears to have mixed feelings on their former head coach, Mario Cristobal. He’s doing a fine job at Miami, though the program is certainly not where Oregon’s is with Dan Lanning now at the helm. As usual, I tend to think the right answer is somewhere in the middle. He did a great job bringing Oregon Football back to national relevance while showing what’s possible on the recruiting trail. I don’t lament him for leaving, I think Miami is the probably the only spot he would have left Oregon for. He went home, where he played, close to family. I can respect that.
I’ve moved twice since graduating college, and my last move over two years ago brought me closer to home. I like that quite a bit (I imagine my mom does, too). I think Mario’s desire to be where he learned all about college football as a player has left Oregon in a better spot as a result.
Dan Lanning has momentum at a really high level right now for the Ducks. They beat #13 Utah on the road by 29 points. They’ve landed their 2nd 5-star defensive line recruit in the last 2.5 weeks for the 2024 recruiting cycle. But bringing in high-level talent isn’t why fans feel that Dan Lanning is an upgrade over Mario Cristobal.
Cristobal’s best Oregon team in his 4 years at the helm was 2019, a Justin Herbert-led team that went 12-2 and won the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin. Lanning’s year 2 team is better than last year’s, a unit that ended 10-3 with a Holiday Bowl win over North Carolina and QB Drake Maye (who is, uh, excellent).
This season still has 4 weeks left in the regular season and hopefully, for Oregon fans, a trip to Las Vegas and the Pac-12 Championship Game. But already the ceiling on this Oregon team feels higher than the one from 2019. The offense is more dynamic, creative, and explosive. Both defenses are among the best the Ducks have assembled in the last 20 years. But the difference that makes Lanning stand out to me from a gameplanning standpoint is what happens in games like this upcoming one against Cal.
4 years ago, Oregon took on a Cal team at Autzen Stadium that went on to be a respectable 8-5. They also played a dismal Stanford team that ended the year 4-8. The combined scores of those 2 games? 38-13. That 2019 team also needed a game-winning field goal from Camden Lewis to beat Washington State at home. The Cougs, to be fair, were a good team under the late Mike Leach. They lost to an ASU team on the road 31-28 as a two touchdown favorite, and struggled in Eugene against a rebuilding but not quite ready Oregon State team.
My point is that the 12-2 season in 2019 was great, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
Dan Lanning just picked up a win last week in which backup QB Ty Thompson was handing the ball off to true freshman Jayden Limar by the end of the fourth quarter. That was against a top-15 opponent who hadn’t shown their home fans a loss in 5 years.
Cristobal won a lot of games and did a lot of great things as Oregon’s head coach, but Oregon fans constantly had to worry about playing down to the level of an inferior opponent. Something I appreciate about Dan Lanning’s team as an Oregon fan is the standard they play at on a weekly basis. It’s why they’re a top 10 team in the country right now. The only 1 possession games they’ve played have come on the road, and one of those matchups was against a top 10 team.
Which brings us to this week’s game against the Bears. Cal isn’t a complete mess, and they’ve improved their offense a lot. QB Fernando Mendoza has been a stabilizing force at a position of chaos. RB Jadyn Ott is a really dynamic player, as is WR Jeremiah Hunter. But the Bears have lost 3 straight, allowing 45.3 points per game in that span to Oregon State, Utah, and USC. Cal has a chance to make a bowl game this year, though a slim one. This matchup with the Ducks is not a chance for them to “right the ship” in 2023.
Prediction: Oregon 49, Cal 17
Spencer McLaughlin is an Oregon Ducks football contributor to 750 The Game. He also hosts the “Locked On Oregon Ducks” and “Locked On Pac-12” podcasts and has work featured throughout the season here.