The last time the Oregon Ducks visited Pullman, an estimated 20,000 Washington State fans flooded the streets for an ESPN GameDay broadcast and 33,000 later packed Martin Stadium for the football game. In the first quarter, they generated perhaps the greatest din in stadium history.
This time? You might see some funny cardboard cutouts in the stands.
Nonetheless, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal is preaching laser-focus as the homebody-ish Ducks continue their crusade to become a better road team.
Kickoff is 4:10 p.m. Saturday as the Ducks and Cougars match 1-0 records in WSU’s home opener (FOX). As with all Pac-12 games in this pandemic-shortened season, no spectators will be allowed.
The Ducks, ranked No. 11 and coming off a 12-2 season that saw them claim the Pac-12 title, have been one of the nation’s winningest teams at home in recent decades. Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., has become renowned for its noisy crowds and glitzy spectacle.
But during a dip in the program’s fortunes a few years ago, the Duck dazzle was considerably dimmed outside Eugene. Oregon went 4-12 in road games from 2016-18 before improving to 4-2 last year in Cristobal’s second season. He wants the uptick to continue.
“Playing on the road is a different mentality, completely different,” he told reporters this week. “You’ve got to pack it all. You’ve got to pack your energy, you’ve got to pack your discipline, your resiliency. You’ve got to pack Autzen in that bag as well — you’ve got to pack it all.”
The Ducks might need more equipment vans than what GameDay caravaned to Pullman two years ago. But Cristobal, a former Miami Hurricanes offensive lineman who’s trying to inculcate toughness in this flash- and finesse-adoring program, is making his priorities clear on this subject.
On the road, “You need to cut out every single ounce of distraction and anyone and anything that has nothing to do with being successful in this football game,” he said.
Well, that should be a lot easier this time.
There’s no way to overstate the crowd’s impact on the Cougars’ 34-20 defeat of Oregon on Oct. 20, 2018. The Ducks’ first five plays from scrimmage included two false-start penalties, a delay-of-game infraction and a 7-yard rushing loss. The piped-in crowd noise won’t hold a candle to that.
True, it will be the first road game for new Oregon starting quarterback Tyler Shough, a sophomore replacing star Justin Herbert, now with the Los Angeles Chargers. A former four-star recruit out of the Phoenix area, the 6-foot-5, 221-pound Shough was 17-for-26 passing for 227 yards last week in a 35-14 home win against Stanford.
Returning at running back for the Ducks is CJ Verdell, who roasted Wazzu for 257 rushing yards and 56 in receptions last year as Oregon won 37-35 in Eugene. Also back is top receiver Johnny Johnson III, who caught 57 balls in 2019.
The Ducks’ tremendous junior offensive tackle, Penei Sewell, has opted out of the season and declared for the NFL draft, but his 250-pound younger brother Noah is adding to the team’s linebacker sizzle as a true freshman. Among Cristobal’s accomplishments so far in Eugene has been recharging the defensive mind set.
The Ducks are favored by 10 points. If Cristobal wants to keep them motivated, he can remind them they haven’t won in Pullman since 2014.
“We have to stay addicted to improvement,” he said. “It’s Game 2, guys are focused. We have to just cut out all the outside noise, man, and get at it.”
Dale Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.