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Oregon Football: Ducks' Hunt for the College Football Playoff Now Official

Oregon Football: Ducks' Hunt for the College Football Playoff Now Official

Oregon Football: Ducks' Hunt for the College Football Playoff Now Official

LOS ANGELES — Coming into Week 10, Oregon's road trip to USC just looked like the quintessential one of those games. You know the kind of game if you have been following Pac-12 football at all in recent years: One of those games in which a highly ranked team leaves home to see its place in the national scene undercut in a loss.

And when the Trojans built a 10-0 lead on the Ducks early, through a combination of precise Kedon Slovis passes and their defense penetrating the seemingly impenetrable Oregon offensive line, another upset appeared right on schedule.

But these Ducks are different.

"When we were down 10-0, we came together [and said] 'We've got a really good chance to make something happen this season, and we’re not going to let it go,'" said defensive back Brady Breeze.

The Oregon of recent weeks has been the antithesis of what many have come to expect of Pac-12 College Football Playoff hopefuls.

Unwavering Webfoots rallied from down two touchdowns in the second half at rival Washington; drove the field in the final minute to beat Washington State on a last-second field goal, ending a four-game losing streak in that series; and handed USC its only loss at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this season.

The Trojans came in having already picked off one playoff contender from the Pac in Utah, a 30-23 decision on Sept. 20. But Oregon's rallying cry when trailing USC called back to those recent wins.

"We've been through a lot," said linebacker Troy Dye. "We've been in games where we were down 17 points to start the game off. We understand you can come back from that."

That understanding comes not just from the comebacks during an eight-game winning streak, which has Oregon ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and very much alive for a playoff bid. No Pac-12 team has made it to this juncture of the season with one loss or less since Washington in 2016; uncoincidentally, that's the conference's last playoff participant.

Oregon owes its collective understanding it can bounce back as much to failures of the past, beginning with the most pronounced disappointment in the program's recent history. The Ducks last visited Los Angeles in November 2016, in the final stretch of a 4-8 finish.

Current leaders Dye and quarterback Justin Herbert were freshmen on that team. The build to this year's pursuit of a Pac-12 championship, and perhaps more, began with the misfires of a season in the North-division cellar.

"It’s been a total flip since I got here as a freshman," said Dye, who added the transformation is as recent as this season from last. "I'm proud of the dudes and I love all of them for how they've handled this year and how they've been fighting. That first week loss that we had, a lot of guys on past teams would have tucked their tails."

The 2019 season ushered in with lofty expectations when Dye and Herbert declared their intention to return for their senior years. But in a high-profile, Week 1 date with Auburn — a game the Ducks controlled in the first half, but misfired on two critical red-zone opportunities — an offseason of buzz seemed to deflate.

Deflated from the outside, anyway. The Auburn loss instead challenged Oregon internally. Dye credited team workouts focusing on the psychological element of the game engineered a turnaround; hearing from speakers who talked to the Ducks about meeting challenges in life.

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The upperclassmen also leaned on the steady rebuild they began in 2016, from 4-8; to 7-6; to 9-4; to now 8-1 and three wins away from a potential Pac-12 Championship Game and play-in to the playoff.

"This senior class, and the redshirt seniors, we've been through a lot," Dye said. "[We've had] three coaching staffs. Guys stayed true to them and stayed true to the program."

When Oregon left the Coliseum in 2016, it wasn't just a disappointing season that ended. The tenure of Mark Helfrich wrapped up in the subsequent weeks, and with it, 40 years of direct coaching lineage from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly to Helfrich also ended.

The hire of Willie Taggart in December 2016 launched a new era that lasted all of one year. But when Taggart departed for Florida State, offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal's ascension to head coach began a process of establishing stability.

"The coaching staff now has been together for two years now," Cristobal said. "We've been training our guys to develop mental toughness, to be able to go on the road and play against some tough teams. It had been an issue in the past, but we've been working on it and getting some great results as you can see."

While the coaching staff may be relatively new and separate from the past era, memories of past, great Oregon teams linger. Take Breeze's contribution to the turnaround in the Coliseum with a pick-six and a fumble recovery deep in Oregon territory. The native of Lake Oswego rattled off historic plays past Ducks defensive backs made that he cheered as a young fan.

"Growing up, watching the Ducks and seeing games like this, it's cool being part of it and actually being the one making the plays," he said.

Breeze's relationship with Oregon football parallels that of Herbert, a Eugene native who said his lifelong Oregon fandom played a pivotal role in his decision to return for his senior year.

Other key contributors are new to the Ducks' football legacy, but that doesn't mean this season means any less. Take wide receiver Juwan Johnson, a transfer from Penn State.

Johnson made a long catch-and-grab on the final possession against Washington State, which led directly to Camden Lewis' game-winning field goal. At USC, Johnson caught all three of Herbert's touchdown passes.

"It's kinda hard to put into words," Johnson said of his key contributions in his one injury-abbreviated season with the Ducks. "Any time I don't have anything to say, I just thank God."

What Johnson, a newcomer, shares with those Ducks who were on the scene for the entirety of the rebuild, is he repeats the same mantra of staying committed when losing, but not relenting when succeeding.

"Guys, after a big couple of nights, start to sag off a little bit," Johnson said. "Have to apply pressure even more now, because there's a target on you."

That applies to both Johnson and Oregon as a team.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.