Eugene – the Ducks running game has been able to be summed up fairly easily in recent years. Since his arrival in the Emerald Valley in 2014 Royce Freeman has taken center stage and the rest of Oregon’s running backs have been his supporting cast. But now that Oregon’s all-time leading rusher and the holder of the Pac-12 record for touchdowns scored suits up for the Denver Broncos on Sundays the Ducks had a wide-open race for someone to help fill his cleats.
It was thought that Senior Tony Brooks-James could be a viable replacement as he was the #1 backup to Freeman last season however; Brooks-James has been relegated more to kickoff returns while two freshman running backs appear poised to become Oregon’s next great duo. Prior to Freeman the Ducks had developed a history of having great running back combos, sometimes featuring a “thunder” (power) back and a “lightning” (speed) back. There was Maurice Morris and Ontario Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, and perhaps the most celebrated duo of all LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
In Saturday’s run-happy Civil War drubbing running back’s CJ Verdell and Travis Dye each had career days with Dye compiling 33 carries for 199 yards and Verdell amassing 23 carries for 187 yards. It was the first time that two Oregon running backs had ever gained 180+ yards each in the same game. Granted, it was against Oregon State’s painstakingly porous defense but the two have been a productive combination all season, especially for freshmen. Cristobal’s run-first idealism, bolstered with quarterback Justin Herbert sitting out the second half with what is reported to be only a bruised shoulder, was on full display in the driving rain in Corvallis, an atmosphere on which the Beavers capitalized in their Civil War victory two years ago.
The success of Oregon’s new running back combo behind an oft-changing but well-performing offensive line can be vital in opening up play-action passes for large chunks of yardage, and area in which the Ducks can utilize Herbert’s cannon of an arm. This game plan should end up playing a vital role in Oregon’s bowl game, but what bowl game exactly are we looking at?
At 8-4 (5-4 Pac-12) Oregon is most likely headed to a California Bowl after Christmas, a nice jump from last year’s pre-Christmas venture to Vegas where not only were they bum rushed by a motivated Boise State squad, but also had to cancel a big pre-scheduled recruiting weekend due to the early game. Although the Redbox Bowl in the bay area seems a liable option almost every major sporting news site has the Ducks traveling to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl to play an opponent from the Big 10.
A lot is riding on this weekend’s “Big Game” between Cal and Stanford, which was postponed due to the wildfires raging along the California coastline. If Stanford loses they will drop below Oregon in the North standings but a victory would put them ahead of the Ducks courtesy of their wild comeback victory at Autzen in September. An opportunity to play in beautiful San Diego against a Big 10 team seems the perfect time for Oregon to flex its running muscles and impose Cristobal’s style against potentially another smash mouth opponent.
Should that be the case, Oregon’s new running back combo should be an integral tool.