In the locker room after Oregon‘s 31-24 victory against USC on Friday to claim the Pac-12 title and a likely berth in the Fiesta Bowl, Ducks coach Mario Cristobal brought up a conversation the team had in March.
“We said whoever handles this pandemic best is going to end up holding up that trophy,” Cristobal recalled.
It wasn’t that simple, but in a year in which the Pac-12 shortened its regular season to six games and didn’t even begin play until November, no conference was altered quite like it. And there might not ever be as bizarre a path to a championship as the one the Ducks completed Friday.
Oregon (4-2) advanced to the championship game despite not winning its own division. The official designation went to rival Washington (3-1), which locked up first place in the Pac-12 North by not being able to play the Ducks last week because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the Huskies’ roster. The Washington-Oregon game would have served as a conference semifinal. Instead, the Ducks sat idle, and the Pac-12 announced Sunday they would play South division runner-up Colorado (4-1), at USC.
Just over 24 hours after the initial pairings were set, the Pac-12 announced that Washington wouldn’t be able to play — as had been widely expected — and the Ducks were elevated to the conference’s main event.
“We had three game plans done in I think a matter of three, four days just as the constant switching,” Cristobal said Friday. “Can you imagine? ‘Hey, guys, we’ll see you tomorrow at 6, and we’ll go Colorado from 6 to noon, and then we’ll take a five-minute lunch break, and then we’ll go USC ’til the wee hours, and then we’ll get on recruiting.”
Through the madness, the constant battle was against complacency with executing COVID-19 protocols.
“We are really regimented and we really get after them all day to the point where we’re rough to deal with sometimes, but they managed to find a way to stay healthy,” Cristobal said. “Make it to every single game and sure enough found ourselves here in the Pac-12 championship and got it done. So tremendous credit goes to these football players.”
Oregon deserves credit for how it has handled the virus, but there is an element of good fortune too. California, one of the two teams Oregon lost to, presented an example of how quickly the virus could wreak havoc on a season. The 1-3 Golden Bears saw two games canceled as a result of two positive cases in total.
Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux was named the game’s MVP on Friday night.
“We fought this year,” Thibodeaux said. “So many trials and tribulations. So many things that kept popping up. So many excuses we could have made, and we didn’t flinch. We stuck to the script and got it done.”
For USC (5-1), which was plagued by costly three costly turnovers and several untimely penalties in the title game, the loss dashed its hopes to finish undefeated.
“There’s a lot of hurt souls in our locker room right now,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “And it’s something that I know that our kids wanted extremely badly to win a championship. And we came up a play too short today.”