Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Josh Yuen, sports editor of The Daily Californian, and Maverick Pallack, an associate sports editor of the Daily Emerald. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josh Yuen: I’ll start with the obvious — after a few days, what is the overall mood around the team after Saturday’s tough loss?
Maverick Pallack: Coach Cristobal said in a press conference that everyone seems to be on the same page. C.J. Verdell had that fumble at the end fighting for yards, but Cristobal said Verdell was very ready for practice and ready to go, so although he’s young, he knows he’s needed for the rest of the season. Overall, this is going to be their first test of having to bounce back, as it’s their first official loss under Cristobal as the head coach. He knows how to reach his players — the players really bought in to him when Willie Taggart left, and I think he has a strong hold on the team and what they’re going to do.
JY: Looking past the Stanford game, talk about some of the things Oregon has done well in the early season. What’s worked out surprisingly well?
MP: The defense. Although it didn’t look like it when (Stanford quarterback) K.J. Costello was throwing jump balls, the defensive backs have been really good this season. They’re young, and the only player who has started for more than two years is Ugo Amadi, one of the safeties, who’s playing a new position. I thought they played pretty well against Stanford, even against guys that are 6’7”, like Parkinson, the tight end. The linebackers have also been strong, Troy Dye is the guy to watch, as always; he’s all over the field. And then the defensive line has been very good — Justin Hollins has really kept them anchored this season.
JY: Expanding to the offense, who has stood out in the early going?
MP: On the offensive side of the ball, Justin Herbert obviously is getting national attention after recent weeks. He was caught by the injury bug last season, but he is very good. C.J. Verdell is the running back of the future, and Tony Brooks-James is the primary guy right now, although he got dinged up in the Stanford game. He had his left ankle looked at, but he should be good to go as far as we know.
A lot of freshmen have also played significant roles on this team. Travis Dye, the running back, and then Jevon Holland, the safety, are two guys. And then Penei Sewell, the left tackle who, in my opinion, will be a first-round NFL pick in the draft four years from now.
JY: Going back to Mario Cristobal, what has the reception been from both players and fans thus far through four games?
MP: Everyone is pretty happy so far. After Mark Helfrich was fired, Taggart was really the first outside hire in a while, so that was interesting. With Taggart leaving, I think they really needed to hire in-house in order to get everyone excited and on the same page. After all the players and all the recruits said they’ll stay under Cristobal, I think that showed that the players are into him and I think the fans definitely bought into Cristobal. Obviously, the debate of whether there should have been a kneel at the end of the Stanford game might have scared some Duck fans, but I think that just shows what type of coach he is — he’s aggressive; he’s going to go for the throat and not sit around and wait for a win.
JY: What does Oregon need to display to bounce back in future weeks from this past weekend?
MP: I think what Cristobal has been talking about all spring and fall is penalties. They can’t afford to do that, especially unnecessary roughness calls. I believe it was Johnny Johnson III who had one on a kickoff that put them in a bad position against Stanford. And then turnovers have also been a problem. The big one last weekend was the (Joey) Alfieri fumble return for a touchdown and then Verdell’s, but that happens with a young team. It was kind of shocking to see a lot of bad snaps early on this year, because Jake Hanson, the center, is a two-year starter, but he missed all of spring, so that could be part of it. They’ll figure it out — Cristobal knows his offensive line, and I think they’ll get going.
JY: Is there a particular stat line that stands out to you so far this season?
MP: Before the Stanford game, I was interested in why Dillon Mitchell, the No. 1 receiver, was not getting a lot of touches. I think he had under 100 receiving yards in the first three games combined. But that totally changed in the Stanford game — he was unreal, breaking the single-game record in receiving yards and receptions. I would say Herbert spreading the ball already has also been a good stat line.
JY: What is your score prediction for Saturday?
MP: Cal’s defense has given up under 24 points in each game. Originally, before last week, I had Cal winning. I just think that Oregon needs to treat it as a do-or-die game, and I think Oregon is going to probably bounce back based on the way Cristobal has been talking with the media and how badly they need to win this game. The big quote was “No one in Berkeley feels bad for us right now.” That was after the Stanford loss. I think they understand that, and so I’ll take Oregon, 31-24.