Oregon's Willie Taggart era: a lone season of what-ifs
By ANNE M. PETERSON
Willie Taggart's lone season at Oregon may well be remembered for what-ifs.
The most prominent among them: What if quarterback Justin Herbert had been healthy? But also: What if Taggart had decided to stay?
What's known is that Oregon's 2017 season was disrupted by Herbert's broken collarbone that kept him sidelined for five games, during which the Ducks went 1-4. The sophomore quarterback returned for the final two regular-season games, which the Ducks won to become bowl eligible.
Then, another disruption: Taggart's dream job at Florida State came open.
Taggart bolted for the other coast after just one year in charge of the Ducks. He was hired as a rebuilder from South Florida after the Ducks finished the 2016 season 4-8 and in the basement of the Pac-12 North standings.
Oregon acted quickly after Taggart left to name a new coach, promoting Mario Cristobal, the team's co-offensive coordinator. The Ducks' players had rallied for Cristobal with a petition delivered to athletic director Rob Mullens and a social media campaign using the hashtag (hash)cristobALLIN.
But the team faltered in Cristobal's debut as coach, the Las Vegas Bowl, falling to Boise State 38-28. The Ducks finished the season 7-6.
Cristobal said afterward there were tears in Oregon's locker room.
"Guys, the entire season, just fought hard, trusted each other. (Taggart) did a great job getting us to this point right here, but we shot ourselves in the foot a bunch tonight. We saw the negative plays and turnovers, but these guys, I want to say, they never stopped fighting. They always competed, because that's what they are, competitors," Cristobal said. "I told them I wish I would have done a better job for them. I'm going to take that upon myself, and our coaching staff."
Safety Tyree Robinson, who had a school-record 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Broncos, said the coaching upheaval was not a distraction in the loss.
"I don't think so at all. We got a guy like this, leading our team, we just wanted to do whatever we can, lay everything on the line for him," Robinson said. "We're not worried about the decision that coach Taggart decided to make. We're playing for this coach now and that's all that matters."
One player missing from that final game was running back Royce Freeman, who had decided not to play earlier in the week. The senior is expected to go in the earlier rounds of the upcoming NFL draft.
Freeman was on the sidelines for the game, a move that was questioned by some, but Cristobal said it was a team decision.
Convinced to stay for his final year by Taggart, Freeman set the Pac-12 record with 60 career rushing touchdowns, surpassing Oregon State's Ken Simonton, who ran for 59 from 1998-01.
He also set Oregon career records for rushing yards (5,621), rushing touchdowns (60), total touchdowns (64) and 100-yard rushing games (31).
Offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby also finished his Oregon career, except he played in the final game as a tribute to the victims of the massacre in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 that killed 58 people. Crosby, who is from the Las Vegas area, is also expected to get drafted next year.
Herbert threw for 233 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the finale. He finished his sophomore season with 1,983 yards passing for 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also rushed for 183 yards and five scores.
Cristobal's work is now just beginning. The Ducks had what appeared to be one of the best recruiting classes in the nation before Taggart left. Cristobal will now be tasked to retaining as many as he can this week in the early signing period.
At least four recruits have reportedly decommitted in the wake of Taggart's departure.
Also still in the air is defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's status. Leavitt is credited with the D's dramatic turnaround this season, but there is speculation he plans to re-join Taggart at Florida State or head elsewhere.
"I'm sorry so many events have happened that can be distractions," he wrote on a social media post following the bowl game. "I only focused on the game today (because) I care so much for these players. Flying back to Eugene to breathe for a moment. Go Ducks!"
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Updated December 17, 2017