After Rafael Nadal won his 12th French Opentitle on Sunday, ESPN’s Simon Cambers recalled a quote the Spaniard had given a few years earlier about raising your intensity at precisely the moment you’ve begun to find success.
”Winning two sets to one, winning the third set … you cannot start the fourth set like this,” Nadal said. “It’s the moment to play with more intensity than ever, not start with 3-0 down and two breaks in five minutes. That way you lose the match.”
Against the 25-year old Dominic Thiem, to whom he’d lost in straight sets earlier in clay court season, Nadal dropped the second set. But he raised his intensity at the exact moment that Thiem took his eye off the ball; by the time Thiem realized what had hit him, he had dropped the final two sets, 6-1, 6-1.
In this analogy, the 2018 Oregon Ducks were Thiem. They want to be Nadal in 2019.
After losing to Ohio State in 2014’s national title game, Oregon’s level of play plummeted. From 13-2 and fifth in S&P+, they fell to 9-4 and 19th in 2015, then 4-8 and 55th in 2016. Mark Helfrich was fired and replaced by Willie Taggart, but while Taggart engineered a bit of a rebound (7-6 and 37th), he also left for Florida State after three years. Former FIU head coach and Taggart assistant Mario Cristobal was tasked with continuing the ascent while working through all the culture and chemistry issues that can arise when a program goes through three head coaches in three seasons.
The first half of 2018 was promising. The Ducks blazed through Bowling Green, Portland State, and SJSU as one is supposed to and got a chance at a statement win, leading No. 7 Stanford 31-21 deep into the fourth quarter. But a heart-breaking fumble gave the Cardinal a chance to tie the game and eventually win in overtime.
Instead of letting that crater their season, however, the Ducks responded. They put up 42 points on an awesome Cal defense in an easy win, and with another top-10 team coming to town — this time No. 7 Washington — Oregon closed the deal. CJ Verdell’s six-yard overtime touchdown gave the Ducks a 30-27 win and bumped them to 12th in the AP poll.
And then, you might say, came the third set. Having cleared a major hurdle, Oregon proceeded to emotionally flatline. The Ducks went to Washington State and found themselves down 27-0 at halftime. They rallied a bit to lose by only 14, but they cratered even further the next week, losing 44-15 to a mediocre Arizona. After peaking at 19th in S&P+ early in the season, they were now 44th.
Things normalized from there. The Ducks beat UCLA, Arizona State, and Oregon State, lost at a solid Utah by a touchdown, outlasted Michigan State in a Redbox Bowl slog, and finished 9-4. They ended up 41st in S&P+, which is pretty much what they deserved when you break their results out by opponent strength.