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Royce Freeman’s absence leaves void in Oregon running game

Updated December 16, 2017 - 8:31 pm

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal thought his team still could run the ball effectively despite star running back Royce Freeman’s decision to sit out Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium.

He was wrong.

The Ducks were limited to 47 yards on 28 carries in a 38-28 loss to Boise State after racking up 268 yards per game during the season, a number that ranked eighth in the nation.

Cristobal said the problems extended far beyond Freeman’s decision to skip the game instead of risking an injury that could damage his NFL draft prospects.

“We thought we could run the ball better than we did,” said Cristobal, who was promoted to head coach this month after Willie Taggart departed for Florida State. “We didn’t block and run it like we had during the season, and that changes the dynamic of the game, particularly on short yardage in the first half.

“Royce is a difference-maker, but (the other backs) are also, and they’ve done a great job for us this year. We certainly don’t want to put the blame of the running game not being what it has been on one person. That’s a collective effort.”

Still, Freeman’s absence was felt. He had 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry.

The Ducks were limited to 1.7 yards per carry Saturday.

But it was far from their only problem. Oregon committed 10 penalties and four turnovers.

“We just didn’t execute,” sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. “We didn’t move the ball when we needed to. We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain. We shot ourselves in the foot with some penalties and bad decisions. I tried to force some throws I probably shouldn’t have, but give them credit because they definitely did a good job putting us in some of those situations.”

Herbert, who has been listed by several national publications as an early 2018 Heisman Trophy candidate, had by far his worst game this season.

He completed 26 of 36 passes for 233 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, but he had 141 yards and both scores in the fourth quarter as the Ducks tried to rally.

Cristobal had hoped the team would start to establish its identity for his tenure with a strong showing.

“We’re all disappointed,” he said. “There were a lot of tears and a lot of emotion in that locker room because we thought we had prepared well. We shot ourselves in the foot a bunch tonight with the negative plays and the turnovers and penalties.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-277-8028. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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