The early signing day curveball

With Willie Taggart bolting out of Oregon yesterday to take the Florida State job, you’d normally see the Ducks in position to do a thorough search for a new head coach. But this year there’s an early signing day for the first time on December 20, and there’s urgency as Oregon tries to salvage what is considered to be one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. You’d think the program would like to have that job filled, like, an hour ago. So is Oregon is bent on getting it done before playing Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl a week from Saturday? Co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal will be the Ducks’ interim coach in Vegas, and he’s a candidate for the full-time gig.

The Oregonian’s John Canzano, a veteran in dealing with these coaching carousels, tweeted other possible replacements yesterday: UO defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, Washington State’s Mike Leach, newly-fired Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, and…Boise State’s Bryan Harsin. So what would that be like? Harsin leaving the Broncos before their bowl game to join the opponent? He’s 41-12 in four seasons at Boise State and reportedly interviewed with Oregon a year ago, but it seems like the Ducks (and Phil Knight) would want a shiny object from the Power 5. And oh by the way, the Oregonian’s Sean Meagher added a couple other names into the mix: Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford and Cal’s Justin Wilcox, Harsin’s former compadre at Boise State. Both are coaches who have some roots in Eugene.

Even with Oregon missing its head coach, there are realities Boise State faces in taking on the Ducks. This could be a track meet, and the Bronco offense will have to do its part. Sure, Oregon finished the regular season 7-5 and is averaging 36.7 points per game (good but not lights-out). However, four of the Ducks’ losses came while quarterback Justin Herbert was out with a franctured collarbone. They scored just 15.0 points per game during that stretch. But with Herbert in there, Oregon rolled up 51.2 points per outing. His last time out, Herbert threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns before taking the rest of the day off as the Ducks routed Oregon State 69-10 in the Civil War. And word is that star running back Royce Freeman will play in the Las Vegas Bowl rather than skip it to begin preparation for the NFL Draft.

To stay with Oregon, Boise State could use some field position help from special teams. The Broncos got it last week in the Mountain West championship game. Perhaps the most important special teams sequence of the season came midway through the second quarter. Quinn Skillin popped a perfectly placed punt on the Fresno State one-yard line, where it was corralled by Brock Barr. The Boise State defense then forced a three-and-out that yielded zero yards, and the Bulldogs had to punt from their one. Avery Williams returned the ensuing boot to the Fresno State four, setting up the Broncos’ first touchdown. It was a big weekend for Barr. He was the team’s single-game captain, added a crushing hit on punt coverage in the fourth quarter, and was awarded the season’s Hammer award Sunday at the team banquet.

Cincinnati’s George Iloka was among the focal points in one of the NFL’s ugliest games in recent memory, a 20-17 Piitsburgh win on Monday Night Football. The former Boise State star has been suspended one game for his vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. The NFL deemed Brown to be defenseless in the end zone when Iloka hit him (Brown held onto the catch, scoring the eventual tying touchdown). Pittsburgh wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster was also suspended one game for his fourth-quarter block on the Bengals’ Vontaze Burfict. Smith-Schuster stood over Burfict taunting him after the hit. Both he and Iloka plan to appeal the suspensions.

Chandler Hutchison may be the deserving Mountain West Player of the Week, but let’s check out what Justinian Jessup did in Boise State’s three victories. The sophomore guard knocked down five three-pointers in each game and is now shooting 52.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. All five of Jessup’s treys at Oregon were monsters, with all of them coming after halftime. The first one gave the Broncos their first lead of the second half with 16:20 remaining, the second regained the lead for Boise State at 13:15, as did the one at 12:45, as did the one with 5:55 on the clock. Jessup’s three-pointer with 5:05 left gave the visitors a four-point lead, signaling that they were ready for the battle that was to come down the stretch.

Boise State appears ready to make it a very interesting conference season in the Mountain West. But the Broncos are not alone. Everybody is chasing defending champion Nevada, who’s back in the rankings for the first time in 10 years (but lost its first game of the season last night, 82-76 at Texas Tech). The Wolf Pack is in the AP Poll at No. 22 and on the Coaches’ list at No. 24. The Broncos (8-1) and San Diego State (7-2) each received one vote in the Coaches Poll this week. UNLV is on the rise at 7-2, boasting a 27-point win over Utah last month. Fresno State is also 7-2 and winning big. And Wyoming is shaping up as a Cinderella. The Cowboys’ 6-2 mark includes a nine-point road win at Oregon State.

Basketball’s Battle of the Palouse heats up again tonight when Washington State ventures into Cowan Spectrum to take on Idaho. The Vandals and Cougars have met at least once every year since the 1905-06 season, marking 113 seasons of the longest continuously running college basketball rivalry outside of the Ivy League. Idaho enters the game on a roll, having won three straight games and five of its last six. Wazzu started the season 6-0, including a win over San Diego State, before being stunned 81-67 by UC Davis last Saturday. Senior star Victor Sanders leads the Vandals with 20.9 points per game, but Brayon Blake is coming off a 23-point, 14-rebound effort in a 79-68 win at Nicholls State.

The busy Idaho Steelheads continue a stretch of seven games in 11 days—four of them against Utah—when they face the Grizzlies again tonight in West Valley City. Utah is out to break an eight-game losing streak, while the Steelheads have won five in a row on the road. But the Steelies will be without their leading scorer, Brady Bassart, who has been signed to a professional tryout agreement with the Utica Comets of the AHL. Bassart has scored 11 goals and 23 points over 21 games in his first season with Idaho.

This Day In Sports…December 6, 1969:

With national title implications on the line, no. 1 Texas beats second-ranked Arkansas 15-14 in the “Big Shootout” in Fayetteville before President Richard Nixon, future President George H.W. Bush, Rev. Billy Graham, Henry Kissinger and worldwide dignitaries. Longhorn quarterback James Street connected with Randy Peschel for 44 yards on a daring 4th-and-3 play from the Razorbacks’ 45-yard line late in the fourth quarter, leading to the winning touchdown and spoiling the Razorbacks’ hopes of a national championship.
(Courtesy: The National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame)

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)