After Civil War win, Oregon left to ponder what could have been
For a team vying for a New Year’s Six bowl bid, Oregon didn’t pass the eye test on Friday in the Civil War battle. Although the first half showed promise, the Ducks didn’t finish close to covering the 34.5-point spread by which they were favored — over a team that didn’t win a conference game all season.
The Ducks (9-3, 7-2) looked to have the game in the bag after the first half, when they entered the locker room with a 31-7 lead. Oregon State (2-10, 0-9), however, stormed back for five touchdowns in the second half, and cut the deficit to three twice, before ultimately falling 52-42.
It was a bittersweet send-off for the Oregon seniors who played its final game at Autzen Stadium in Friday’s Civil War.
“We did not play anywhere close to our standard as a defense,” senior linebacker Tyson Coleman said. “We ran out of gas a bit at halftime and came out flat. We were out of our gaps, we weren’t doing our jobs — we can’t let that happen.”
Oregon conceded 174 yards on the ground to Beavers running back Ryan Nall and three rushing touchdowns to quarterback Seth Collins. Collins and starting quarterback Marcus McMaryion, though, only managed 199 passing yards and an interception on 13 of 25 completions.
Oregon’s offense did its part. Vernon Adams Jr. shined once again, completing 28 of 38 pass attempts for 366 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. All three passing touchdowns landed in the hands of Bralon Addison, who caught eight balls for 106 yards and ran for 24 yards and another score. The Ducks collectively ran for 308 yards and four touchdowns, led by running back Royce Freeman, who finished with 167 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
“We got the win,” Addison said. “That’s the most important thing, but there are obviously some things we could have done better.”
Addison, a redshirt junior, said he hadn’t thought about whether he’d return to Oregon for his senior season.
Freeman acknowledged the game didn’t go the way the players leaving the program had hoped.
“I know they were disappointed with the way they went out, but it’s football,” Freeman said. “Sometimes it be like that out there.”
Of course, the Ducks have been all but eliminated from College Football Playoff (CFP) contention since midway through the season, when they went 3-3 for the first time since 2004. Many fans thought the reign of Oregon dominance was over after its loss to Washington State; chatter of the Ducks failing to be bowl-eligible by the season’s end circulated as as the sky seemed to be falling in Eugene.
No one knew exactly how the Ducks would fare in the first year of post-Mariota, but few expected such an implosion.
Of course, they proved the naysayers wrong by finishing the season on a six-game win streak, which included wins over No. 7 Stanford and No. 22 USC.
“Being able to turn the whole season around after being 3-3 early on — it’s a good feeling,” senior defensive end DeForest Buckner said. “I’m proud of all the guys who made that happen.”
The Ducks’ eighth straight Civil War victory is unlikely to significantly boost their resumé in the eyes of the CFP selection committee; in fact, the final score being much closer than forecasted may actually weaken it in terms of perceived body of work.
Nevertheless, the Ducks still have an outside shot of making the Rose or Fiesta Bowl, although the likelier scenarios are a berth in the Alamo or Holiday Bowl.
Stanford (9-2, 8-1) will be Oregon’s best friend the next two weeks. If the No. 13 Cardinal manage to take out No. 4 Notre Dame on its home turf then beat the winner of UCLA-USC for the Pac-12 title, it would have a legitimate shot at a top-four ranking. Because Washington crushed Washington State in the Apple Cup, Oregon finished with the second-best record in the Pac-12, and thus is a strong candidate for a second consecutive Rose Bowl appearance.
What can’t be forgotten during the selection process is two of Oregon’s three losses could have been decided by a coin flip, and had quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. been healthy, those two outcomes could have been entirely different. Winning or losing a close game is not necessarily a good predictor of the next game’s outcome, which makes those two losses easy to overrate.
Adams played the entire game when Oregon lost to Michigan State 31-28 in East Lansing, but the Ducks would have won had his lob pass to wide receiver Byron Marshall not sailed a foot over his outstretched fingertips. Later we learned Adams had suffered a broken index finger on his throwing hand in the season-opener against Eastern Washington, the FCS team he quarterbacked the three years prior.
No one knows exactly how or when Adams broke his finger because Oregon’s policy about discussing injuries is that it won’t, in any capacity. For all we know, Adams could have smashed his finger in his car door after the game. But the play in the fourth quarter, in which Adams’s former teammate John Kreifels targeted him as he went into a slide, comes to mind first and foremost. Kreifels was subsequently ejected for the late hit, and he taunted the booing Autzen crowd as he headed into the locker room. Adams, meanwhile, stumbled off the field with both arms limp.
If that was indeed the play on which Adams’s index finger broke, that cheap shot will go down karmically as the true turning point of Oregon’s season. Adams and fans alike will forever wonder what could have been had he been at full health for the Michigan State showdown, the Utah debacle and the Washington State heartbreaker.
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost said himself that Adams had trouble throwing downfield prior to facing the Spartans; perhaps his pass to Marshall doesn’t sail a foot too far if he has a strong, intact index finger to guide the pigskin out of his hand and into a spiral. Perhaps he’d also have played complete games against Utah and Washington State, instead of handing the reins to back-ups Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie.
But these are all hypotheticals and it does no good to dwell on what could have been.
“It’s just disappointing how it ended up,” head coach Mark Helfrich said. “We played spectacularly at times; we played okay at times. It’s one of those days.”
Follow Kenny Jacoby on Twitter @KennyJacoby