Wins are hard to come by in college football, and Oregon earned just that on Saturday afternoon against Oregon State. But still, the offense has to play better if the Ducks want to give themselves a chance to win the Pac-12 on Friday in Santa Clara.
Defense and special teams came to the rescue for an offensive attack that, for the second consecutive week, looked flat, lethargic and ineffective. The Beavers came into the 123rd Civil War ranked No. 120 in the country in pass defense and held quarterback Justin Herbert to just 174 yards and one touchdown through the air. Oregon State outgained Oregon 380 to 365 in total yards for the game, and a bad pass defense suddenly looked stout against a team with Rose Bowl aspirations.
“It felt like we had moments where we were moving the ball well, but really stalled,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “We stalled a couple times...we just weren’t very efficient...we gotta do a better job of coaching it, putting it together and executing it.”
There were three drives, specifically, that left a total of 18 points on the board. Oregon’s opening drive started well. It lasted 16 plays and spanned 56 yards, but once the Ducks got into the red zone, it halted. A rare false start penalty by left tackle Penei Sewell backed them outside the 20, and Camden Lewis was forced to hit a 32-yard field goal to save the drive.
In the third quarter, with an opportunity to go up three scores and effectively put the game away, another red-zone drive ended with a field goal attempt. Only this time it sailed wide right and the Ducks came away with nothing. The play prior, Herbert missed a wide open Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone on a throw that never had a chance.
A few drives later, Jaylon Redd fumbled the ball through the end zone for a touchback after reaching for the pylon. That turnover gave the ball back to the Beavers in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie or take the lead.
“We’re not playing to our best right now,” wide receiver Johnny Johnson III said. “I think we can play a lot better. There’s flashes of it there. We had a lot of red zone trips, but we just gotta finish drives.”
With Herbert and company struggling to turn drives into points, the special teams unit ultimately saved the game for Oregon. Mykael Wright took a late-first-quarter kickoff 98 yards to the house for the team’s first touchdown of the game. It was freshman’s second game-altering score of the season.
“It was a great feeling,” Wright said. “I felt like it was one of the plays that changed the game.”
After Wright’s return, the defense got one of its many stops on the night and forced an Oregon State punt deep in its own territory. Jevon Holland returned the punt 25 yards to the OSU 39-yard line and set up the offense with a short field.
With the excellent field position, Herbert found Johnson III over the middle for a 28-yard touchdown — one of two offensive scores on the night, both with short fields. At that point, the Ducks were up 17-3 and appeared to be on their way to a blowout victory. But that was the height of the offensive performance on Saturday, and the Beavers hung around for the entire 60 minutes.
With the special teams having made its impact, it was the defense’s turn to save the offense late in the fourth quarter. Thomas Graham Jr. made two huge plays on back-to-back possessions — one a 4th-down tackle short of the sticks, the other a forced fumble on running back Jermar Jefferson to set up a short-field score by Cyrus Habibi-Likio. In the end, the Ducks needed every play by the defense down the stretch to hang on.
The offense isn’t going to be firing on all cylinders every game, and to a certain extent, that’s expected. But after seemingly finding its groove in a 56-point outburst on the road at USC, the offense hasn’t gotten much going since, and the team’s Playoff aspirations went up in smoke in the process.
If the ship isn’t righted come Friday night in the Bay Area, their Pac-12 Championship hopes might suffer the same fate.