Washington State’s streak against the Ducks died Saturday night.
But boy did the Cougars put up a fight. After WSU scored to take the lead with a fourth-down touchdown pass with a minute left, Oregon responded, winning when freshman Camden Lewis snuck in a 26-yard field goal just inside the right goal post on the game’s final play to give the Ducks a 37-35 win.
The oddsmakers predicted an easy win for No. 11 Oregon over Washington State at Autzen Stadium, making the Ducks a two-touchdown favorite, but there were reasons for the Cougars to be optimistic, starting with their four consecutive wins over the Ducks, including two at Autzen.
It was billed as a matchup of star quarterbacks, but it was Ducks running back C.J. Verdell who stole the show, rushing for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
Here are three takeaways from the game, with both teams playing at a much higher level than the referees (if you watched the game, no further explanation is needed.)
This was a winnable game for WSU
The Cougars were not overmatched. They lost because they made more mistakes. They might have won had the mistakes been equal.
Washington State could not afford a costly drop like the one receiver Rodrick Fisher had on the Cougars’ first possession and the one Brandon Arconado had when his drop turned a would-be touchdown into an interception.
The first big drop came on third and goal from the Oregon 19. Quarterback Anthony Gordon hit Fisher in stride near the end zone. He likely would have scored, but we’ll never know because he dropped the pass.
WSU had to settle for a field goal, a win for Oregon after the Cougars had first-and-goal at the 3. Had WSU been able to score a touchdown even after a pair of holding calls had knocked them way back, it would have been a huge early boost for the Cougars.
Then, trailing 9-3 in the second quarter, WSU could have regained the lead had Arconado held onto the ball on a fantastic pass from Gordon while under duress.
Gordon had no one to blame for the pick-six he threw late in the second quarter as he threw into coverage, but as often as he throws, you have to allow for a rare mistake and he mostly had his way against an Oregon passing defense that had been the best in the conference. He threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns.
A bad snap on WSU’s first play from scrimmage of the second half cost the Cougars 15 yards and doomed the possession, which was a huge one as they were looking to take the lead after being tied at 17 at halftime.
Instead, Oregon took the lead, scoring after forcing WSU to punt.
But despite all the mistakes, the Cougars still almost won.
The Cougars simplified their defense after defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys resigned after his unit allowed a combined 105 points in back-to-back losses to UCLA and Utah. And it seems to be working, even if it is still a work-in-progress. Giving up 10 points to Colorado last week was a big step forward, but the Buffaloes have nowhere near the offense Oregon has, so there was reason to be skeptical that the WSU defense could hold up against the Ducks.
The defense more than held its own against Oregon star quarterback Justin Herbert, getting good pressure on him and holding him to 222 passing yards. The Ducks had just 10 offensive points in the first half, with the touchdown coming on an 89-yard Verdell run. Perhaps the best news for the defense is that once again it did not allowing the huge passing plays that had been such a problem during the three-game losing streak.
The bad news for the WSU defense is that Oregon gained too many yards on the ground (306). But better defenses than WSU have struggled to stop the Ducks’ ground game.
Poised for a strong finish
The Cougars now have their second bye week, and return to action Nov. 9 at offensively challenged Cal. That is a game WSU can and probably should win, as are home games against Oregon State and Stanford in the two weeks that follow.
Here’s predicting that they come into the Apple Cup on a three-game winning streak.