EUGENE – In the city known as TrackTown, USA, what started as a football game evolved into a footrace: Oregon running back CJ Verdell in one lane, Washington State’s defense in the other.
The Cougars gave the 11th-ranked Ducks all they could handle, but they couldn’t catch Verdell, and Oregon snapped a four-game losing streak against its Pac-12 North rival when Camden Lewis made a 26-yard kick at the buzzer to finish off WSU 37-35 in front of 59,361 fans at Autzen Stadium.
Had the true freshman kicker pushed his field goal a few more yards to the right, WSU would’ve been celebrating a half-decade of dominance against Oregon. But instead, Lewis tucked it just inside the right goal post as the clock hit zeroes and the Cougars sauntered to the locker room with their fourth Pac-12 loss – something that’s sure to gnaw at them until the play their next game two weeks from now at California.
“Definitely tough, things didn’t go our way tonight,” running back Max Borghi said. “Football’s a game of inches and it shows out there, just one play different could’ve changed the whole game.
“But I think we got some takeaways from that. We played a good game. I thought we played all four quarters pretty well, as far as one of the best all season.”
It’s actually been a season of inches for the Cougars, who now sit at 4-4 overall and 1-4 in Pac-12 Conference play. But the margin between 1-4 and 4-1 isn’t all that great. WSU has lost three Pac-12 games by a combined 10 points, and Saturday’s game was another sign of progress, considering what the Cougars were up against.
Quarterback Justin Herbert may be Oregon’s top offensive weapon, and the Duck who’ll be cashing the biggest paychecks next season, but Verdell did most of the damage on Saturday night. For WSU, most of the night was spent chasing the dark green blur wearing No. 7, but it was to little avail as the junior turned in one of the top rushing performances by a college football player this season, carrying the ball 23 times for 259 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s a good player,” WSU nickel Armani Marsh said. “So, you’ve just got to respect that.”
The Cougars started chasing Verdell in the first quarter and didn’t stop until the game ended. He set the tone early, busting through a hole near the left sideline and going 89 yards untouched to put the Ducks in front 9-3. Verdell exhausted WSU with his long runs, he repeatedly hurt them in the passing game, catching four passes for 52 yards, and he pounded them on the goal line, punching in touchdowns from 1 and 2 yards out.
But, brilliant as he was, the Cougars were just resilient enough to give themselves a fighting chance late in the fourth quarter. The defense forced an Oregon punt with 3:06 remaining and Anthony Gordon led WSU on an eight-play, 90-drive, completing to Tay Martin for 48 yards before whipping a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Arconado that pushed the Cougars in front, 35-34.
“Definitely fun to get the ball in the end zone in crunch time like that,” said Gordon, who finished 32 of 50 passing for 406 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. “Just coming up a little bit short in terms of that and in general throughout the four quarters, just got to find a way to maybe make one more play throughout that and give us a better opportunity to win.”
But Herbert and Oregon’s offense moved quickly with the time they had left after Mykael Wright gave the Ducks a strong start, bringing WSU’s kickoff back 36 yards to the Ducks’ 39-yard line.
Up to that point, it was Verdell who’d keyed the offensive attack for Oregon. But the final drive was all Herbert. The strong-armed senior completed four consecutive passes for 52 yards – a flurry that took less than 50 seconds – and the Ducks set up their rookie kicker, who was just 2-of-5 coming into the game, with a chip shot that he still nearly missed.
Even the slightest gust of wind could’ve derailed Oregon’s College Football Playoff hopes and extended one of the most impressive streaks in Pac-12 football.
“We’re that close, but we’re tired of being that close,” safety Tyrese Ross said. “We understand what we’ve got, we know we can compete in this league and be one of the best teams, so we got to just keep going, keep practicing and getting better.”
Gordon, the nation’s leading passer, went over 400 yards for the sixth time this season, but the interceptions he threw in the first half proved costly. One should’ve been a WSU touchdown, but Arconado couldn’t hang on in the end zone and the ball fell out of the receiver’s grasp and into the waiting hands of Oregon’s Verone McKinley III.
Ducks nickel Jevon Holland returned the other for a 19-yard touchdown, putting the Cougars in a 17-10 second-quarter hole.
“Just a little rushed, bad throw, the guy made a good play, coming in front of Arconado,” Gordon said. “They’re a talented defense and they made a good play on the ball.”
Arconado led WSU in receiving for the second straight week, hauling in nine passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Max Borghi had 16 touches for 124 all-purpose yards and scored his 10th touchdown of the season, plowing into the end zone from a yard out in the second quarter.