PULLMAN — Two years removed from being on the wrong side of history, Mario Cristobal and Oregon were determined to leave Martin Stadium with a different facial expression Saturday night.
“This game means a lot for these seniors,” Cristobal said on the heels of a 43-29 win for No. 11 Oregon over Washington State. “Come to Pullman and winning. Really, really important.”
In our second Washington State rewind of the season, we parse a few of Oregon’s postgame comments, dissect the Cougars’ second-half defense (again) and review another productive rushing outing for running back Deon McIntosh.
Ignited by 2018
There’s no question what Washington State’s upset win over No. 12 Oregon in 2018 meant to the Cougars. The 14-point victory, made possible by quarterback Gardner Minshew, running back James Williams and a resilient effort by the defense, gave WSU’s 11-win team its first marquee upset of the year and put a bow on one of the most memorable days in school history.
Saturday’s postgame interviews also revealed what that day meant to the Ducks.
“I remember every little detail back in 2018,” running back Travis Dye said. “From the hotel rooms, to the locker room, to the hallway out onto the field, to the crowds giving us bad names, middle fingers. It was stuck in my mind ever since we left that field. When they came to us last year and we beat them, it didn’t give us that thirst quencher that we needed, like it was this year.”
From Oregon’s side, the first half of both games looked vaguely similar. In 2018, the Ducks were scoreless through two quarters and had 39 total yards of offense. For the better part of the first half Saturday, Oregon struggled to move the ball and constantly made errors that gave it back to the opponent. Despite two fumbles and an interception, though, the Ducks kept themselves in the game with a touchdown inside the final five seconds of the second quarter to make it 19-14.
“We knew the facts, number one when we came up here in 2018, we were bewildered in the first half,” Cristobal said. “Not that we were perfect in this half, either, but we knew Oregon as a team had not come up here since 2014 and won a football game.”
The fourth-year Oregon coach said the game two years ago marked a turning point for the program’s culture, albeit that it didn’t necessarily show up in the win-loss column. The Ducks lost two more games after their defeat Pullman, but they’ve won 20 of their past 24, including a victory in the 2018 Redbox Bowl, 2019 Pac-12 championship game and 2020 Rose Bowl.
“That was a rough go in ‘18 when we were here,” Cristobal said. “No one has forgotten about that. … They want to teach the young guys what it’s like to go on the road and get the field rushed on you. It’s not a good feeling and certainly used it as motivation the entire week. The way they brought energy to practice, the way they held our guys to a standard.”
Media members haven’t had an opportunity to meet virtually with Jake Dickert in nearly three weeks, but if he’s made available at some point in the next few days, the first-year defensive coordinator will finally be able to answer the question that’s probably been ruminating through the brain of every WSU fan these past two weeks.
“What’s happening in the second half?” Perhaps more notably: “Why so many breakdowns in the fourth quarter?”
The sample size is small, but the Cougars have been fairly effective in stopping their opponents in the first half. In the first and second quarter, Oregon State and Oregon have combined to score just 21 points – an average of 5.25 per quarter. In the third and fourth, they’ve allowed 50 points, or 12.5 per quarter. In the fourth quarter alone? Thirty-six points.
“I know the guys are playing their hearts out,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said. “We’re down some numbers, but I don’t know if I can speak on that truthfully. I don’t think we’re wearing down, I think it’s just something we’ve got to look at. Two times, I don’t know if that makes it a coincidence or a habit, but I know they started the game great, gave us a chance. That game should’ve been different at halftime.”
Granted, Oregon’s deficit at halftime and inability to produce on offense was largely the result of ball-control issues –- the kind that haven’t come up all that often for the country’s 11th-ranked team. The Ducks’ three turnovers seemed more a byproduct of careless ball security than WSU’s defense suddenly developing a knack for taking the ball away. WSU didn’t cause a turnover in the season opener, facing an OSU team not as talented or as polished as Oregon, and the Ducks addressed their turnover woes at halftime, not committing another one in the final 30 minutes.
The Cougars entered the game without three members of the defensive two-deep -– “Edge” Willie Taylor III, cornerback Derrick Langford and strong safety Chad Davis Jr. –- then lost another “Edge,” Will Rodgers III, in the second half. Dickert’s group is hardly at full strength, but it’s no certainty the Cougars will ever get there in 2020.
Either way, they’ll have to take a close look at what’s ailing them in the second half.
“It could be a mix of a coincidence as well as just not all the way there yet,” defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs said. “We just have some mishaps here and there that are creating those explosive plays, that are creating some of those issues. … We’re having spurts of greatness, you’ll see it a lot. In that first half, we just have to make that transition to that next half.”
One year ago, it might have been hard to fathom the Cougars would have a 200-yard rusher through two weeks of the 2020 season.
It would’ve been even more difficult to fathom that player being someone other than Max Borghi.
Two games into the shortened Pac-12 season, Deon McIntosh has been more than an adequate replacement for the injured Borghi, rushing 34 times for 239 yards and two touchdowns. McIntosh followed a 147-yard effort against OSU with 92 yards against Oregon, and the redshirt senior who came to WSU from East Mississippi Community College by way of Notre Dame is averaging 7.0 yards per carry.
“I think a lot of you guys have slept on Deon,” left tackle Liam Ryan said. “That dude’s come from Notre Dame, a big-time program. It’s kind of hard to get playing time when you have another star running back here. But, I think Deon’s been doing this the whole time he’s been here, he just hasn’t gotten reps in the past.”
Like Borghi, McIntosh demonstrates excellent field vision and while he doesn’t bounce off tackles the way his WSU counterpart does, he’s proved harder to take down this season than he was in his limited snaps a year ago. It’s still unclear how long Borghi will be out, but McIntosh’s emergence has been a reassuring development for WSU fans fearing the offense would drop off without the All-Pac-12 tailback.