PULLMAN – There were less than a handful of plays in which Washington State didn’t play well enough to beat Oregon on Saturday night. A break here, a break there and the Cougars would be undefeated in the newly-renovated Martin Stadium and the Mike Leach regime would have a win that would resonate long after he finishes coaching.
But making those critical few plays are what make the Ducks the No. 2 team in the country, and what made the difference in UO’s 38-31 escape in front 32,952 fans at Martin Stadium.
Against a team with NFL talent at every position both offensively and defensively the Cougars stepped up on both sides of the ball.
“I thought we took a step in the right direction today,” coach Mike Leach said. “I think we just need to focus on practicing and improving, but I thought we played extremely hard the entire game.”
Washington State had a chance to tie the game in Oregon territory with just over three minutes left but quarterback Connor Halliday was sacked, his first of the game thanks to a remarkable effort by WSU’s young offensive line.
“(The offensive line) played well together,” Leach said. “I think this is probably the best game that they’ve played as they continue to develop through the season. But this is a foundation and we’ll build up from there.”
The Ducks kept the clock moving and ended the game taking knees in WSU’s red zone.
Halliday completed 43 of 63 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions. The offensive line performed well in both the passing game and the running game and the Cougar running backs collected 69 yards on 16 rushes.
Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota, conversely, was sacked seven times by the WSU defense.
“We fought all four (quarters),” said defensive lineman Xavier Cooper. “Most teams just tap out after the third against Oregon because they’re tempo, tempo, but we played hard. Our defense played hard tonight.”
Oregon took its first lead of the second half after freshman running back Jamal Morrow fumbled the ball. Morrow rushed for 33 yards and had a 45-yard reception to set up a WSU score later, but it was the fumble that made the difference.
“I think we left a lot of plays out there. I think that fumble in the third quarter hurt,” quarterback Connor Halliday said. “We just have to make the play.”
Both offenses scorched the new turf at Martin Stadium in the first half, combining for 42 points and 508 yards of offense. And while the teams ended the second quarter tied at 21, it was the Cougars that had consistently eaten up chunks of yardage and the Ducks that were hanging close thanks to some timely big plays.
Dom Williams twice beat Oregon’s All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for first-half touchdown receptions.
It was the Oregon offense, meanwhile, which hung around thanks to big plays.
UO’s third drive began and ended with an 80-yard touchdown toss to speedster Devon Allen.
All three of the Ducks’ first-half scoring drives were completed in under one minute.
The Cougars entered Saturday’s game having not had the offense and defense in sync against the same opponent. But for two quarters against what could easily be the toughest foe they’ll face this year, the Cougars showed their potential on both sides.
The Cougars finished the first half with 18 first downs, the Ducks finished it with seven. Oregon’s vaunted rushing attack had managed to go backwards 12 yards in the first quarter while the WSU running backs gained 28 yards on the ground.
Sure, this was a script that WSU fans, and really, many of the Ducks’ opponents had read before. Plenty of teams have gone into the locker room after a surprisingly successful half against the Ducks only to be blindsided by the “Oregon Ambush.”
But those teams didn’t rattle Mariota by sacking him five times in the first half, and likely didn’t expose and tire the UO defense by running 50 first-half plays.
Washington State’s run defense had performed admirably against Mariota and the Ducks’ three running backs. But in the fourth quarter UO started to find the ground success that has made it such a dangerous offense and Mariota showed why he’s the best in a conference full of capable quarterbacks.
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