EUGENE – The Oregon Ducks were so certain that they had finally put away a Washington State team that had made a habit of rising just in time to prolong the bout that the Autzen Stadium public address announcer saw fit to remind the 55,775 fans in attendance of a Pac-12 rule prohibiting them from rushing the field after the final whistle.
That didn’t stop the Ducks players, though, roughly half of whom sprinted toward the midfield ‘O’ to celebrate their game-clinching fourth-down stop in overtime.
Only it wasn’t a stop, and it didn’t win the game.
A quick measurement showed that WSU running back Jamal Morrow had rushed just far enough for a first down. The Cougars scored and scored again, and it was the Ducks who couldn’t respond, throwing to the end zone and finding WSU safety Shalom Luani, whose interception ended a 45-38 double-overtime game.
“I mean, we’ve been playing everybody so close and to the wire, it’s about time we figure out a way to come out on top,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “So I’m proud of our guys. I thought they were tough and hung in there and we out-punched them in the end.”
It was WSU’s first double-overtime game since the 2008 Apple Cup and snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Ducks.
The winning score came in appropriately exhilarating fashion, as River Cracraft’s fumble at the 1-yard line was caught by teammate Robert Lewis, who dashed into the end zone.
Luani, a punishing hitter in his first year with the Cougars after transferring from a junior college, tied for the team lead with eight tackles. Typically, they were the kind of tackles that are audible throughout a buzzing stadium.
“Shalom, he’s just all over the field,” linebacker Jeremiah Allison said. “People were calling me from back home, saying, ‘Who’s No. 18? He’s bringing it!’ So Shalom, he’s a very vital instrument to our defense.”
The Ducks led by 10 points when the Cougars began a drive with just less than six minutes left. WSU drove efficiently down the field thanks to a 31-yard rush by Morrow but was stopped at the UO 5-yard line, where the never-conservative Mike Leach signaled for a 22-yard field goal from Erik Powell.
Gabe Marks admitted after the game that he was surprised Leach elected to kick at that juncture.
“I respect that he had faith in the defense,” Allison said.
The WSU defense, which held the Ducks to 5 of 16 on third down and 1 of 3 on fourth down, held UO running back Royce Freeman to 9 yards on three carries. That was no small feat on a day Freeman took 27 carries for 246 yards, but a critical one, forcing the Ducks to punt with 1 second too many on the clock.
The UO ground game was formidable, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Freshman Taj Griffin added 96 yards and seemingly every Cougars defender got a chance to tackle Jeff Lockie during the quarterback’s 35-yard run on third-and-12.
“There’s nobody on the team over there that 15 teams weren’t recruiting, they all had 15 offers or better, so they’re good players,” Leach said. “But I thought our defense did a good job of, yeah, giving up the occasional big one but giving up streaks and not too many times in a row.”
The Cougars finally got a chance to finish what they started a year ago, when their game-tying drive against Oregon was cut short by an dubiously absent pass-interference call.
For the second consecutive year the Cougars had a chance to tie the game on a final drive. The drive held an appropriate amount of drama as the Cougars had to overcome an intentional grounding call and a clock-chewing sack in which quarterback Luke Falk appeared to have thrown a pass off before hitting the ground.
But Falk responded with pass completions of 23 and 22 yards to Dom Williams and Gabe Marks, respectively, ending the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Williams with 1 second left.
Williams had some critical drops earlier in the game and against Cal last week, but he was Falk’s first read with the game on the line.
“I know what kind of player Dom is … you can’t single him up on a fade,” Falk said. “Bottom line: He made a heck of a play.”
WSU had not beaten Oregon since 2006, losing by an average of 29 points per contest.
“We played a whole game to our potential the whole way through. I think that’s the most important thing to take from this game,” Marks said. “We played a full game against Rutgers and we won. We played a full game tonight and we won. If we do that every night, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”