EUGENE – Facing a surging opponent in a must-win scenario, Oregon delivered.
The No. 5 Ducks answered a considerable challenge from Washington State, keeping their hopes for a College Football Playoff berth alive by turning back the scrappy Cougars in a 38-24 victory Saturday at a rocking Autzen Stadium.
The two-score win doesn’t reflect how close the contest was.
“There’s no quit in this team,” said WSU interim coach Jake Dickert, whose Cougs had won four of their past five games and had a chance in this one to replace UO at the top of the Pac-12 North standings.
“I’m proud of their resolve and togetherness. … I’m proud of their effort. I give credit to Oregon. They’re tough, physical and they just didn’t make mistakes. We kept punching, we kept swinging. I think we played 60 minutes of football. We just ended up coming up short.”
The Ducks (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) had an opportunity to close the door early in the fourth quarter on a methodical drive. Elusive quarterback Anthony Brown tried to muscle his way across the plane from 10 yards out, but WSU safety George Hicks III ripped the ball away at the 1. Corner Jaylen Watson picked it up and raced to midfield to set up an eventual field goal, which trimmed UO’s lead to 24-17 with 8:31 to play.
Yet as they’d done all night, the Ducks banked on the ground game to answer WSU’s test, closing the door on rumblings of a Cougar comeback when backup running back Byron Cardwell raced 27 yards up the middle for a score.
UO tallied 105 rushing yards in the final period.
“Disappointed with us stopping the run in the fourth quarter,” Dickert said. “They handled our movements on the interior really well. … At the end of the game, I thought we got tired and they wore us down, and we didn’t tackle as well as we could. That’s on me. I gotta put our guys in a better position to stop the run.”
Ducks corner Bryan Addison picked off WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura on a last-ditch drive to seal it, and Cardwell scored again in garbage time. The Cougars (5-5, 4-3) tallied an insignificant TD with 9 seconds left when de Laura connected with slotback Travell Harris.
Oregon took control at the line of scrimmage to build an early 14-0 lead, which had slipped away by halftime.
But the Ducks rebounded in the third quarter. Sparked by a 64-yard kick return out of the locker room, they fashioned breathing room by outscoring the Cougars 10-0.
“It took a little air out of our sails of kinda battling back in the first half,” Dickert said.
They shifted the momentum back to the home side behind slippery ball-carrying from Brown, who logged 123 of the Ducks’ 306 rushing yards and completed an efficient 17 of 22 passes for 135 yards. He soared through the air on a 17-yard keeper, touching the pylon with the ball for a touchdown in the third quarter.
“He was able to read where the pressure was coming from and get out of the pocket,” WSU edge Brennan Jackson said of Brown.
UO’s defense shut down two Cougars drives in the quarter and extended the Ducks’ lead to 10 on a long drive that ended with a field goal, during which Brown scampered for 51 yards.
De Laura completed 20 of 36 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Cougars were held to 91 rushing yards – counting 39 in their last drive.
Probable first-round NFL draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, an Oregon edge rusher, posted a pair of sacks and made de Laura uneasy in the pocket.
Harris posted 109 yards on eight catches, including a 39-yarder after Watson’s fourth-quarter fumble return to put WSU in the red zone.
A Thibodeaux sack fizzled that series.
“He’s the best player in America,” Dickert said of Thibodeaux. “He’s going to get his a little bit, and we gotta try to neutralize it.”
Standout UO tailback Travis Dye recorded 113 yards and two scores from scrimmage as the Ducks outgained WSU 442-369.
The Cougars started with a bang when de Laura connected with Calvin Jackson Jr. – who was behind the UO coverage down the seams – for a 70-yard gain on the second play of the game.
Jackson stepped out of bounds at the Ducks’ 7. A play later, de Laura scrambled toward the end zone, but absorbed a hard hit as he stretched toward the pylon and fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
It seemed as though that sequence demoralized WSU early.
Oregon leaned on keepers from Brown and balanced back Dye to rip the Cougars on consecutive drives late in the first quarter, opening a 14-0 lead after Dye slipped out of the backfield for an 11-yard touchdown catch at 2:04.
WSU’s defense was getting gouged up the gut.
On offense, the Cougars couldn’t afford to hang onto the ball too long in the backfield against Oregon’s formidable defensive front.
“That’s a heckuva front seven,” Dickert said. “I think they’re the best in our league. There wasn’t a whole bunch of things we could have done better. We just gotta make sure we give (de Laura) a little bit more time to set his feet and throw the ball.”
It felt like the momentum was wholly in the Ducks’ favor until a fortuitous play a few minutes into the second period, when Dye bumped into his own lineman and fumbled. Watson collected the loose ball to supply a dragging WSU team with some life.
De Laura began to work quickly from his pocket, opting to either sling it to his first look or scramble outside. The Cougars kept Oregon honest with the occasional bounce-out zone run.
Thirty receiving yards from Harris set up De’Zhaun Stribling’s 14-yard slant touchdown with 6:52 left until halftime. After a sack from edge Brennan Jackson killed the ensuing Ducks drive, de Laura guided a 12-play, 73-yard scoring drive featuring a collection of quick screens, outside runs, deep tries and well-placed out-route balls.
De Laura capped the series with a short TD run. He faked two defenders with a pump-fake pitch before diving in to make it 14-all with 11 seconds until the break.
“We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game,” Harris said. “Man, we just fell short at times. We gotta execute in the red zone. It is what it is.”
WSU forced three three-and-outs in the first half and had a 73-yard advantage in total offense.
The Cougs will honor their senior class next weekend when they host a struggling Arizona team. WSU is searching for its sixth consecutive bowl bid – not counting last year’s four-game campaign.
“I’m proud of this team and what we can still do,” Dickert said. “There’s a lot of things on the table for us, and we’re going to keep fighting for these seniors.”