Clutch drive, kick, lift Ducks over Cougars
EUGENE — The senior quarterback led a signature drive and the sophomore running back had a career night, but freshman kicker Camden Lewis was the hero for the Oregon Ducks on Saturday.
Lewis kicked a 26-yard field goal as time expired as the Ducks had the final answer in a back-and-forth battle with Washington State.
The 37-35 win in front of 59,361 — the largest crowd in Autzen Stadium crowd since a 2014 game against Michigan State — means the only team that can keep the Ducks for playing in the Pac-12 title game is Oregon State.
The 11th-ranked Ducks improved to 7-1, 5-0 in Pac-12 play. The Beavers are 2-2 in conference.
The Ducks not only had to find a response to WSU's Air Raid offense, they managed to overcome the absence of linebacker Troy Dye and a series of penalties that made the night more challenging than it might have been.
"Really proud of the team for overcoming a lot throughout the course of the game — a lot of it self inflicted, including myself," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, who drew one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on as WSU scoring drive.
But with a minute left and facing adversity, the coach was proud, but not surprised, when the Ducks came through.
"Just not flinching in that situation and working into reality something we plan every single Wednesday," Cristobal said.
On Sunday, the Ducks learned that their seventh-consecutive win moved them up to No. 7 in the AP poll.
Mykail Wright, who made a key fourth-down stop to secure last week's win at Washington, gave Oregon a spark with a 36-yard kickoff return to the 39.
Starting there with 52 seconds left and two timeouts, the Ducks dashed to the WSU 6, a drive they also kept alive Oregon hopes of maybe playing in the College Football Playoff.
The Ducks also snapped a string of four losses to the Mike Leach-led Cougars (4-4, 1-4), who are significantly better than that record and were in position to win when quarterback Anthony Gordon hit Brandon Arconado on a 5-yard slant for a touchdown with a minute left in the game.
That fourth-down conversion and Blake Mazza's extra point gave the Cougars a 35-34 lead, their first of the second half. That drive covered 90 yards in eight plays as the Air Raid attack that finished with 406 passing yards clicked with the game on the line.
Cristobal compared preparing to defend the Air Raid with preparing for a unique veer offense because of limited preparation time.
"It's a very unique offense. And when the quarterback is hot and has time to throw it's very tough to stop," Cristobal said.
All of the late drama overshadowed a huge night for CJ Verdell.
The sophomore running back ran for 257 yards on 23 carries, including touchdown runs of 89, 1 and 2 yards.
"I feel I run hard every time I touch the ball," Verdell said. "Running behind my offensive line is great. They are veterans who know what they're doing, putting us in the right position to hit the hole."
Oregon finished with a 528-446 edge in total offense, 306 of those rushing yards.
Cristobal said WSU's line stunts and movement have given the Ducks trouble in the past, but because the Ducks do some similar things they are more equipped to block it than in past years.
"We felt that as much as they move sideways, we had to go vertical," Cristobal said.
Justin Herbert's string of consecutive games throwing a touchdown pass ended at 35. But Herbert, who finished 21 of 30 for 222 yards, played like a senior at crunch time. He completed four consecutive passes to cover 55 yards to move the Ducks into position for the winning field goal.
The fourth of those passes was a 24-yard catch and run by Juwan Johnson that put the ball at the Cougar 9. After Verdell ran for three yards, Herbert took a snap to move the ball to the center of the field and Oregon used its final timeout with 1 second left.
Lewis, a true freshman from Charlotte, North Carolina, had missed the extra point after Verdell's 89-yard run put Oregon ahead 6-3 in the first quarter. But he made three field goals on the night, including a 30-yarder with 6:29 left that put Oregon up 34-28.
After that field goal, the Ducks defense then forced a three-and-out. But Oregon ended up punting it back to WSU after Herbert and Verdell failed to connect on an open pass to the flat on a third-down play that would have gone for big yardage if completed.
That play was an anonomoly in a second half when Oregon was converted eight of 10 third downs.
The Ducks converted four third downs — three of eight or more yards — on their first possession of the second half. The 14-play, 65-yard march culminated in a 2-yard Verdell TD run as Oregon forged a 24-17 lead.
That came after a bad snap on the first play of the third quarter put Washington State into second-and-25, spoiling the Cougs' opportunity to strike first in the second half.
WSU responded with a 12-play, 78-yard drive to a field goal with Gordon hitting four different receivers on a precision drive that stalled when the Cougs reached the Oregon 5 and Gordon through incomplete on consecutive passes before Mazza booted a 23-yard field goal to make it 24-20 Oregon.
The Ducks marched 75 yards on a nine-play drive that included eight runs and one throw into the flat. Verdell had runs of 17 and 35 yards on the drive that he capped with a 1-yard TD on third-and-goal as the Ducks extended the lead to 31-20 early in the fourth quarter.
But the Cougars needed only 2:12 to answer, moving 89 yards with Gordon completing 5 of 7 passes including a 19-yard touchdown to Arconado. The same connection on the 2-point conversion brought the Cougars within 31-28.
Oregon then drove to a first-down at the Washington State 9, but a rare (and it sure looked incorrect) penalty called on left tackle Penei Sewell pushed them back five yards and the Ducks settled for a 30-yard Lewis field goal to make it 34-28 with 6:29 remaining.
With the help from a couple of Cougars' bobbles, the Ducks held WSU to three points on its first two trips into the red zone. On the second of those, Oregon's Verone McKinley III intercepted a pass tipped by Arconado.
Oregon scored its first-half touchdowns on two big plays.
Verdell burst through a hole on the left side for an 89-yard touchdown run with 1:15 left in the first quarter.
Jevon Holland returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown 1:51 before halftime.
The Cougars responded to that blow by going 59 yards on three plays to tie the game at 17 at halftime.
The Ducks moved the ball well on the ground in the first half, gaining 169 yards on 29 attempts with Verdell netting 148 of them on eight attempts.
But, other than two completions to Spencer Webb for 17 and 18 yards, the passing game was largely ineffective in the first two quarters as the WSU pass rush made Herbert uncomfortable and sacked the QB three times.
The Ducks misfired on several chances to put more distance between themselves and the Cougs during an entertaining second half. But they put Lewis in position to be a hero at the very end.
"That was easy," Lewis said. "It didn't feel like a game-winning field goal. It felt like a kick, like practice. You don't think about (the pressure) when you're out there. You don't see the people, You just look at the ball …. See my holder. See my snap."
OREGON 37, WASHINGTON STATE 35
Wash. State 3 14 3 15—35
Oregon 9 8 7 13—37
WSU — Blake Mazza 36 FG, 7:36
ORE — Camden Lewis 40 FG, 3:11
ORE — CJ Verdell 89 run (kick failed), 1:15
WSU — Max Borghi 1 run (Mazza kick), 6:59
ORE — Jevon Holland 19 interception return (Johnny Johnson III pass from Justin Herbert), 1:51
WSU — Renard Ball 15 pass from Anthony Gordon (Mazza kick), 0:47
ORE — Verdell 2 run (Lewis kick), 6:47
WSU — Mazza 23 FG, 2:40
ORE — Verdell 1 run (Lewis kick). 13:20.
WSU — Brandon Arconado 19 pass from Gordon (Arconado pass from Gordon), 11:01.
ORE — Lewis 30 FG, 6:29
WSU — Arconado 6 pass from Gordon (Mazza kick), 1:00
ORE — Lewis 26 FG, 0:00
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