Oregon State gets win No. 5
CORVALLIS — Don't look now, but Oregon State is knocking on the door.
The unanimous preseason pick for the Pac-12 cellar — Vegas' over/under line was 2.5 wins, mind you — is a victory away from bowl eligibility.
Saturday's triumph over Arizona State in a 35-34 thriller on Senior Day at Reser Stadium pushed the Beavers (5-5 overall, 4-3 in Pac-12 play) into position to achieve what they haven't done since 2013. One more win and they'll write their ticket to a bowl game.
Left on the schedule are a pair of challenging road games — at Washington State (5-5, 2-5) on Saturday night, then a drive down the Willamette Valley to Autzen Stadium to face sixth-ranked Oregon (9-1, 7-0) in a Civil War contest on Nov. 30.
"It's exciting, something we haven't experienced since any of us have been here," said senior tight end Noah Togiai, who had the greatest game of his career with eight receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown. "We know we're one game away. We have two left. Why not win both of them?"
"We're right where we want to be," said senior quarterback Jake Luton, who went out in style in his final performance at Reser, completing 26 of 35 passes for 288 yards and four TDs with no interceptions. "We're in position to have the opportunity to go play in a bowl game. That's right where we want to be."
In reality, the Beavers would love to be 10-0 and in the College Football Playoff picture. But given the progress they've shown during the Jonathan Smith era, they're glad to simply be in the conversation for a bowl appearance.
"Postseason play is a huge incentive, and we've got a chance," said Smith, whose current team is light years ahead of his first OSU squad, which finished 2-10 last season. "Two games left, two tough opponents.
"These guys will come back to work. It's ultimately how you play, about if you're doing the job. It's not really about desire — who wants to go to a bowl game more. It comes down to executing and playing. We're going to need to do it against the next two opponents."
Arizona State (5-5, 2-5) could have clinched bowl eligibility with a victory Saturday, and the Sun Devils came within a whisker of accomplishing it. They rallied from a 35-21 third-quarter deficit and drew to within 35-34 on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Jayden Daniels to Brandon Aiyuk with 1:40 remaining.
ASU coach Herm Edwards chose to go for a two-point conversion and the lead. Daniels pitched to tailback Eno Benjamin, who found himself in a swarm of OSU defenders. In desperation, Benjamin tried to reverse field, then threw a flutter ball that was intercepted in the end zone by Beaver cornerback Nahshon Wright.
"We tried to get outside, and they stuffed it," Edwards said. "They did a good job of defending. You have to give them credit."
Did Smith expect the Devils to go for two?
"It didn't shock me," said the OSU coach, a bit of a riverboat gambler himself. "You're on the road ... they had the opportunity right there. I can see it."
After the game, Edwards explained his decision in long-winded fashion:
"If you kick it, you still have to stop them from scoring. They get the ball back. If they kick a field goal, they still beat you. We're on the road. We fought uphill this whole game, and when we got in there, we're going for two. We're a young team, and (the players) have to learn how to win. I wanted to put pressure on them, and that gives you energy as a defense (if you make it). I don't second-guess myself on that one. You have to play to win. I didn't come here to lose games. You ask any player, they knew I was going for two. You can't play scared."
The Beavers weren't out of the woods yet. They had to survive Arizona State's onside kick — and did, with Trevon Bradford falling on the ball at the OSU 48. After the Devils used their final two timeouts, the Beavers faced a fourth-and-2 at the ASU 44 with 42 seconds left.
Smith used a timeout and sent the punt unit on the field. He used OSU's final timeout and reversed field, opting to go for it.
Luton's pass to Bradford was incomplete, but ASU cornerback Jack Jones was called for pass interference. First down for the Beavers; game over.
"We go try to win the game," Smith said. "If we can get two yards, we win. I'll take my chances with it. We wanted to end on offense, and we did."
"I wanted to go for it," Luton said. "We all wanted to go for it. We all felt we could make the play happen, go win the game. Props to Coach Smith for having the confidence in us to go out and win the game."
Added OSU safety Jalen Moore: "Coach Smith feels like it's 'my guys versus their guys.' If you're going to win the fight, you have to throw the biggest punch. That's what we did."
The partisans in the crowd of 30,980 were into it as much as they've been all season, particularly down the stretch as the teams battled tooth and nail. When it was over, Oregon State's players let loose for a moment, then headed to the family section in the stands to sing the school fight song. As that was happening, students were dumping onto the field from the other side of the stadium, eager to celebrate with their conquering heroes after the Beavers' first home Pac-12 win since the 2016 Civil War game.
"I turned around and saw a huge pile of people," Luton said with a laugh. "I ran back out there and celebrated with everybody. It was a lot of fun."
Smith was glad the fans were able to participate in the postgame revelry.
"It's exciting for everybody involved," he said. "But shoot, the locker room celebration was just as fun, when it was just us."
Oregon State never trailed, but Arizona State was always within striking distance. OSU's offense was on fire early, and Luton was sharp as Tillamook cheddar, completing 15 of 18 passes for 196 yards and three scores. Despite a huge advantage in time of possession (21 minutes to nine), the Beavers were ahead only 28-21 at intermission, thanks in part to Aiyuk's 63-yard second-quarter punt return for a TD.
The Beavers managed only one second-half touchdown, but the defense allowed the Devils only one trip into the end zone, too. The biggest stop came after ASU recovered an Artavis Pierce fumble — OSU's first lost fumble all season — at the Oregon State 41 late in the third quarter. Four plays later, after a 13-yard loss on a sack by OSU true freshman linebacker Omar Speights, the Devils were punting from the OSU 43.
Probably the game's biggest play, though, came with Arizona State, trailing 35-28, driving for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. On first-and-goal from the OSU 6, Benjamin ran toward the goal line but lost the ball when hit by OSU safety David Morris, with Moore recovering in the end zone for a touchback.
"That changed everything," said OSU linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr., who had seven tackles, four tackles-for-loss and two sacks.
"We gave them an early lead, just couldn't slow them down for awhile," Edwards said. "Coach (Smith) does a good job running offense. That is a nifty offense. They can bring problems to you, and they did early on us.
"We moved the ball at times. We settled down somewhat on defense, but you always felt like they had a way of moving the ball on us. It was that kind of game. We never felt comfortable defensively. We weren't consistent enough with drives, and when you play a good offensive team like this, you have to drive the ball."
Daniels, a true freshman, connected on 24 of 36 passes for 334 yards and three TDs with no interceptions. But Benjamin — who rushed for 312 yards against Oregon State in last year's 52-24 romp over the Beavers in Tempe — managed only 70 yards on 15 carries.
"We knew they were going to put eight guys in the box and make us pass," Edwards said. "You got to hit some balls down the field, and if you're able to do that, it'll back them off."
The Devils hit a couple, but so did the Beavers. Togiai, who had caught only 27 passes for 234 yards and one touchdown all season, hauled in a 12-yard TD pass after hurdling an ASU defender. He also twice delivered hits to would-be tacklers on his way to first-down yardage on receptions.
"That's probably the best game I've seen him play," Smith said.
In the end, 16 Oregon State seniors got to go out together with a victory.
"Today, there was that feeling that this was the last time," said Luton, who joined the OSU program as a JC transfer in 2017. "I really feel like I'm a part of this class. These are my guys, some of my best friends.
"Looking around at them in the locker room when we were getting ready to go out, there was definitely some emotion, some finality to it. It was awesome to go out and get a win on the last day here."
Now the Beavers move on, with a bigger goal in mind. Rashad quotes Oregon State's defensive coordinator, Tim Tibesar, with the idea of not getting ahead of themselves.
"It's what Coach Tibs says," the junior linebacker said. "We got to go 1-0 this week — that's it. We have to take it week to week. It's as simple as that."
But what has happened so far this season can't be understated.
"Winning helps, whether it's morale, belief, confidence, recruiting, recognition," Smith said. "To be sitting here with five and have two more opportunities to get to six is huge for our program."
NOTES — Oregon State remained in second place in the Pac-12 North behind only Oregon. OSU hasn't finished better than fourth in the division since 2012. The four conference wins are the most since 2013. ... ... Rashed now owns school single-season records for sacks (14) and tackles-for-loss. He leads the nation in both categories. ... Luton has thrown 23 touchdown passes this season (with two interceptions), ranking fifth on the school single-season list. Ahead of him are Sean Mannion (37 in 2013) and Derek Anderson (29 in 2004, 25 in both 2002 and '03). ... Isaiah Hodgins, who had six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, has 13 TD receptions this season, second-most in OSU history behind Brandin Cooks' 16 in 2013. Hodgins ranks eighth on the OSU career list in receptions (163) and receiving yardage (2,172).
The Beavers finished with 26 first downs and 393 yards total offense. In last week's 19-7 loss to Washington, they managed six first downs and 119 yards total offense. "The coaches put together a really good game plan for us," Luton said. "We had a bitter taste in our mouth after last week's performance. We had a chip on our shoulder. We worked really hard and were executing really well today." ... Togiai, on what it's been like for the OSU seniors: "We've been through a lot. I'm proud of the way we've handled ourselves the last two years with the new coaching staff. In the future, there's only up from here. I'm really sad I won't be a part of it knowing the trajectory of this program, but I'm excited to keep watching. Jake and I are excited to keep rocking orange and black for the rest of our lives." ... Redshirt freshman Jesiah Irish caught a 24-yard pass for Oregon State's first touchdown, his first career TD reception. But he injured a foot in the second quarter and did not return. Cornerback Isaiah Dunn (head) also left the game in the second quarter and did not return. ... The Beavers were without linebacker Shermar Smith (ankle) and receiver Kolby Taylor (calf).
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Arizona State 14 7 7 6 — 34
Oregon State 14 14 7 0 — 35
OSU — Jesiah Irish 24 pass from Jake Luton (Everett Hayes kick) 11:40
ASU — Eno Benjamin 2 run (Cristian Zendejas kick) 5:35
OSU — Trevon Bradford 5 pass from Luton (Hayes kick) 2:00
ASU — Frank Darby 24 pass from Jayden Daniels (Zendejas kick) :19
OSU — Isaiah Hodgins 6 pass from Luton (Hayes kick) 9:58
ASU — Brandon Aiyuk 63 punt return (Zendejas kick) 4:01
OSU — Jermar Jefferson 4 run (Hayes kick) :33
OSU — Noah Togiai 12 pass from Luton (Hayes kick) 4:14
ASU — Kyle Williams 8 pass from Daniels (Zendejas kick) 2:19
ASU — Aiyuk 12 pass from Daniels (pass failed) 1:40
Att. — 30,980
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