EUGENE — As it turned out, Oregon State beat expectations in Saturday's Civil War game, just as it has done throughout much of the second season of the Jonathan Smith era.
The Beavers, who came in as three-touchdown underdogs against 14th-ranked Oregon, gave the Ducks all they could handle on their way to a 24-10 victory in the intra-state rivalry.
Trailing 17-10, Oregon State had the ball inside the final three minutes, looking to create the football version of "Miracle on Ice" (Miracle on FieldTurf, perhaps?). The Ducks squelched that, recovering a Jermar Jefferson fumble and then scoring a game-clinching touchdown with 1:15 remaining.
The loss eliminated Oregon State (5-7 overall, 4-5 in Pac-12 play) from bowl contention, but the unanimous preseason choice for the cellar of the Pac-12 proved to be a much better product than advertised, with only one blowout loss (52-7 to Utah) and conference wins over UCLA, California, Arizona and Arizona State.
"I appreciate the resilience, the battle, the will to compete of our guys, in this game and throughout the season," Smith said. "We've responded a bunch. We had chances to respond this game and couldn't quite get over the hump."
The hump became a small mountain when it was determined that Jake Luton — working to complete one of the finest quarterbacking seasons in school history — would be unable to play because of a forearm injury.
The 6-7, 225-pound senior quarterback, who had thrown for 2,714 yards and 28 touchdowns with three interceptions, injured the arm when it hit an opponent's helmet on the follow-through of a pass early in Oregon State's 54-53 loss at Washington State last week.
"I was having trouble squeezing the ball after that, but I was able to play through it," Luton said. "Once I got off the field (after the game), it started swelling and bruising up and got worse and worse.
"The trainers and I tried to get it right. I haven't been able to throw all week. I was hoping it was just a bruise and that we could get it under control by game time, but there was just no chance. We came out and tried to warm up, and I couldn't throw the ball. It just wasn't happening."
Luton — ticketed for participation in the Hula Bowl in January — said OSU's medical staff hadn't determined the exact nature of the injury.
"Hopefully, it's nothing too bad," he said. "But I couldn't throw the ball."
Luton's voice choked and he teared up when asked how his emotions were after the game.
"I couldn't even put into words how frustrating it is to not be able to suit up in (what would have been) my last game," he said.
In his stead was Tristan Gebbia, Luton's little-used backup who had thrown all of 20 passes in garbage-time action of three games this season. The 6-2, 195-pound sophomore held his own, completing 28 of 40 passes for 243 yards with no interceptions. The transfer from Nebraska — he sat out the 2018 season in Corvallis — also ran seven times for 25 yards, including a 16-yard scramble for a first down.
"Jake is a leader, a senior who was waiting for this game," said OSU receiver Isaiah Hodgins, who caught eight passes for 85 yards in the second half after being blanked the first 30 minutes. "It sucked for him to sit out, and it hurt us, too. But Tristan did a good job of shaking off the jitters and giving us a couple of good drives (in the second half). We could have done a little more to help him out, but he stepped up."
Gebbia's numbers were better than his counterpart from Oregon, senior Justin Herbert, expected to be chosen in the first round of next year's NFL draft. Herbert was 18 for 30 passing for a season-low 174 yards.
"I'm super proud of him," said Luton of Gebbia, who pushed him for the starting job up until the last week of August training camp. "He did a great job today. He has a lot of success ahead of him. He's a hard-working kid. I wish him the best."
Gebbia said he had "a pretty good idea" he would be playing early in the week due to Luton's injury. Gebbia proved the moment wasn't too big for him Saturday, playing with poise most of the way. Even so, he didn't give himself a passing grade.
"The goal is to win," Gebbia said. "If you fall short of that, it doesn't matter if you throw for eight picks or eight touchdowns, the win is what's important. In my first start, I didn't do enough for us to win."
Gebbia said he practiced as if he were going to be the starter all week, just as he'd done all season.
"For the last 14 weeks, I've always tried to prepare like a starter," he said. "It's whenever your number is called. Whoever is the guy under center, we're going to have all the confidence in the world in him."
Smith said he didn't change much in the OSU offense with Gebbia at the controls.
"Tristan has been getting a ton of reps with the first group this week," Smith said. "We feel awesome about the guy, and he played valiantly out there. It's a tough environment to make your first start."
Oregon State hung in with the Pac-12 North champion Ducks, winning the battle in first downs (20-19) and total offense (380 yards to 365). Oregon was 3 for 14 in third-down conversions. The UO offense provided 17 points, seven of them coming with the Ducks basically running out the clock in the closing minutes. The Beavers' defense won as many battles as it lost.
"Our defense did a good job with its physicality," Smith said. "They kept us in the game."
What lost the game for Oregon State was special-teams coverage. Freshman Mychael Wright's 98-yard kickoff return gave Oregon a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter. Jevon Holland's 25-yard punt return set up the Ducks' second TD in the second quarter.
"It was a big difference in the game," Smith said.
The Beavers showed some resilience, marching 87 yards in 10 plays, with Jefferson covering the last 19, for a touchdown to draw within 17-10 with 11:03 left. It would have been interesting to see what they could have done had Luton had been able to play. Things might have been different, for instance, had Herbert been the one sidelined by injury. Those are the breaks of the game, and they went against the Beavers in this one.
Oregon's program remains ahead of Oregon State, but the Beavers are gaining credibility in the league.
"We have some real momentum," Smith said. "We have a lot of players coming back next year who I'm excited about coaching. From Year One to Year Two, we made some steps. We need to make more steps in Year Three."
Oregon State loses six senior starters on offense, including Luton, tight end Noah Togiai, three linemen and Artavis Pierce, who shared running back with Jefferson. The Beavers could also lose Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Hodgins, if he chooses to come out for the NFL draft.
The OSU defense returns largely intact, minus seniors Jalen Moore and Shawn Wilson at safety, Shemar Smith — who missed much of the season — at linebacker and Elu Aydon at tackle. Returnees will include linebackers Addison Gumbs and Andrzej Hughes-Murray, who missed both or all of the season due to injury.
Punter Daniel Rodriguez and long snapper Keegan Firth will both depart as seniors, leaving important holes to fill.
"I have the utmost confidence in the guys coming back, I really do," Gebbia said. "We have playmakers all over the place along with guys who have been under the radar a little bit. We're going to be bigger, stronger, faster next year. We're going to work really hard in the offseason, I can promise Beaver Nation that."
Gebbia also said this: "We're going to have some guys coming in the offseason who are going to be great."
He means recruits, some of who may arrive via the transfer portal, a vehicle the Beavers have used to advantage the past two years. Though Gebbia is the heir apparent, it would be no surprise if Smith brought in a quarterback from the JC ranks, or perhaps a grad transfer, to compete with him for the quarterback post.
"We'll be building the roster through recruiting," Smith said. "We have some good, young offensive players we're excited about, too. We're going to build our roster like we've been doing it — through all avenues."
Jefferson will return at running back along with B.J. Baylor and Calvin Tyler. A host of receivers, including Trevon Bradford, Champ Flemings, Jesiah Irish, Tyjon Lindsey, Kolby Taylor and perhaps Hodgins, will be back. The tight end spot will be ably served by Teagan Quitoriano and Luke Musgrave.
The defense will return experience everywhere, with the most help needed in the line and at safety. JC D-end commits Alex Lemon and Tavis Shippen could come in as immediate starters. David Morris and Akili Arnold are the likely starters at safety, but don't be surprised if Smith adds help through the JC ranks.
Linebacker is the deepest position on the defense, with Hughes-Murray, Avery Roberts, Omar Speights and Doug Taumoelau back on the inside and Gumbs, Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Riley Sharp, John McCartan and Matt Tago at the outside spots. All the corner and nickel backs return, including Jaydon Grant, Nahshon Wright, Isaiah Dunn, JoJo Forest and Alex Austin.
Beaver Nation wanted one more game with this group, if only to send out the seniors out on a high note. Didn't happen. It's wait until next year — with a bowl appearance the expectation.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.