By Rob Moseley
This wasn’t quite a storybook ending, which is perhaps fitting for an Oregon football season that’s been anything but a fairy tale down the stretch.
Following the Ducks’ fourth quarter touchdown for a 30-29 lead over Oregon State on Friday night in Autzen Stadium, quarterback Marcus Mariota sensed the chance to finally put the Beavers away. The UO sophomore approached senior defensive end Taylor Hart on the sideline, just before Hart and the UO defense took the field.
“He came up to us and said, ‘You get us a stop, I’ll score you a touchdown,’” Hart recalled.
Hart helped do his part, stopping OSU’s Storm Woods after a one-yard gain, on a night the Beavers typically – and inexplicably – ran for much bigger chunks. Tony Washington came up with another run stop on second down, and then the Beavers threw incomplete before punting.
Oregon’s defense had provided that stop Mariota had requested. In the fairy tale ending, the Ducks would have driven to a game-clinching score.
Instead, Oregon answered with a three-and-out of its own. It was only after Oregon State scored to take the lead, and the Ducks drove to Josh Huff’s game-winning touchdown pass with 29 seconds left, that the UO football team could celebrate.
It was that kind of night for the Ducks, whose November struggles with turnovers and run defense continued, but who escaped with a 36-35 victory for the sixth 10-win season in a row.
“To battle through some adversity, what we had to deal with last week (at Arizona) and the beginning of this game, just shows a lot about the character in that locker room,” Mariota said. “… I’m proud of these guys – but we can’t let that stuff trickle in. We’ve got to keep getting better.”
The Ducks (10-2) at least did that Friday, finishing off head coach Mark Helfrich’s first regular season by beating Oregon State for the sixth straight year. After the Beavers took a 35-30 lead with 1:39 to play, Oregon drove 83 yards on nine plays in just 1:09, capped by Huff’s third touchdown.
Nearly to a man, UO players said it was the first game-winning touchdown drive they could recall in their careers, either high school or college. Such has been the dominance of the Oregon football program recently, which made the Ducks’ struggles this month all the more striking.
This was a team whose toughness was being questioned by its own fan base. The Ducks seemed to lose their mojo in a loss at Stanford to open November. For whatever reason, the found it just at the right time, for the final few minutes Friday against the Beavers.
“We got a second chance to win the game,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “You can’t let that opportunity pass.”
For a while early on, it looked the like the Ducks of old Friday. Oregon took an early 14-0 lead on rushing touchdowns by De'Anthony Thomas and Thomas Tyner, who carried the load in the absence of leading rusher Byron Marshall (ankle).
But then, early in the second quarter, sophomore Bralon Addison muffed a punt, and the momentum swung to Oregon State. The Beavers capitalized off that mistake – and a running-into-the-kicker penalty on a missed field-goal attempt – to score their first touchdown, then answered a late Mariota interception with another touchdown, for a 17-17 tie at halftime.
Oregon couldn’t run for one yard on fourth down to start the second half, and OSU responded with a field goal for a 20-17 lead. The Beavers pounded the Ducks with 231 yards for the game, stirring echoes of Oregon’s losses to Stanford and Arizona.
“They played their hearts out,” UO safety Brian Jackson said. “They really wanted to win as well, and you could feel the energy from both teams.”
Jackson described the victory as “an incredible feeling,” but the game overall as “scary. It was so, so scary.”
Everybody in attendance at Autzen Stadium knew the feeling – until the Ducks suddenly found their mojo again in the final few minutes. Conjuring it earlier, and maintaining it for 60 minutes, will surely by a goal of Oregon’s bowl preparations, for whichever postseason game the Ducks find themselves in.
This UO team has faced questions about its passion, but a jubilant locker room illustrated how much this win meant to the Ducks. Huff, the offensive star, was a participant in a lively dance circle that erupted while Helfrich was doing his postgame interview, the whoops from the locker room audible in the background.
Jackson paraded around in a fur hat, complementing new Oregon letterman jackets that he thought looked like bomber jackets. He joked that the hat was made of beaver fur. At least, he seemed to be joking.
But there were also moments of serious reflection in the postgame locker room, from a team that seemed lost over the final few weeks, only to find itself at the perfect time Friday night, to avoid a loss to Oregon State.
“It would have been heartbreaking,” Jackson said. “But I never doubted my team.”