Rick Morgan, for EDN
All week long Oregon head coach Chip Kelly touted the Washington State Cougars as “a much improved team.” They proved to be just that before falling 43-28 to the Ducks Saturday afternoon in front of 59,126 at Autzen Stadium.
The Cougars clearly felt their best defense against Oregon’s offense was to keep them on the sidelines and, to a significant degree, they did just that. Time of possession favored the Cougars by better than a two-to-one margin.
But as Kelly is fond of pointing out, time of possession isn’t as important as points on the scoreboard. However, getting those points on the scoreboard got a bit more complicated in the early going as the Ducks tried to work two key players back into the lineup.
Both quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James returned to action after missing time due to injury. But Thomas was replaced at the half by Bryan Bennett in a move Kelly thought was best for the team.
“We were a little bit out of sync,” Kelly described the offensive performance in the opening half. “We were off a little bit offensively with a ball here and a ball there. We just felt that Bryan gave us a better chance in the second half.”
Kelly praised Thomas’ mature attitude about the change.
“Darron handled it great,” he stated. “It’s all about the team. This team is all about we, not about me. I just felt in the best interests of what we had to do for him that we were going with Bryan.”
Early on, it didn’t seem like it was going to be a tough day for the Ducks as they opened the game up with a haymaker. After holding the Cougars to a three-and-out, Avery Patterson blasted past three defenders to smother Daniel Wagner’s punt. Boseko Lokombo scooped the ball off the turf and led a four-player convoy to the goal line.
Oregon converted the two-point attempt when holder Jackson Rice, in the clutches of a defender, completed a jump pass, ala Tim Tebow, to kicker Alejandro Maldonado to go up 8-0.
Washington State answered early in the second quarter with an Andrew Furney 40-yard field goal.
The Ducks then turned WSU away at the doorstep when Eddie Pleasant intercepted quarterback Marshall Lobbestael on the Oregon two-yard line and returned it 25 yards. A personal foul penalty added 15 more.
After two carries by LaMichael James netted three yards, Thomas had his best moment of the day. Flushed from the pocket and rolling to his right, Thomas spotted Lavasier Tuinei behind the Cougar defense and launched a wrong-footed rocket. Tuinei corralled the pass at about the 10-yard line, tumbling into the end zone for a 55-yard score.
Thomas’ fortunes took a turn for the worse on Oregon’s next possession. With 2:53 to go in the first half, the Ducks got the ball on their own 20 after a missed field goal attempt.
Kenjon Barner ripped off a pair of first downs, on runs of 13 yards and 26 yards, to put Oregon into WSU territory. On fourth-and-seven, Thomas’ pass bounced through the hands of Tuinei and into the hands of WSU cornerback Damante Horton. Seventy six yards later, the Ducks’ halftime lead was just 15-10 and Oregon fans sat quietly from the shock.
Enter Bennett and De’Anthony Thomas.
Thomas took the kickoff 27 yards to the Oregon 42. Three plays later, Bennett sent Thomas in motion to the left, hitting him at the hashmark with a swing pass. Over the next 45 yards, the freshman sensation undressed the same Washington State defender three times on his way to the end zone.
“He’s a special player when you can get the ball in his hands,” said Kelly. “Our job is to try and figure out a couple different ways we can get him in there. He’s just a talented, talented kid. You watch him catch that swing pass and run down the sideline. I’m thinking in my head ‘wow, that was an unbelievable move’. He did a good job.”
Kelly made sure not to take too much credit for his young prodigy’s shifty manuevers.
“I taught him that last move,” deadpanned Kelly. “No, I didn’t.”
Bennett later directed a 14-play, 77-yard scoring drive that pushed the Ducks’ lead to 29-13. A 19-yard pitch and catch to Tuinei put the exclamation point on a possession that saw the Ducks run the ball 11 times with Bennett and Barner doing most of the work.
“I thought Bryan did a good job,” Kelly said. “When he goes in there, we know that he’s got a lot of weapons. What Bryan can do is he play within himself. I don’t think he forced the issue again and, for the third straight game, he took what the defense gave him. I thought he made some really good decisions and put the ball on people when he had to put the ball on people.”
WSU cut the lead to 29-20 when Lobbestael connected with Jared Karstetter for a 24-yard touchdown.
“I said before the game that this was a much improved team,” said Kelly. “I think Paul (Wulff) is doing a really good job. I thought they ran hard and I thought Marshall Lobbestael did a great job of really managing that offense.”
Any momentum the Cougars may have fashioned was quickly cut short again, thanks to the electric Thomas. Gathering in the WSU kickoff on his own seven, Thomas veered to the right and exploded through the wedge. He then ran out of the grasp of the only WSU defender who had a prayer of making the tackle for a 93-yard touchdown, his 11th of the season, breaking an Oregon single season record for touchdowns for a true freshman.
Thomas ended the day with 262 all-purpose yards and a pair of scores.
Barner paced the Oregon running attack with 107 yards on 11 carries. In his 30 minutes of work, Darron Thomas completed eight of 13 passes for 153 yards and two interceptions. Bennett completed four out of seven for 88 yards and two scores.
Barner’s 28-yard scamper to open the fourth quarter sealed Oregon’s victory, although the Cougars did mount a scoring drive late in the game for the final margin. Oregon recovered the onside kick and improved to 7-1 overall and 5-0 in Pac-12 play
With their fourth consecutive loss, the Cougars’ record fell to 3-5, 1-4.
“Our offensive line started to assert themselves in the second half,” said Kelly of what changed in the course of the game. “We ran the ball better than we ran it in the first half.”
Kelly gave his defense high marks for keeping the Cougars at bay, despite being on the field most of the day.
“I thought our defense did a great job of making them work the field,” he explained. “We didn’t have the ball very often on offense and we made a few mistakes there. But our defense did a really good job in the red zone and they’ve done it all year long.”
Oregon will have the chance to give a better performance this coming Saturday. The Ducks will head north on I-5 to face their regional nemesis, the Washington Huskies, who are coming off a 42-31 win over Arizona to improve to 4-1 in Pac-12 North play and 6-2 overall.