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Mistakes again doom WSU as No. 11 Oregon ekes out 37-35 win

A field goal at the gun won the game for the Ducks.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars fought back again and again but, just like two weeks ago in Tempe, a defense that had played pretty well came up just a few plays short as a field goal at the gun propelled the No. 11 Oregon Ducks to victory, 37-35.

WSU drops to 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-12, while Oregon improved to 7-1 and 5-0 in the conference.

It was another incredibly frustrating loss for the Cougars, who outplayed the Ducks for large swaths of the game and have lost three of their Pac-12 games by a combined total of 10 points.

Trailing 34-28 after the WSU defense forced an Oregon punt with 3:06 to play, Anthony Gordon went to work from his own 10 — five yards to Brandon Arconado, 10 yards to Easop Winston Jr. A defensive pass interference moved WSU near midfield, and on the next play Gordon delivered a gorgeous dart to Tay Martin crossing the field, which he would turn into a 48-yard gain to the Oregon 12.

After a screen to Travell Harris picked up five and a run by Max Borghi picked up two, the next pass to Arconado was incomplete, setting up 4th-and-three from the Oregon 5. With the game on the line and just over a minute to play, Gordon went right back to Arconado on the slant for the touchdown, giving the Cougs a 35-34 lead with just one minute to play.

Jack Crane, who struggled with deep kickoffs all night, came up with another short one, which Oregon returned to its own 39. Needing to gain about 40 yards in about 50 seconds to have a shot at a winning field goal, the Ducks did even better than that, getting all the way down to WSU’s 6-yard line without ever facing a third down — the crusher was a well-timed 24-yard screen pass to receiver Juwan Johnson.

A few plays later, a kicker who had made just 2-of-5 kicks all season and had missed an extra point converted a 26-yarder from the middle of the field as time expired to break WSU’s four-game win streak against the Ducks.

Gordon finished with 406 yards passing and three TDs but also two interceptions. Arconado had 130 yards and two TDs on nine catches, while Max Borghi turned 16 touches into 124 yards and a TD.

Like so many other this season, it was a game filled with “what could have been.”

For the second week in a row, the game got off to a great start for the Cougars. The defense allowed just one first down on the Ducks’ opening drive, and a sack by Ron Stone Jr. and Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei caused Oregon to punt. WSU took the drive right down the field, picking up chunks of 13, 28, 11 and 18 through the air to reach the Oregon 3-yard line.

But that’s where the missed chances began. Consecutive holding calls against Liam Ryan backed the ball up to the 23, and yet, WSU still had a chance to score when Gordon hit Rodrick Fisher on the hands at the 5 with a clear path to the end zone. But Fisher dropped it, and the Cougs settled for a Blake Mazza field goal.

After driving to the WSU 22 — and initially considering going for it on 4th-and-3 — Oregon returned the favor with a field goal of its own, and the game was tied at 3.

WSU couldn’t get anything going on its next drive, and an Oscar Draguicevich III punt pinned Oregon at its own 11. But that’s when disaster struck: CJ Verdell broke off an 89-yard touchdown run when both safeties — Bryce Beekman and Skyler Thomas — got pancaked by one receiver. Oregon’s kicker missed the PAT, though, and the lead was only 9-3.

The Cougars put together another impressive drive, moving down to the Oregon 15. That’s when Gordon feathered a gorgeous pass to Arconado in the end zone. But the ball bounced off Arconado’s hands and into the hands of an Oregon defender, and just like that, WSU had left 11 points on the field in its first three drives — hardly ideal against the No. 11 team, and probably the difference in the game when all was said and done.

But the defense forced a three-and-out — aided by Verone McKinley III bringing his pick out of the end zone to just the 6-yard line — and WSU got the ball back with great field position after an Oregon personal foul on the punt.

That’s when Max Borghi did his Max Borghi thing. The drive started with a 16-yard rush, then after WSU got it down to the 1-yard line, Borghi took on a box with seven defenders in it and did this:

Even after all the mistakes, WSU held a 10-9 lead.

Oregon moved the ball again, but again, the defense stiffened up: A sack on first down that moved Oregon back to WSU’s 33 put the Ducks in a hole they couldn’t get out of — another sack on 3rd-and-21 ensured the punt — and WSU was back in business again.

But more mistakes ensued. A snap infraction on Fred Mauigoa was followed by a sack, and two plays later Gordon threw the ball just a bit behind Arconado and Jevon Holland undercut the route, picking off the pass and returning it for a touchdown. The two-point conversion — in which Johnny Johnson III held on in the back of the end zone despite being leveled by Marcus Strong — made it 17-10 Oregon.

The only good thing about the interception was that it left plenty of time for the Cougs to get back down the field — and they did just that. Travell Harris returned the kickoff to the WSU 41, and Gordon immediately found Arconado for 21 yards and Borghi for eight more. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Oregon coach Mario Cristobal moved the ball down to the Ducks’ 15, and Renard Bell did the rest — taking an inside screen to the house.

WSU, despite vastly outplaying Oregon, felt lucking to be all tied at 17 heading into the locker room.

The Cougs got the ball first in the second half, but a bad snap on first down more or less killed any chance the Cougs had against that tough defense. A mediocre punt set Oregon up with a short field, and Justin Herbert — who had not been called on much and had been content with safe throws — decided to finally wake up. The Ducks converted 3-and-7 when Herbert found his receiver for 15 yards with a rusher in his face, then converted 3rd-and-8 with a throw to the sideline that probably was actually incomplete but wasn’t even reviewed.

Verdell cashed it in a few plays later by powering in from the 1, finishing a 14-play, 65-yard, six-minute-and-40-second drive, and Oregon led 24-17.

The Cougs moved the ball again, never facing third down until 3rd-and-goal from the six. But, again, they stalled out in the red zone, and Mike Leach elected to take the field goal to close the gap to four points at 24-20.

That conservative decision would cost the Cougs. Oregon went on another long drive, this time covering 75 yards in nine plays with Verdell again cashing in a short TD on 3rd-and-1, extending the margin to 11 — 31-20 — causing fans to pine for those two dropped TDs in the first quarter.

The Cougs wouldn’t quit, though; despite a short kickoff return by Harris, WSU covered 78 yards in just seven plays — aided by a late hit penalty — ending with Gordon finding Arconado for a 19-yard TD that featured about as good of a throw between three defenders as you’d ever see:

Oregon had a chance to put the game away, but couldn’t when Herbert made a poor throw on a 3rd-down swing pass to Verdell, who almost certainly would have picked up the necessary yards. The ensuing punt set up the game-ending drama — and heart break for the Cougs.

Verdell ended up gaining 257 yards on just 23 carries, assuredly securing the Pac-12 offensive player of the week award.

WSU now heads into its second bye week of the season, with a trip to Berkeley to face the California Golden Bears waiting on the other side.