The Cougs led 19-14 at the break behind three takeaways, but the Ducks rolled to 353 yards and 29 points in the second half to more or less cruise to victory.
Putting up 29 points on the Ducks is nothing to sneeze at, as true freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura once again had a strong game for WSU, throwing for 321 yards on 25-of-39 passing and two touchdowns. Deon McIntosh nearly had his second consecutive 100-yard game, rushing for 92 yards on 16 carries. Renard Bell led the receivers with 10 catches for 158 yards.
But the offense found the going extremely tough after the break, while the defense wilted in a big way over the final half ... plus one drive.
The Cougars held Oregon down throughout almost the entire first half with a mixture of solid play and good luck — the Ducks gave the ball away three times through some pretty big blunders that all somehow ended up in the hands of Ayden Hector.
But everything changed shortly after WSU hit a field goal to extend its lead to 19-7.
Instead of kicking the ball deep — earlier kickoffs had gone out of the back of the end zone — the Cougars tried a kick to the goal line. It backfired, as Mykael Wright returned it 39 yards to Oregon’s 40. On the first play, with 18 seconds left, this somehow happened:
On the next play, Oregon was in the end zone, and what had felt like more or less a dream half suddenly felt like the most tenuous of leads — something that proved to be true in the second half.
The Ducks received the ball, but the Cougs held the Ducks to just a field goal attempt, which they missed. It felt like maybe the game was back in a little bit of balance after that major error at the end of the half.
Unfortunately, it was not so. WSU punted on its next two drives while Oregon scored TDs on each of its next four, and the game was more or less over. None of the Ducks’ drives took longer than 3:05 or lasted more than seven plays as the defense was completely bereft of answers, giving up an astonishing 10.4 yards per play after the break.
There was one moment in the second half where it appeared WSU had a chance to maintain contact with Oregon. Trailing 28-19 early in the fourth quarter, the Cougs drove into the Ducks’ red zone once again behind a 24-yard completion from de Laura to Bell and a 28-yard completion to Travell Harris. It stalled out from there, though, and Nick Rolovich elected to put his faith in his defense by choosing to kick a field goal on 4th and 4 from the Oregon 7, closing the gap to 28-22.
On the next series, Tyler Shough found running back Travis Dye singled up defensive end Ron Stone Jr, and the result was predictable: a 71-yard wheel route out of the backfield for another TD.
WSU got a TD on its next drive — a one-yard score by Deon McIntosh — but Oregon answered back with another TD of its own.
The Cougars truly had no answers in the second half, as Oregon eventually rolled up 581 total yards and 8.8 yards per play. Shough threw for 312 yards on just 30 attempts. CJ Verdell, who tormented WSU last year, racked up another 118 yards on 18 attempts.
But still, fans were left to wonder ... what if? What if they hadn’t given up that TD at the end of the half? What if they’d been given a chance to convert that 4th and 4? What if they’d been able to penetrate Oregon’s defense just one more time, instead of settling for a trio of field goals? All of those things might have at least made the game competitive down to the wire.
So much “what if” — particularly in the first half, when it left everyone feeling like the Cougs missed a pretty huge opportunity to put their thumb on the scales of the game.
After the Cougars’ first drive fizzled, the Ducks asserted themselves in the way most observers figured they probably would, pushing WSU around the field. Oregon’s physical dominance led to a 15-play, 92-yard touchdown drive that covered nearly seven minutes of game time.
But WSU would respond — in a big way.
On the very next drive, the Cougars came right back with a 6-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that ended with de Laura finding walk-on Lucas Bacon — starting in place of the injured Calvin Jackson Jr. — on a gorgeous throw at the safety behind the corner but in front of the safety.
WSU was enticed into a 2-point try when Oregon jumped offside on the PAT kick, but Oregon defended the short-yardage play well and the try was no good.
It was at this point that the Oregon turnover festival would commence. First, Ahmir Crowder forced a fumble and Hector — a guy who frequently found himself in fortuitous positions — recovered around midfield.
The Cougs cashed in quickly. Four plays and 53 yards later, de Laura scrambled to his right and found Renard Bell working his way to the corner of the end zone for a 13-7 lead.
That’s when Hector showed up for the second time. After Oregon appeared to be in prime position after a failed pooch kick, QB Tyler Shough made a pretty terrible throw on the screen — and Hector was in the right spot to make a catch that not every DB can make:
It didn’t translate into points that time, as WSU punted after a drive that went backward. But Hector would show up AGAIN on the next drive!
This time, the Cougs would end up putting points on the board. A pair of long McIntosh runs took the ball all the way down to the Oregon 15-yard-line, but the Ducks defense started to do what it does so well, stiffening up inside the red zone to force WSU into a Blake Mazza field goal to give WSU a 16-7 lead.
The defense continued to step up, stopping Oregon after just 6 plays and 22 yards on the next drive. Again, WSU was able to move the ball, this time with a looooong drive that that went all the way to the Oregon 18. But a 3-yard loss on first down from there — when McIntosh tipped over de Laura’s leg on a heandoff — neutered the drive, and another Mazza field goal made it 19-7.
Still, the Cougs were feeling pretty good: They held a 12-point lead with 30 seconds left in the first half.
That’s when disaster struck, and the game flipped.
WSU continues its season next week when it travels to play the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday. That game will kick off at 8 p.m. PT and be broadcast on FS1.