A little more than three weeks ago, Oregon was in the national title picture.
It feels more like three months ago.
Oregon went from a national power to a team that can barely beat its struggling in-state rival.
The season had already soured with a blowout loss to Arizona last week, but a loss to Oregon State would mean this season was lost.
Luckily, Marcus Mariota and Josh Huff pulled off some late-game heroics to give the Ducks a thrilling, come-from-behind 36-35 victory in the 117th Civil War on Friday night at Autzen Stadium.
Mariota’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Huff with 29 seconds left saved Oregon’s season.
While a national title and a Rose Bowl berth were already off the table, the Ducks (10-2) needed this win to head into the bowl season with some momentum.
Huff — who had been maligned by fans for dismissive comments he had made about the Rose Bowl before the Ducks’ loss to Arizona — finished with nine catches for 186 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner.
“All week, I’ve been talking to Marcus about, anytime we’re down and we need a big play, just look at me,” Huff said. “It was everything I dreamed of, growing up in the backyard, playing with my dad and my cousins. To go out on top against the Beavers, it felt amazing. It’s definitely up there as one of the best games I’ve been in.”
But the Ducks — who appear headed for either the Alamo or Holiday Bowl — looked shaky in the first half.
It looked like a misprint on the stat sheet at halftime: 6-12-2. That last number was the most glaring. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota had completed just six of 12 passes and had thrown two interceptions. After going 353 pass attempts without throwing one, he threw two in the second quarter against Oregon State.
Balls on target were dropped, and others were overthrown, sometimes badly.
Mariota was not himself. The Ducks were not themselves. Fourteen of the Beavers’ 17 first-half points came off turnovers.
To make matters worse, the Ducks were getting run over by an Oregon State team that entered Friday’s game as the 120th-ranked rushing team in the Football Bowl Subdisvion, out of 123. The Beavers finished with 231 rushing yards after entering the game averaging 72.8.
“They certainly got the better of us in the first half,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said. “We knew both teams would come out emotional. But we finished. I’m really proud of our effort. These guys brought it. We knew it was going to be a battle. For them to go out like this in that fashion will be something they’ll never forget.”
Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who led the Ducks with 12 tackles and an interception, said the Beavers had a great game plan.
“They were able to get their players in positions to make plays,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “They did a great job, but I think we held our ground. This whole week has been emotional for our team, and I think we responded.”
Tied at 17 at halftime, the game featured six lead changes in the second half. Huff scored on a 12-yard pass from Mariota on fourth-and-11 to put the Ducks ahead 30-29 with 7:56 left in the game.
After both teams traded punts, quarterback Sean Mannion led the Beavers down the field, and Victor Bolden scored on a 25-yard touchdown to give Oregon State a 35-30 lead with 1:38 left.
It was just enough time for Oregon.
“They scored and I said, perfect, we get more time,” Helfrich said. “You try to go back to exactly what it’s like in practice.”
While it would not be a Heisman moment for Mariota, it would be a chance to prove he could lead his team from behind in a heart-pounding, late-game situation.
“I tried to just focus on not letting the moment get the best of me,” Mariota said. “I’ve always been taught to be calm, cool and collected. That’s how I was raised. To me, it was like any other drive. But you can’t overlook what it meant.”
Mariota finished the game 17 of 34 for 285 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Running back Thomas Tyner rushed for 140 yards and one touchdown.
And Huff, well, his final game at Autzen was a memorable one, as it was for all 20 UO seniors, who won all seven of their home games this year.
“That guy’s a warrior,” Mariota said of Huff. “He’s been making plays like that his whole career. He’s a special player.”
The Ducks notched 10 wins for the sixth straight season. Only Alabama has a longer streak.
There will be no national title or roses, but beating the Beavers in dramatic fashion seemed to brighten what has been a tough month for Oregon.
“There are no ugly wins,” said Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “There’s only good wins. This was a good win. To be 10-2 is incredible. It’s not exactly where we want to be. But that was a fantastic football game.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318, firstname.lastname@example.org.