EUGENE — Oregon is Pac-12’s North Division champion. If Saturday’s 24-10 Civil War loss can be used as a barometer, Oregon State isn’t that far from respectability.
Despite a last-minute scratch of starting quarterback Jake Luton, the Beavers came within half a football field and two minutes of a tie game. OSU’s defense put together perhaps its best game of the season. The difference was Oregon’s special teams, which returned a kickoff for a touchdown and used a punt return to set up another score.
For the first time in three years, Oregon State belonged on the same field as the Ducks.
“Shows how close we are, right?” senior safety Jalen Moore said.
Under second-year coach Jonathan Smith, the Beavers (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12) won two games in November and flirted with bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. The defense went from America’s college football punching bag to a 2019 unit that contained Oregon to two touchdowns and 365 yards.
The Beavers, outscored 124-25 by Oregon in the past two Civil Wars, had a chance to tie with 2:07 left, down seven points and 85 yards from the end zone.
There is a strong senior class to replace, but plenty of freshmen and sophomores contributed to an Oregon State team that won five games for the first time since 2013.
“We’re getting better and we have some real momentum,” Smith said. “We have a lot of players coming back that I’m excited to coach over the next couple years. We feel good about our approach from year 1 to 2. Now we need to make more steps.”
The biggest step made in 2019 was reclaiming pride on defense. If Saturday’s regular-season finale can be viewed as final exam, the Beavers got at least a B, and flirted with A territory.
Oregon’s touchdowns were a 98-yard kickoff return by Mykael Wright, a 28-yard pass from Justin Herbert to Johnny Johnson III set up on a long punt return, and a 20-yard touchdown run by Cyrus Habibi-Likio while trying to run out the game’s final seconds.
The Beavers turned back Oregon on 11 of its 14 third-down tries. The Ducks had three three-and-outs, and three more drives with just one first down.
It was the latest in a series of improved defensive performances for Oregon State.
“They’re building some confidence,” Smith said. “In the Washington game defensively we took a step playing a physical group on that side. We played the Cougs, and got some turnovers. They have a real belief in what we do.”
But from the outset, Oregon State was up against it with sophomore Tristan Gebbia making his first career start at quarterback. The OSU coaching staff likes Gebbia as a future starting quarterback, and he pushed Luton to the limit during preseason camp for the job. But there are softer spots to make a first career start than the stadium of the rival team.
Gebbia completed 24 of 40 passes for 243 yards, and gave OSU’s offense a different look by running seven times for 25 yards.
“I thought he played valiantly,” Smith said.
A few breaths later, though, Smith stated the obvious by saying “any time you score 10 points in this league you’re not going to win many games.”
It wouldn’t have taken many more points for 19-point underdog Oregon State to pull off the upset. Though the job was made a little tougher when, following Everett Hayes’ 40-yard field goal that tied the game at 3-3 late in the first quarter, the Ducks struck with Wright’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
“It looked like we had one opportunity to make a tackle, and that’s not enough,” Smith said of Wright’s 98-yard burst.
Trailing 17-3 at halftime, Oregon State nearly pitched a second-half shutout. The Beavers trimmed the deficit in half on a 19-yard touchdown run by Jermar Jefferson early in the fourth quarter. The Beavers then caught a break when Jaylon Reed fumbled out of bounds, past the goal line, while trying to reach out and score a touchdown.
OSU had two shots to tie the game. The first ended near midfield, when a fourth-down pass to Jefferson came up a yard short of a first down. The second came when Jefferson caught a pass, then fumbled while trying to hurdle a tackler. Oregon’s Brady Breeze pounced on the loose ball to effectively end the Beavers’ season.
After the game, several dozen Beavers lingered on the Autzen Stadium turf, catching up and taking photos with Ducks who they knew. Heads did not hang, because the Beavers felt they fought a good fight. Outside linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. was among the last to leave the field, and he couldn’t have worn a bigger smile had OSU won the game.
Players exited the stadium tunnel and slowly walked toward the Beavers’ locker room, as a line of Oregon State fans shouted words of encouragement and praise. “Thanks for the year!” one fan yelled at Moore.
The scoreboard said Oregon 24, Oregon State 10, but the performance Saturday, coupled with progress made during the season, left the Beavers feeling upbeat about what’s ahead.
“It’s headed for greatness, I’m telling you right now,” Moore said of OSU’s program. “I’m excited to see what we have for next year and the future.”