Friday, May 27, 2022

It never comes easy for Oregon, but Ducks’ playoff hopes remain alive after surviving UCLA

It’s never easy for these Ducks. Their offensive coordinator endured emergency surgery this season. Injuries have ravaged key contributors. A migraine almost sidelined the starting running back Saturday during warmups. The quarterback has been booed at home, the famously loyal patrons calling for his backup.

So when No. 10 Oregon cruised to a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl, there was a feeling — finally — that it would get something close to a laugher.

No such Duck luck.

It wasn’t until UCLA backup quarterback Ethan Garbers tossed an interception to Oregon cornerback DJ James with 48 seconds to go that the Ducks survived. Again. Oregon won 34-31 and stayed safely balanced on the tightrope it has created.

Considering the margin of error — there is none at this point — a theme is developing in this strange Oregon season: Assume nothing.

The Ducks have played seven games, five of which have been decided by a touchdown or less. On Saturday, they trailed by 14 after the first quarter. Then, over a span of 29:53, Oregon outscored UCLA 34-3 to take a 17-point lead with less than 14 minutes to play.

But it was not going to be easy. Of course not.

Ducks QB Anthony Brown, the one who was booed last week, tossed a couple of late interceptions to allow UCLA back into the game.

“It’s been a theme of the year,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said of his team’s survival instincts. “Hopefully, we’re putting a stop to that after this game. This team, its leaders, its players, they’re a special, special bunch. They’re just resilient. They just keep coming.”

The Ducks have been easy to dismiss since that Week 2 win at Ohio State. The pollsters certainly did. Somehow the No. 5 Buckeyes came into Saturday five spots ahead of Oregon in the AP Top 25 despite only having beaten Rutgers, Akron and Maryland before facing Indiana on Saturday night.

You wonder how the voters will try to discredit this win.

Before the game, Oregon running back Travis Dye complained of a migraine. This after the Ducks’ leading rusher (and best offensive player) CJ Verdell had already been lost for the season. Also during pregame, center Alex Forsyth (Oregon’s best offensive lineman) was injured and couldn’t go.

“When the trainer taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘Travis has a migraine,’ I was waiting for the punchline,” Cristobal said.

Dye’s mic drop was not only playing but rushing for four touchdowns, which he scored on four consecutive carries, setting a new FBS record in the process. Brown had perhaps the game of his career throwing for 296 yards and rushing for 85 more.

“I should have been playing like this for a while, but the fact that came in a big moment was important,” said Brown, a Boston College transfer.

All of it was a tribute to offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who was back in the coaches’ booth after what he called “emergency major surgery” two weeks ago. Moorhead was absent for the only game Oregon has lost — in overtime at Stanford — this season.

The Ducks defense that tied a season-high allowing 31 points but also got four sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Preseason All-American defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux may have had the game of his career with nine tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble. It was Thibodeaux’s rag-dolling of UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson that forced Garbers into the game.

“Right now, I’m exhausted,” Thibodeaux said. “Right now, I feel like I’m running low on sugar.”

The Bruins just ran … 91 plays in coach Chip Kelly’s hurry-up offense. Of course, Duck tongues were dragging.

“They truly believe that there is no play, no circumstance, no bad call that we can’t overcome,” Cristobal said.

It’s going to make a heck of documentary if the two-time defending Pac-12 champions take it up a notch and get to the College Football Playoff. The preseason Pac-12 favorite is still that but with an added burden. By moving to 6-1, the Ducks are by far the league’s best CFP hope.

Somewhere in the Pac-12 offices in San Francisco, they’re celebrating — maybe it’s more like exhaling — after Saturday’s win.

With the victory, Oregon stays alive in that CFP conversation through Week 8. Everyone else in the league has at least two losses, which means the Ducks must win out and the league must hope. The Pac-12 has been in exactly one of the last five CFPs and two of seven overall.

“Honestly, I think we’re over that stuff,” Cristobal said. “I’m being 100% transparent and honest. Our guys have a grasp: It’s about today. When we get away from that, we create issues.”

The injuries have made an impact. Thibodeaux himself has faced hard times staying on the field. Brown has difficulty staying on the right side of the fans. Eight days ago at home against Cal, fans became frustrated at the quarterback while the moribund Bears came around. In that one, the defense bailed out the Ducks in the final minute of a 24-17 win.

Brown looked inside himself during the week.

“Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. They can say what they want to say,” he said. “We can only control what we do in our building and on the field.”

Maybe, just maybe, there is room for the Ducks to exhale. They don’t play another team with a winning record until going to Utah on Nov. 20. By that time, it might be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game … or the Pac-12 may again be out of the playoff discussion. 

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