Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal pushed his team to a 31-29 win over a strangely subdued Arizona State squad that never seemed to play with a great deal of enthusiasm and fire for a team that had a chance to win the South Division of the Pac-12.
The Sun Devils were game to the end, cutting into Oregon’s lead with 16 points in the second half while holding the Ducks to three. ASU scored with a bit over four minutes remaining in the game and then went for two points to tie the game. Manny Wilkins, the fine quarterback for ASU, was hurried on his pass that was complete to Frank Darby, out of bounds in the end zone. Darby was open, but the pass was just a shade too late to be completed inside the boundary.
The Ducks, who seemed to eliminate quarterback Justin Herbert from the game plan at halftime, were able to allow just a few less points to avoid giving this game away in the second half. Herbert had thrown for 249 yards at halftime and at the end of the third quarter had added only nine more yards to that total.
Every notable Duck wide receiver dropped at least one pass, including one by Jaylon Redd that would have gone for an 85-yard score in the third quarter. The Ducks struggled to convert third downs; on several occasions they had wide receivers running five-yard hitch routes into press coverage when seven yards were needed.
This has happened frequently throughout the season and one wonders whether the coaches need to call deeper routes at first-down depth, or the receivers need to be more aware and get the necessary yardage before they break the pattern. At any rate, when the defender is sitting on your nose, you are not going to be open on such a short route. You need to get more depth to run off the defender and run pick routes or routes to a running back out of the backfield.
From the very start of the game the Ducks looked sharp, converting 5-of-8 third-down tries and limiting Arizona State to 1-of-7 in the first half. It was strange with so much at stake the Sun Devils did not play with much passion, going into the locker room at half trailing 28-13.
Wilkins hit Darby for a 22-yard score right before halftime (50 seconds remaining) to cut the Ducks’ lead to 21-13. Trouble was for the Devils, Herbert was in a groove like he had not been in a long time. He passed Oregon five plays for 71 yards, and Redd covered the final 8 yards on a fly sweep. All this took only 39 seconds. It was as sharp a drive as any Duck quarterback has ever conducted.
The drive showed clearly what can happen for Oregon’s offense if Herbert is unleashed. The play calling had a rhythm to it and the entire offense was in rare form, tallying 364 yards on 44 plays in the first half.
In the second half, the offense put the crowd to sleep, scoring three points. The defense gave up 13 points in the fourth quarter and a lot of fans left early with the Ducks having an apparently safe lead. But the offensive brain trust might have left with the fans because the Ducks could not convert a third down and Herbert all of sudden couldn’t hit his hat.
Travis Dye was worth his weight in gold, rushing 18 tries for 105 yards. It seemed as though the running attack early on was more creative and varied than the two yards and a cloud of Astroturf offense the Ducks have relied on lately. With Herbert throwing and mixing in the run, outside first and then inside, Cristobal’s dream of a dominating offense looked true.
As the second half wore on, you could feel the Ducks’ play calling becoming conservative and, with only three points in the second half, it doesn’t say much for the halftime adjustments that were made to the game plan.
Cristobal could point with pride at several players who made big plays, but also some of the stars had down moments. Herbert had two interceptions and at least six poor passes, there were five dropped passes and three three-and-outs by the offense.
Gus Cumberlander had two sacks and recovered a fumble he caused when he hit Wilkins while he was trying to rally the Sun Devils in the last five minutes of the game. Thomas Graham Jr., a cornerback who has had more than his share of bad moments trying to cover a wide receiver one-on-one this season, had six pass breakups after giving up one long post completion. This is outstanding.
But to check Herbert’s production, in the first quarter he was 5-of-8 for 56 yards. In the second quarter he was 11-of-15 for 193 yards. At the end of the game he was almost a pedestrian 19-of-34 for 262 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. In the fourth quarter, Herbert was 1-for-3 with one interception.
Question is: why put the brakes on Herbert in the second half?
For those of you keeping score, the Duck offense ran up 142 yards in the first quarter, which is that quick start Cristobal has long been looking for. In the second quarter the offense gained 222 yards that made a first-half total of 364. In the third quarter the offense gained 41 yards and only 44 yards in the fourth quarter, which is letting down what they need to do for their defense.
This coming week is the Civil War with the battling Oregon State Beavers. OSU has a new head coach who has connected with his players in a way that ensures the Beavers will be a fierce opponent in Corvallis. With an offense that gets only 85 yards in a half, the Ducks could make this game much closer than it should be.
The rival game really makes college football special. The Civil War seems to always mean more to the Beavers, one reason perhaps because they have more Oregonians on their roster. But if you make some mistakes, take the Beavers for granted, drop some passes, take some penalties and turn the ball over, this game could be an upset. The Beavers can be in this game because they can run and pass the ball on everyone they’ve played.
I respect what the Beavers are going through. The Ducks need to respect them too and then beat the tar out of them. Having an 8-4 record with this collection of players and the challenges the team faced would make Cristobal’s first year a success.
The crucial stats for the Arizona State game:
• No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Arizona State 4.4, Oregon 6.0 (Oregon. Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
• No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversion) — Oregon 7-of-16 for 44 percent, Arizona State 5-of-19 for 26 percent (Oregon. Leader wins 83 percent of the time);
• No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 5-of-5 for 100 percent, Arizona State 6-of-6 for 100 percent (Tie. Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
• No. 4 (average starting field position) — Oregon 37-yard line, Arizona State 34-yard line (Oregon. Leader wins 72 percent of the time);
• No 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 4, Arizona State 1 (Arizona State. Leader wins 73 percent of the time).
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.