ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal and the Ducks were already wounded after shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly Saturday night at AT&T Stadium.
After No. 11 Oregon saw its 21-6 lead evaporate into a 27-21 defeat to No. 16 Auburn, opposing running back JaTarvious Whitlow added insult to injury.
“Nobody wanted to lose to Oregon. We feel like that's a bad reputation on them. What are they, ACC? Pac-12?” Whitlow wondered aloud. “I didn't even know what they were.
“A Pac-12 team coming in and beating an SEC team, we can't take that."
The “SEC! SEC! SEC!” chant started after Bo Nix’s game-winning touchdown pass with nine seconds remaining.
Perhaps Whitlow and the orange- and blue-clad side of the stadium didn’t see all of the scores posted by their conference peers — Arkansas 20, Portland State 13 … Georgia State 38, Tennessee 30 … Wyoming 37, Missouri 31 — not worth bragging about.
The Pac-12 might be struggling compared to other Power 5 conferences, but the Ducks were in control of their mighty SEC opponent for most of the night and only had themselves to blame after allowing the Tigers to roar back.
A few of the moments that will be tough for Cristobal’s team to stomach in the film room:
• In the first quarter, redshirt freshman wide receiver Bryan Addison dropped an apparent touchdown pass in the back of the end zone that would have given Oregon a 14-0 lead.
• Freshman placekicker Camden Lewis missed a 20-yard field goal, which would have at least made the score 10-0 after Addison’s gaffe.
• In the second quarter, quarterback Justin Herbert lost a fumble after running into CJ Verdell on first-and-goal at the 9-yard line. Instead of the Ducks possibly taking a 21-3 lead, Auburn cashed the turnover in for a field goal to cut its deficit to 14-6.
• In the fourth quarter, Oregon called back-to-back timeouts before the critical fourth-and-1 at the Auburn 41-yard line. Verdell, taking a handoff from Tyler Shough while Herbert sat out for a play after receiving medical attention on the field, was stuffed for a loss.
“Certainly like to have a few things back,” Cristobal lamented after the game. “A tough one, a real tough one. Real tough moments in that locker room right now.”
After surging ahead 21-6 on a 6-yard touchdown run by Darrian Felix, Oregon’s final six drives ended with four punts, on downs with the stop of Verdell, and Herbert’s Hail Mary attempt sailing deep out of the end zone.
The defense, led by linebacker Troy Dye’s career-high 15 tackles, made Nix look every bit like a true freshman frozen in the headlights for most of the game.
Before Auburn’s final drive, Nix was 9-for-25 passing for 124 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
But given one last opportunity at redemption, Nix converted a fourth-and-3 on a run with an inch to spare, calmly completed a third-and-10 with a 13-yard pass and completed the comeback with a gutsy 26-yard touchdown pass to Seth Williams with nine seconds left.
“There for a while it looked like we were running out of time,” Nix said. “We just stayed calm and we protected well. We made a huge fourth-down conversion by the point (of the ball) and completed that out route to (Williams).
“We just finished it off.”
Oregon’s grandiose plans for the 2019 season are not finished.
Andy Avalos’ defense held up physically against Auburn, and the Herbert-led offense should improve dramatically as injured wide receivers Juwan Johnson, Mycah Pittman and Brenden Schooler get healthy in the weeks to come.
The Ducks have a chance to gain some momentum with home games against Nevada and Montana before opening Pac-12 play with a road test at Stanford.
“We know that this doesn’t define our season,” right tackle Calvin Throckmorton said. “Even though it’s the first game, and it’s kind of a gut check, we know what kind of team we can be. We saw the flashes in the game.
“So, it’s all about just coming together and staying together and making sure that we’re on point.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email podcast mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.