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With epic upset of Ohio State, Oregon announces itself as a contender

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – The last time an opposing team celebrated at midfield of Ohio Stadium came back in 2017 when Baker Mayfield planted Oklahoma’s flag at midfield here. Victories by visitors in Ohio State’s fabled Horseshoe happen only when there’s a confluence of elite teams, highest-end talent and special circumstance.

So after No. 12 Oregon outmuscled, out-schemed and eventually outlasted No. 3 Ohio State, 35-28, in the season’s first truly seismic upset on Saturday, it marked more than a two-touchdown underdog winning on the road. It spoke to something greater, an axis-shifting victory that thrust Oregon into the College Football Playoff conversation, rejuvenated the sputtering Pac-12 and helped potentially shake up the balance of power from the sport’s predictable playoff participants.

The upset could best be summarized by the dueling postgame scenes, nearly 50 yards apart. In the same spot where Mayfield planted his flag, the Oregon Duck mascot mugged for pictures on the red Block O at midfield. “Just the grit of our football team, and the practice and preparation becoming game reality was awesome,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal told Yahoo Sports walking off the field after the game. “It was an awesome college football game.”

Meanwhile, 50 yards away in the south end zone, beleaguered Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs flanked the end of a subdued singing of the school’s alma mater. His white hair askew, face flush from defeat and eyes glazed with shock, Coombs had the look of a man who knows he’s destined for a few weeks in the crosshairs. “It was a game we were never really in control of,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said in the postgame. He added: “There’s enough blame to go around here.”

Oregon tight end Moliki Matavao, right, celebrates his touchdown against Ohio State with tight end Terrance Ferguson during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Oregon beat Ohio State 35-28. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Oregon tight end Moliki Matavao, right, celebrates his touchdown against Ohio State with tight end Terrance Ferguson during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Oregon beat Ohio State 35-28. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

 

The Ducks won with a 99-yard drive straight from a Cristobal fever dream and three touchdowns scored essentially on the same edge run play. They also won without end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the potential No. 1 NFL draft pick, and two other key linebackers. They pushed Ohio State around up front, schemed around them on the edges and walked out with the rarest of college football victories.

They came on the road, into a bubbling cauldron of cathartic hostility, and left to the sweetest sound in all of sports – the eerie silence of 100,000 stunned fans who arrived for a welcome-back-college football coronation. It was a searing reminder of just how sweet – and rare – these types of victories are.

Oregon has been a stout program under Cristobal, as it's won two straight Pac-12 titles and a Rose Bowl. But this is the biggest national moment in Cristobal’s short tenure, as the 2019 Ducks team rose to No. 6 before a November loss to Arizona State wiped them from the CFP race.

The victory offered both a real-time indication of the Ducks’ 2021 reality and a hint at the future. As Cristobal walked off the field and up the tunnel, he pointed ahead to injured linebacker Justin Flowe, who was walking in a boot a week after registering 14 tackles against Fresno State. He bemoaned the loss of another linebacker, Dru Mathis, and a flurry of other injuries Oregon overcame.

“It’s a shame guys like this are hurt,” Cristobal said, pointing to Flowe. “We’ve really got a nice team coming together. Our classes are stacking up. We’re not where we need to be yet, but I think it’s a good indication of where the program is headed and the trajectory of the program.”

That trajectory pointed to the top of the sport on Saturday. The maestro of the performance was Joe Moorhead, the Ducks offensive coordinator who called a spellbinding game and reminded everyone why he’s considered among the sport’s most gifted minds. Oregon didn’t just rack up 505 yards, they did it with an intoxicating combination of power, cleverness and efficiency.

Oregon averaged 7.1 yards per rush. They both gashed Ohio State between the tackles and put the linebackers in conflict to exploit the edges. Quarterback Anthony Brown proved a steady conductor, throwing for 236 yards, rushing for 65 more and, most important, not turning the ball over. Facing a defense filled with elite recruits and NFL prospects, Oregon threw the ball 35 times with no sacks and ran the ball 38 times with just one negative carry. CJ Verdell ran for 161 yards, including a way-too-easy 77-yarder up the middle to make it 21-7 early in the third quarter. Ohio State’s mad dash to come back never materialized.

Statistics don’t quantify the swaths of green space seemingly every run and pass play was designed into. And statistics certainly can’t sum up the glow of Moorhead’s grin after the game on the field. He declined comment to Yahoo because of Oregon program rules, but his glistening grin spoke 1,000 words.

Sep 11, 2021; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Oregon Ducks running back CJ Verdell (7)celebrates his touchdown run during the second quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 11, 2021; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Oregon Ducks running back CJ Verdell (7)celebrates his touchdown run during the second quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

“Unbelievable game,” Cristobal said of his offensive coordinator. “He did what Morehead does. What he did was why we sought him so zealously, we wanted to make sure we brought in a guy who was a difference maker.”

There was no such glow from the Buckeyes. Day lost for the first time in the regular season as a head coach, a two-year joyride as full-time coach in which his only two losses came in the College Football Playoff. The tenor of Alabama’s national title blowout of the Buckeyes certainly hinted a day like this could come, as the Tide not only scored 52 but had the Buckeyes compromised in mismatches all day.

Day wanted to see the film before diving too deep into specifics, especially on the edge run plays that allowed the Ducks to essentially dance into the end zone. But his tone indicated there’d be changes. “We have to get things addressed and fixed,” Day said, confronting perhaps the first significant regular season adversity of his tenure.

Ohio State’s offense looked like its advertised self. C.J. Stroud had a breakout day in the loss, completing 35-of-54 for 484 yards and three touchdowns. His fourth-quarter interception essentially sealed the game for the Ducks, but any blame should be pointed elsewhere. Ohio State’s run game also disappeared, as it finished with 128 yards and just 4.1 yards per carry. Ohio State finished with 612 total yards, but going 2-for-5 on fourth downs and failing to score on consecutive fourth-quarter drives ultimately undid the Buckeyes.

This loss didn’t extinguish the postseason hopes of Ohio State. But it magnified the defensive issues – first exposed by giving up 31 points at Minnesota – that could ultimately douse those hopes. The Big Ten is still winnable, but for a team that fancies itself a national title contender there’s a defensive sieve that needs to be clogged.

It has been well documented that Day attempted to alter and fortify the OSU coaching staff this offseason. He moved Coombs to walk-around defensive coordinator, removing him from his daily duties as cornerbacks coach and allowing him to focus more on the overall scheme of his coordinator duties. Day also brought in former Iowa State head coach and long-time defensive coach Paul Rhoads as an analyst.

Ultimately, the defense’s performance doesn’t equal the sum of its collective parts. OSU’s defensive tackles are average, its linebackers are inexperienced and the secondary looks shakier with an injury to safety Josh Proctor. But there’s a clear lack of instinctive play and aggression that transcends talent. “It feels awful,” Day said of the day. “It’s unacceptable.”

The mugging of OSU’s defense enabled the midfield mugging from the Oregon Ducks postgame. Even Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff was feeling chesty, walking by press row in the game’s waning moments and asking: “Enjoying the Alliance so far, guys?”

Oregon sure is. And the Ducks’ statement win leaves Ohio State's season in a familiar position to Saturday afternoon – scrambling to figure out a way to come back.

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