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Beaver notes: Smith praises ability to bounce back in second half

CORVALLIS — At halftime of Oregon State’s Pac-12 football game against California on Saturday, two numbers looked pretty good to OSU: the Beavers’ own 14 points and the Golden Bears’ 20.

The rest of the statistics at that juncture pointed to a score that should have been far more lopsided.

Cal was outgaining the Beavers 317-164 in total yards. The Bears had run 45 plays to the Beavers’ 19 and held the ball for 21 minutes, 17 seconds to OSU’s 8:43.

Granted, Oregon State’s first three possessions were a pair of one-play scoring drives and a three-and-out, outcomes not conducive to possessing the football. But take away those scoring plays — Jermar Jefferson’s 75-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and Tristan Gebbia’s 35-yard pass to Teagan Quitoriano — and the Beavers had mustered just 54 yards on their other 17 plays.

A description of the half suggested to OSU head coach Jonathan Smith afterward was “surviving it” and he agreed after the Beavers pulled out a 31-27 win on a cold, overcast day at Reser Stadium.

“There was no panic,” Smith said of Oregon State’s halftime frame of mind. “We understood that we hadn’t played our best football, we were down six, understanding this game was going to get into the fourth quarter, keeping it close.

“I did think we made some great adjustments offensively and defensively. I think we started the second half, got a couple of stops. I think we scored on our first two possessions to take the lead. And just knowing this was going to come down to the fourth quarter.”

The final stats still skewed strongly in Cal’s favor but that was mostly due to the first half disparity. One big turnaround came in third-down conversions: after going 6-for-11 in the first half — including converting a third-and-14, a third-and-13 and a pair of third-and-8s — the Bears were just 3 for 8 in the second half.

“We just knew we had to get the ball back to the offense,” linebacker Avery Roberts said. “You see what they run the first play of the game, we knew what type of game it was going to be. We knew, just keep giving the ball to the offense and we’ll come out with the win.”

It was the second straight game OSU showed dramatic improvement on defense after halftime. Last week, the Beavers gave up 24 first-half points and then just three in the second half in a 27-21 loss at Washington.

“You just make adjustments for the things you’ve seen,” Roberts said. “Any team that’s not better the second half, they ain’t learning, so I think that just goes to our coaches making adjustments off the things they see and we just play from there.”

THAT’S SPECIAL: Special teams played a decisive role in the game. The biggest play was Jesiah Irish’s block of a Cal punt with 5:26 to play that set up Oregon State at the Bear 14-yard line to drive for the winning touchdown.

“We had a return set up for Trey-V (Trevon Bradford) to get a good return on,” Irish said. “The gap looked good enough for me to split it and I put my hand out there and made the block. It was pretty crazy and a pretty surreal feeling there’s no words to really explain that feeling.”

Late in the third quarter, Bradford had broken several tackles on a 36-yard punt return that took the ball to the Cal 39; the Beavers scored six plays later to take a 24-20 lead.

“It was huge,” Smith said of OSU’s special teams play. “It set up two short fields for our offense to get scores on. I think we’ve taken a step on special teams this year; some of it is our athleticism. I think Caleb (Lightbourn) does a great job in regard to kicking and punting and the hang time that takes place. Those were huge plays and made a difference in the game.”

Irish has a battle for playing time at wide receiver, but Smith said he might be Oregon State’s best special teams player.

“The way he runs down on punts, and he’s been doing it a couple of years,” Smith said. “And it was a huge play. It wasn’t like we called an all-out block on that — he’s just doing his job and believing he’s got a chance to make a play and he changed the game.”

Cal did get a 52-yard field goal from Dari Longhetto on the final play of the first half but had costly miscues on two other special teams plays: Nikko Remigio had both a 97-yard kickoff return and an 89-yard punt return finish in the end zone, only to be wiped out by penalties against the Bears.

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?: Jefferson finished with 196 yards rushing on the strength of that 75-yard touchdown run and then a game-clinching 65-yard run on OSU’s final possession. On that play, a Bear had the angle on Jefferson and caught him at about the 10-yard line; Jefferson appeared to be trying to decide whether to take him on and try for the touchdown or play it safe.

“Probably 50-50,” Jefferson said of trying to make that decision. “I was thinking about scoring, but I was thinking about getting down and getting out of bounds so nothing bad could happen.”

By then, he knew the game was clinched if he held onto the ball; the Beavers would be able to run out the clock with three kneel-downs.

“After I passed the second level, I was like, ‘Oh, this game — we won it,’” Jefferson said. “I was past the first down and it was, ‘Oh, yeah – it’s over.’”

TRIPLE THREAT: Gebbia had touchdowns passing, rushing and receiving in the game — something sending OSU officials scrambling through the record books. By late afternoon, they had determined he was the only Oregon State quarterback since at least 1999 to have that trifecta in one game and the 11th Pac-12 player since 1996 to do so.

The touchdown reception came on a double-reverse pass, with wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey finding Gebbia — his former roommate — for the score.

“On the sidelines, I said to him, ‘Who’d have thought our first touchdown connection would be you throwing to me?’ That was pretty wild,” Gebbia said.

Smith, who played at OSU as a 5-foot-9 quarterback known more for his savvy than his physical gifts, was asked whether he’d ever caught a touchdown pass.

“No,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t trust my hands and my athletic ability to get open. I never got a chance to do it.”

ODDS AND ENDS: The win was Oregon State’s second in a row over California; the Beavers won 21-17 in Berkeley last season. Cal now leads the all-time series 38-35 but OSU has a 16-13 edge in games played in Corvallis Jefferson’s runs of 75 and 65 yards were the two longest of his OSU career, topping a 62-yarder against Southern Utah in 2018. His 196 yards are the third-most he’s had in a game as a Beaver. Jefferson has rushed for at least 100 yards in all three games this season and done it 13 times in his career, tying him for fifth place on OSU’s all-time list with Pete Pifer.

Oregon State quarterback Tristan Gebbia tossed three touchdown passes in Saturday’s win over Cal in Corvallis. (Photo by Karl Maasdam)