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DUCK NOTES: Turnovers loom large in Fiesta Bowl loss

The Ducks were undone by turnovers during their return to a New Year’s Day bowl game on a balmy Saturday night in the desert.

Oregon committed five turnovers — including a pair of costly special teams blunders — and Iowa State dominated possession with a strong running game to shoot down the Ducks 34-17 at the 50th annual Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.

“They were able to sustain some long drives,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said of the 10th-ranked Cyclones. “We were moving the ball well offensively in the first half and scored some points. In the second half, credit to them because they’re forcing turnovers, but we gave up the ball a couple times and the defense was out there for a long period of time.

“(Our defense) spent a lot of time on the field and fought their tails off to give us an opportunity on several occasions to get the ball back. But we weren’t able to execute and get done what we needed to get done.”

Oregon’s performance on Saturday was typified by a pair of unforced special teams mistakes.

The first came late in the second quarter when Iowa State pooched a kickoff down the right sideline. Oregon tight end D.J. Johnson couldn’t track down the football and the Cyclones recovered at the 27-yard line. Three plays later, they were in the end zone and celebrating a 28-14 lead.

Then, early in the second half, Oregon muffed a punt return when the ball glanced off the helmet of blocker Mykael Wright and Iowa State recovered at the 15-yard line. The Cyclones turned that into a 33-yard field goal by Connor Assalley for a 31-17 advantage.

“We practice fielding pooch kicks because that’s what they do — they squib them, they kick them to the ends, sometimes they kick them deep, sometimes they kick them short, sometimes they kick them at the front line,” Cristobal said. “We had practiced a bunch of it. But we need to do a better job coaching them up and getting them ready for that situation.”

Oregon also lost a pair of fumbles that didn’t directly lead to any Iowa State points, but the Cyclones held the ball for almost 43 minutes, running 85 offensive plays to just 46 for the Ducks and accumulating 228 rushing yards. The final turnover of the game — Mike Rose’s interception of a Tyler Shough pass with 3:19 remaining — allowed Iowa state to bleed the remaining clock.

“You make your own breaks. We’ve got to do a better job coaching ball security, we’ve got to do a better job making sure we avoid penalties,” Cristobal said. “It’s a game of execution. There are things you can’t compromise in a game like this against a top-10 team — you can’t compromise your physicality, your execution, your focus and your effort. When you turn over the ball like we did, it’s hard to overcome.”

Quarterback controversy?

The Ducks continued to use a short-yardage package featuring backup quarterback Anthony Brown — but this time around he got a much longer leash.

Brown, a 6-2, 225-pound graduate transfer from Boston College, accounted for two short touchdowns in limited action during Oregon’s 31-24 victory over USC two weeks ago in the Pac-12 title game. On Saturday against Iowa State, Brown entered the game on a short-yardage play in the first quarter and wound up taking the majority of the snaps the rest of the way.

Shough, a sophomore, started the game, but offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead called on Brown to cap the Ducks’ first offensive drive and then stuck with the senior for the rest of the first half and a few more series in the second.

“We went into the game with the same type of packages for Anthony in short yardage and some four-minute stuff. But we didn’t determine that we were going to put him in in the second quarter to play,” Cristobal said. “He developed a hot hand, so we stayed with the hot hand. That was what transpired. Nothing else.”

Brown checked into the game on first-and-goal with 4:14 left in the first quarter and darted 6 yards untouched into the end zone on a run/pass option that tied the score at 7-7.

After a goal-line stand gave Oregon possession on its own 2-yard line midway through the second quarter, Brown led the offense on a nine-play, 98-yard drive, capped by a 16-yard touchdown run on a read-option that made it 14-14.

With Iowa State leading 28-14 late in the first half, it was once again Brown taking the snaps and guiding the Ducks on a scoring drive that ended with Henry Katleman’s 47-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 11 points at halftime.

“When Anthony went in, he was doing well so we went with him,” Cristobal said. “That was the extent of the decision process.”

Shough re-entered the game with 4:02 left in the third quarter after the Ducks were forced to punt on their first two possessions of the second half, but Brown was back on the field for a third-and-short situation that resulted in a fumble that was recovered near midfield by Iowa State. Both players took snaps the rest of the way but neither could rally the Oregon offense.

Brown finished the game 12-of-19 for 147 yards passing with 36 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Shough was 7-of-9 through the air for 79 yards with an interception.

Shough will be a junior next year while Brown could potentially use his NCAA waiver to return for another season. The Ducks will also welcome five-star quarterback prospect Ty Thompson out of Gilbert, Ariz.

“We’ll sit down and evaluate everything,” Cristobal said of the quarterback situation. “Tyler came in this year as the starter and he started this game as well. He did a lot of good things out there and we have tremendous confidence in him. We’re excited about Anthony as well. So a lot of different situations.

“We’ve got some good players on campus, we’ve got an elite player coming in, so there’s a lot of moving parts to this but we feel confident in the quarterback room.”

Odds and ends

Oregon’s leading tackler this season, junior linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia, was disqualified in the second quarter after being flagged for a targeting penalty at the end of a 14-yard scramble by Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy ... The Ducks continued their struggles defending the run, giving up 136 yards and two touchdowns to Iowa State standout Breece Hall. The Cyclones rushed for 228 yards as a team, marking the third time this season an opponent has rushed for more than 200 yards against Oregon ... Purdy and Shough grew up near each other in Arizona and Saturday’s game marked the fifth time the two have gone head-to-head on the football field. Purdy is now 5-0 against his friend and former rival, including a pair of victories in the Arizona high school state playoffs.

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal looks at the clock during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)