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Better late than never for Oregon

Ducks use second-half surge to all but lock up Pac-12 North title

Oregon took care of business Saturday against Washington State, pulling away in the second half for a 38-24 victory that all but locked up the Pac-12 North Division title.

The third-ranked Ducks (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) now have a two-game lead over both Washington State (5-5, 4-3) and Oregon State (6-4, 4-3) in the conference standings, which means only a monumental collapse in their final two regular-season games would keep them out of the Pac-12 Championship game.

“You’re remembered for what you do in November,” Oregon center Alex Forsyth said. “That’s a big emphasis for us, just finishing strong. You want to be the team that finishes strong.”

The Ducks got off to an inauspicious start, allowing what appeared to be a 77-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the game.

Replay review brought the ball back to the 7-yard line, where wideout Calvin Jackson Jr. stepped out of bounds, and on the very next play quarterback Jayden de Laura dove for the pylon and fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback, giving Oregon the ball at its own 20-yard line when realistically the Ducks should have been down 7-0 less than a minute into the game.

That possession didn’t yield any points, but it did allow the Ducks to catch their breath and regain some composure following the potentially catastrophic start. After the teams traded punts, Oregon drove 75 yards in 11 plays and took a 7-0 lead on Travis Dye’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Dye added an 11-yard TD reception less than two minutes later and it looked like the rout was on, but Washington State had other ideas and the Cougars scored a pair of late touchdowns to tie things up 14-14 at halftime.

“We started fast and we took the momentum, and then we let them take the momentum,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “We all felt we were going to have to earn this thing one play at a time. When you’re playing really good teams this time of year that have the same (things) at stake as you have, you’re going to get their best.

“That’s a really good football team. That’s a team that’s really hard to prepare for.”

Mykael Wright returned the second-half kickoff 56 yards to fire up Autzen Stadium and set Oregon up with prime field position, and the Ducks outscored Washington State 24-3 in the second half before the Cougars got a meaningless touchdown with 9 seconds left.

BROWN SILENCES CRITICS: The play of quarterback Anthony Brown has been something of a flash point for Oregon fans this season.

The super senior was more effective as a runner than a passer on Saturday, but Brown was still efficient if not spectacular. He ran 17 times for a career-high 123 yards and had a nifty 17-yard touchdown run in the third quarter when he dodged two defenders, tiptoed down the sideline and extended the ball past the pylon. As a passer, Brown completed 17 of 22 passes (77%) for 135 yards and a TD.

“Anthony, again, continues to find ways to move our offense, making plays with his arm and with his feet,” Cristobal said. “What they were doing called for him to use his legs tonight and he did it.

“We take a lot of pride as coaches in making adjustments and finding areas to attack. We thought these things would work and they work only when they’re executed at a high level. Anthony used every bit of everything he has to make it a reality.”

Brown was mostly at his best in the second half against Washington State, playing a big part in all 24 points as the Ducks pulled away. He also had a costly fumble in the fourth quarter when he was stripped just short of the goal line, allowing the Cougars to return the ball to midfield and stay within 10 points.

“Running the ball was part of the game plan. I didn’t know it was going to lead to this, but it happened and I’m just grateful for it,” Brown said. “Offensive line, running backs, they all did a great job seeing things. We worked on these protections all week. Hats off to those guys. Offensive line did a hell of a job today.”

Duck fans have criticized Brown, a sixth-year senior, for his tendency to make check-down passes in long-yardage situations and his general lack of accuracy on intermediate and deep throws.

Brown didn’t take too many shots down the field against Washington State, missing on a bomb down the right sideline intended for Devon Williams but also connecting on a 31-yard frozen rope to Johnny Johnson III that set up a third-quarter field goal.

For better or worse, Oregon coaches have made it clear that they are committed to Brown at quarterback this season, meaning fans will likely need to wait until 2022 before seeing extended playing time for highly touted freshman quarterback Ty Thompson, a five-star recruit from Arizona.

SCOUTS OUT IN FORCE: There were numerous NFL scouts in the press box Saturday night, with representatives from the Bears, Broncos, Cardinals, Giants, Jaguars, Jets, Packers, Patriots and Seahawks in attendance.

Much of the attention was focused on Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, a likely top-5 pick in next spring’s NFL draft who is also being discussed as the possible No. 1 overall pick.

Thibodeaux didn’t disappoint, racking up six solo tackles and a pair of quarterback sacks despite being double- and triple-teamed for most of the game.

“There were plays where they made it hard for me to contribute, but having a team that creates pressure ... having guys who can play and kind of take that load off (me),” Thibodeaux said. “Playing as a unit helps me play better, just relying on my teammates. The only reason I’m able to get those sacks is because the coverage is so tight and guys are coming off the other edge.

“It was a team effort and I was just able to put that ability on display.”

Several other Ducks had a chance to make an impression Saturday night. Defensive back Verone McKinley III intercepted a pass and finished with a game-high eight tackles, Jamal Hill had seven tackles and forced de Laura’s early fumble, and Bryan Addison got a late interception that helped seal the outcome.

ON TO UTAH: Early betting lines for next weekend’s game against Utah have the Ducks opening as a slim 2.5-point underdog despite sitting third in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Utah beat Oregon 32-25 the last time these teams met in Salt Lake City back in 2018, and they also spanked the Ducks 62-20 at Autzen Stadium in 2015. Overall, Oregon has won six of the last eight meetings, including a 37-15 win in the 2019 Pac-12 Championship game.

“It’s huge,” Forsyth said of the upcoming game against Utah. “Every game is a playoff game in the Pac-12. Utah is a great program, they have been since they joined the Pac-12. I’m really excited for the opportunity.”

Utah sits at 7-3 overall and leads the Pac-12 South Division with a 6-1 record after Saturday’s 38-29 win over Arizona.

The Utes have won three games in a row since a surprising loss to Oregon State, and they are the current favorites to win the division and represent the South in the conference championship game, which could set up an intriguing rematch against Oregon with CFP implications.

“What people fail to realize is that every game you play in November, something’s on the line,” Brown said. “Things are higher stakes and some people don’t understand that dynamic.”

Oregon running back Byron Cardwell (21) celebrates his touchdown with Oregon wide receiver Troy Franklin (11) during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Andy Nelson)