EUGENE — A devastating loss to Arizona State a week earlier had Oregon’s collective attention, for more reasons than the fact that it essentially eliminated the Ducks from College Football Playoff contention with the second loss of the season.
Oregon was then tasked with having to prepare for its rival, an Oregon State squad hungry to take another big jump forward and become bowl eligible.
But the Ducks (10-2) made just enough plays Saturday afternoon, getting a 24-10 win against the Beavers as they prepare for Friday’s Pac-12 football championship game.
“It was kind of harder to refocus just because of the fact that we haven’t come off a loss in so long, since Auburn,” said Oregon junior cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. of his team’s 27-21 season-opening loss to the Tigers in Dallas. “We just wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. It wasn’t something we wanted.”
Graham’s tackle and forced fumble of Jermar Jefferson set up the Ducks’ game-winning score with 1:15 remaining Saturday.
Oregon wasn’t itself on offense, converting just three of 14 third-down attempts (21.4 percent) after entering the game having converted 46 percent this season.
Facing the country’s 120th-ranked pass defense in Oregon State (5-7), quarterback Justin Herbert was 18-of-30 passing for 174 yards, the senior’s second-lowest yardage total this fall. He threw one touchdown, had a long completion of 28 yards and was sacked twice.
The Ducks ran for 191 yards, led by Travis Dye’s 91 on 12 attempts, and were outgained in overall yardage 380-365.
“We weren’t very efficient today, obviously,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “We’ve been really good on third down as well, and today we were 3 of 14, so very uncharacteristic of us. Not up to our standard, and we’ve got to bet back to work and get better at it.”
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Oregon had recruits visiting for the game. As soon as recruiting efforts wrapped up Saturday, the focus was expected to quickly turn to the championship game and a matchup with Pac-12 South Division champion Utah.
Cristobal said in preparing the goal is to give the team the best chance on a short week to get a win, which would send the Ducks to the Rose Bowl.
“You can’t cram an extra day into six days. You’ll hurt your football team more than anything else,” the coach said. “We’ve had good success on both bye weeks and on short weeks. We feel that we have a really good plan.”
Oregon came off a bye to defeat California at home, 17-7 on Oct. 5, then beat Colorado at Autzen six days later, 45-3.
That started a strong offensive stretch for the Ducks, scoring 34 or more in five straight wins.
But the offense started to show some cracks in the Arizona State loss, a 31-28 road defeat. That continued Saturday.
“I think we just need to execute better. I think we were shooting ourselves in the foot a lot. Just little mistakes, little mental mistakes,” said Oregon receiver Johnny Johnson III, whose 28-yard touchdown catch from Herbert gave his team a 17-3 lead. “I think we’re not playing to our best right now. I think we can play a lot better.”
Utah, which rolled past Colorado on Saturday night to earn its spot in the title game, won’t be an easy team to get the offense back in gear. The Utes are in the top five in NCAA Division I football in points allowed.
The Ducks are aware of the task at hand.
“It’s going to take discipline, focus and keying into the game plan for whatever the coaches have steeled up for them and be ready when adversity hits,” Graham said. “Today is a moment to help us prepare for the championship game.”