'We did that': How Oregon beat Ohio State for the first time in history
Behind Joe Moorhead's best game at Oregon and a defense that flexed without Kayvon Thibodeaux, the Ducks are winless against the Buckeyes no longer
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Oregon was already down one five-star linebacker and another five-star defensive end when Noah Sewell crumpled to the Ohio Stadium turf.
The Oregon linebacker just made another big play, tracking down Ohio State receiver Chris Olave for a one-yard gain on third down when the Buckeyes needed 20. But Sewell connected awkwardly, and for about 30 seconds Oregon’s sideline quieted for the first time Saturday. The 100,000 Ohio State fans in attendance filled the void, voicing their collective frustration with a chorus of “Bullshit” that rang throughout the stadium.
Maybe they couldn’t believe Sewell was actually injured. They certainly couldn’t fathom everything else that was happening.
See, No. 12 Oregon wasn’t supposed to be in this game. Not with Kayvon Thibodeaux, the best defensive player in America, in street clothes. Not with Justin Flowe, who led the Ducks with 14 tackles last week against Fresno State, in a walking boot. And certainly not with the No. 3 Buckeyes playing in front of their home crowd at the Horseshoe for the first time in nearly two years.
This is a Buckeyes team that has made consecutive playoff appearances with favorable odds of making it again. This is a Buckeyes team that expected to run through Oregon just as it had all nine times the teams have met since 1958.
But Ohio State was losing. So the fans booed and cursed and yelled. Eventually Sewell stirred, and as he got back to the sideline a faint but growing sound could be heard from the northeast corner of the stadium.
“Let’s go Ducks.”
Ten minutes later, Oregon had a 35-28 win and players, led by Sewell, made a beeline for that corner of the stadium. Oregon fans flocked down from the upper deck and sprinted down the aisles to meet them. It was controlled bedlam, and once pictures were taken and palms were slapped and Sewell had said what he needed to say to family and friends, he turned around and saw his final target, locking Oregon coach Mario Cristobal in a hug and squeezing the air out of the former offensive lineman. He then put his finger in his coach’s chest.
“We did that!” Sewell yelled. “We did that.”
The offense didn’t look ready for this a week ago.
The Ducks needed Anthony Brown’s 30-yard run on fourth down in the fourth quarter to beat a Mountain West opponent, and with three four-star freshmen quarterbacks on the bench, there was a vocal contingent of fans calling for the Ducks to get on with the future.
Just wait, Brown’s teammates cautioned throughout the week.
“Even if you guys don’t think he had the best game, I’m telling you that he has so much potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation,” receiver Mycah Pittman said Tuesday. “We’re going to let it loose against Ohio State and he’s going to show his true colors.”
A week later, Oregon put up 505 yards of total offense against the third-most talented (per 247 Sports) team in the country. The Ducks carved Ohio State up for 269 yards on the ground, led by CJ Verdell’s 161 yards on 20 carries behind an offensive line that bullied the Buckeyes on the edges. It was all expertly guided by Brown, who threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns. He only completed 48 percent of his passes, but he didn’t turn the ball over and provided an overwhelmingly calm presence for the Ducks while leading scoring drives of 99, 65, 84, 75 and 74 yards.
The 99-yarder was key. It gave Oregon’s thinned defense an extended break at the end of the first quarter and included an 18-yard Brown run that saw the quarterback lower his shoulder and truck through Ohio State corner Lejond Cavazos for extra yardage. Verdell scored from 14-yards out to cap the drive and Oregon led 7-0 in a game it would never trail.
“That’s the ultimate accomplishment as an offense,” Cristobal said. “Anytime you can go 99 yards, that one stays on the teach tape going forward because you flip the field, you change the momentum.
“…Besides being a playmaker, (Brown’s) poise is special. It’s different. He’s a really, really cool guy, and when you’ve been through what he’s been through injury wise — and everything he’s had to deal with in his career — it hardens you. You become calloused. He’s unfazed.”
Brown started three years at Boston College. He had a pair of knee surgeries, never beat a top-25 opponent, transferred to Oregon after the pandemic started, sat behind Tyler Shough throughout the 2020 season and then made it through a spring and fall camp where more than a few fans wanted to see the Ducks kick the tires on freshman Ty Thompson, the highest-rated quarterback recruit ever to sign with Oregon.
And while Thompson may be the future of the program, Brown, the No. 798 player in the 2016 class, has the locker room behind him.
“Honestly, it developed over the time being here,” Brown said. “We work together all the time and I love them. I would lay my life on the line for them. That’s something you can’t build and you have to keep pushing through it.”
Thibodeaux is the highest-rated recruit in Oregon history and he wore a black hat pulled tightly over sunglasses on the sideline.
Flowe is the second-highest in Oregon history and wore a boot on his left foot.
“That was surprise to all of us,” Cristobal said. “No one knew until Tuesday that something had happened, that something had surfaced in the game (last week).”
With those 10 stars of talent on the sideline, the already 14.5-point underdog Ducks didn’t seem like they had much of a chance. Then backup linebacker Keith Brown got banged up and Sewell took his licks.
After struggling in the first quarter, Ohio State freshman C.J. Stroud would go on to pass for 484 yards on 54 attempts. The Buckeyes had 612 yards of total offense and ran 85 plays.
Really, the Ducks should have been gassed. But something felt familiar to Verone McKinley III in the fourth quarter with Oregon hanging onto a 35-28 lead in the final minutes.
“I kept having dreams about getting the game-winning pick,” the Oregon safety said. “It just kept popping up in my mind.”
With Ohio State facing a third-and-18 with 2:50 to play on its last tangible opportunity of the game, Stroud took the snap, rolled to his right, fired and was picked off by McKinley. The Ducks had already stopped the Buckeyes three times on fourth down, but this was the real first turnover.
Through two games, an Oregon team that ranked 121st (-1.3) in 2020 in turnover margin per game now sits 12th (2.0).
“In football you just have to respond,” McKinley said. “Sometimes you don’t want to be in those situations, but it’s always just about the next play.”
The Ducks are no cinderella.
Oregon has won consecutive Pac-12 championships and its Rose Bowl win in the 2019 season felt like a stepping stone. Recruiting has padded the roster, moving closer to Cristobal’s vision when he took over the program at the end of 2017.
But it hasn’t been smooth since Justin Herbert left. The Ducks appeared listless at times in 2020 with inconsistent quarterback play and five new starters along the offensive line who took their lumps. Joe Moorhead, whose hiring as offensive coordinator last year seemingly signified a change from Oregon’s conservative offensive approach into something more opened up, had the sixth-best offense — in the Pac-12 — in 2020.
“We felt that identity was coming and coming strong,” Cristobal said. “And last year we found a way to win the conference, but we didn’t play to our standard and we wanted to get back on track.”
For much of the week, Moorhead’s name has been floated as a potential option for Connecticut's head coaching vacancy. It was there, after all, that the Pittsburgh native really started fine-tuning his offense more than a decade ago.
He casts a bigger figure in person. Tall with broad shoulders and a thick grey beard that he didn’t have when hired, he spent the final minutes of the best game he’s called at Oregon pacing the sidelines. And when the clock ran out, he slowly turned toward the Ohio State crowd and put his finger to his lips as chaos erupted on the sideline.
— Tyson Alger