The Oregon players made a slow, painful walk off the field at Reser Stadium on Saturday, making their way past celebrating players through excited students.
Once off the field, their path took them up the long ramp toward their locker room at Gill Coliseum, fans on either side.
The Ducks coughed up the three-touchdown lead they held late in the third quarter and lost to rival Oregon State 38-34 before a raucous crowd of 28,840.
It’s hard to see how Oregon State won with a quick glance at the statistics. Oregon outgained the Beavers 470 yards to 328 and limited OSU to 60 yards net passing.
Those numbers don’t tell the story. This loss belongs to UO coach Dan Lanning. His fingerprints are all over it.
Lanning made an inexplicable decision after OSU had sliced Oregon’s lead to 34-31 in the fourth quarter. The Ducks had the ball on their own 29, facing fourth and 1. Lanning chose to go for the first down.
To be fair, the UO punting game has been a problem all season. To that point in the game, Oregon punter Alex Bales had had one punt blocked, and was tackled at his own 2 after mishandling another.
Still, a punt looked like the safe option given Oregon’s position on the field.
Instead, Lanning cast caution and common sense aside. Quarterback Bo Nix, playing on a gimpy right ankle, pulled the ball and kept it on an option play.
OSU safety Jaydon Grant was waiting for Nix and buried him for a one-yard loss.
It took five plays for the Beavers to score from there. OSU was ahead for keeps.
Nix shouldered the blame, saying he made the wrong decision by keeping.
If he could run the play over, Nix said, “I would probably have handed the ball off.”
He shouldn’t have been in that position. Even a 30-yard punt would have given Oregon’s defense more to work with — especially given the game situation.
“We’ve been aggressive in our nature the majority of the year,” Lanning said. “A lot of times it’s worked for us. If you also look back and say, ‘OK. It’s fourth down. We’ve had two punts that were in complete disarray.’
“I like my chances on fourth and 1 to try to get it rather than line up for another punt that maybe won’t be successful.”
Sorry. Not good enough.
If the punt team is so problematic in Week 12 that the best option is to gamble on a fourth-down play deep in your own territory against the Pac-12′s best run defense, well, that is on him too.
Lanning is new to this. He is a 36-year-old, first-year head coach who has done a lot of things right. He is personable. He brings a lot of energy to the job. He has a nice rep as a recruiter.
UO athletic director Rob Mullens certainly knew when he hired a young, inexperienced guy to head the program that Lanning would need to grow into the job. Sometimes growing pains are painful.
Oregon’s season isn’t over. The postseason awaits. The Ducks are 9-3, 7-2 in conference, and clearly not quitters.
Nix marshaled them down the field to within reach of the OSU end zone in the fading moments of the fourth quarter before the drive expired on downs on OSU’s 3. The Beavers then put it away and the students rushed the field.
Oregon did a lot of things right. Nix threw for 327 yards and a pair of touchdowns. One was a 44-yarder to Chase Cota, who made a sensational catch in the end zone.
But this is a good Oregon State team. The Beavers (9-3, 6-3) refused to surrender, even when trailing 31-10 in the third quarter.
It was with OSU in full comeback mode and Oregon nursing a three-point lead in the fourth quarter that Lanning handed the Beavers the ball and the short field.
The Ducks never came back from that.
“Ultimately, we didn’t get it done,” Lanning said. “We have to go back and evaluate ourselves and do a better job.”
Fair enough. First, though, the Ducks had to make that long, slow, painful walk up the ramp and away from a rivalry game they kicked away.
— Ken Goe reported from Corvallis for The Oregonian/OregonLive.
KenGoe1020@gmail.com | Twitter: @KenGoe