COLUMBUS, Ohio – Nobody planted a flag in the literal sense, but the celebration was still on.
Linebacker Noah Sewell bowed at midfield. Puddles the mascot waved goodbye to the 100,482 fans in attendance. Oregon players made a mad dash for the end zone where a smattering of neon green jerseys were waiting.
No. 12 Oregon upset No. 3 Ohio State 35-28 at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, and the Ducks revelled in the release. An hour later, quarterback Anthony Brown tried to find the words.
“I can’t even explain it,” Brown said. “It’s something that hasn’t been done at Oregon before. Just being the first team to be able to do it, especially at Ohio State, is huge. I can’t really speak more on it. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Ohio State entered the game on a 24-game home winning streak. The last loss, a 31-16 non-conference matchup against Oklahoma, was the one where Baker Mayfield planted a flag at the midfield “O” logo on Sept. 9, 2017. Victories are hard to come by at The Shoe, and the Ducks entered the game with long odds.
Oregon was a two-touchdown underdog in a game with a 9 a.m. PT start. Defensive stars Kayvon Thibodeaux and Justin Flowe were sidelined with injuries. The Ducks were 0-9 all time against the Buckeyes, but Ducks coach Mario Cristobal sensed it coming during warmups. The preparation needed was there. Safety Verone McKinley III had a feeling, too, one that stemmed from his dream earlier this week of getting the game-winning interception. Oregon lived by a program philosophy.
“In football, you have to be ready for whatever (happens),” McKinley said. “It’s a next-man up mentality. We knew everyone was going to be prepared for this game.”
Oregon flipped the script with a balanced offense that totaled 236 passing yards and 269 rushing yards. Brown completed 17 of 35 passes for 236 yards with two TDs, and he avoided a turnover. Running back CJ Verdell, who said he watched Minnesota have success on the ground against Ohio State in the opener, had 195 total yards and three TDs.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead dialed up a brilliant game plan that exploited the edges of the Buckeyes’ suddenly vulnerable defense on the perimeter.
Brown, a Boston College transfer, made his point with solid play for four quarters and joined a short list of quarterbacks who silenced Ohio Stadium in the last decade.
“He’s a cool in the right way kind of cool guy,” Cristobal said. “When you’ve been through what he’s been through injury-wise and everything he’s been through in his career, it hardens you. He’s become callous.”
It was the most-visible non-conference victory for the Ducks since Dennis Dixon ran wild at Michigan Stadium in a 39-7 blowout on Sept. 8, 2007. Yet Cristobal points to a different game against a Big Ten opponent that set the groundwork for Saturday’s upset.
“In 2018, when we first started up at Oregon we had nine wins and played a very-physical Michigan State team in the RedBox Bowl and took a lot of pride in winning that game 7-6,” Cristobal said. “A lot of people kind of laughed and shrugged that off. We used that.”
Nobody’s laughing now. Ohio State has to answer a head-scratching question now. How can a team with 612 yards of offense under third-year coach Ryan Day, a former Chip Kelly assistant at Oregon, lose?
Future first-round receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson totaled 20 catches for 243 yards, and C.J. Stroud passed for 484 yards.
Yet the Ducks found ways to make key defensive plays at the right time. Ohio State had four drives end without points in Oregon territory. Sewell stuffed running back Mayan Williams on a fourth-and-two in the first half. Stroud could not generate first downs with third-down passes, and the Buckeyes were 6 of 15 on third-down conversions.
All that caught up with Ohio State on a third-and-18 with 2:50 remaining. Stroud scrambled from pressure, but he sailed a pass high, where McKinley’s dream came true.
That celebration followed soon afterward.
“Big game for Oregon, big game for the Pac-12 to come to a place where they haven’t lost many games at home,” Cristobal said. “Not for a long, long time.”
The last time it happened, Oklahoma finished 12-1 and edged out two-loss Ohio State for the last playoff spot in 2017. That’s the magnitude of the moment, a phrase Cristobal repeated a few times in his postgame press conference. The Pac-12 hasn’t had a College Football Playoff team since 2016, and the conference needed this game for perception.
“That locker room right now is spent,” Cristobal said. “They’re exhausted, but they’re also realizing that we can be a really good football team. We have to continue along those lines with practice and preparation.”
Oregon now has a favorable schedule leading up to the Oct. 23 matchup with No. 14 UCLA and Kelly, the former Oregon coach who has that program rolling, too. That has the feel of must-see TV, something that has not been said for a while.
Is the Pac-12 back now?
“That stuff is for you guys to decide,” Cristobal said. “We’ve always prepared to be a certain kind of team.”
That is a team good enough to carry the Pac-12 flag to the College Football Playoff.