Oregon State’s players had been searching for this feeling of elation for weeks.
A couple of close losses during the first two games of the season left the Beavers in a must-win situation Saturday. As badly as they needed a victory to bolster their record and salvage any hopes of reaching a bowl game, they also just needed the sensation of succeeding in a big moment.
Thanks to a pair of massive late-game plays, Oregon State got that as it topped California 31-27 at Reser Stadium Saturday.
“These guys are resilient. They understand it’s tough to win,” Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith said. “This league is tough; that’s a good football team. Winning is always big. That’s what you try to do. So we’ll enjoy this tonight.”
Trailing by a field goal with six minutes to go, the Beavers figured to get the ball back deep in their own territory and then pin their hopes of a game-winning drive to an offense that had looked lifeless for most of the second half. Oregon State’s last two series had ended with a three-and-out and an interception.
The situation looked grim.
But before any of that could take place, sophomore wideout Jesiah Irish turned the game on its head. With the Golden Bears set to punt from their own 40, Irish sprinted off the line of scrimmage and went careening past a pair of Cal players to block the punt and leave the Beavers set up at the 14-yard line.
“It was crazy on the sidelines. There’s no words to really explain that feeling,” Irish said of the moments following the play. “You only can get that one time. It’s kind of a life-changing experience.”
Oregon State wasted no time and punched the ball in on a 1-yard run by quarterback Tristan Gebbia three plays later to take a 31-27 lead.
With a little over four minutes to go, that left the Beavers needing one last stop to escape with a win. The momentum that had accompanied Irish’s big play didn’t last long, though, as the Golden Bears methodically moved down the field, going 69 yards on 10 plays.
Cal was working with a fresh set of downs from the Oregon State 20-yard line thanks to a defensive holding call on the previous play. But once again, an unlikely hero stepped up for the Beavers.
As Cal quarterback Chase Garbers fired a throw over the middle, his pass was tipped into the air by Hamilcar Rashed Jr., and linebacker John McCartan soared above a group of players to intercept it.
“I was just praying to God that somebody was going to come down with it,” Gebbia said of his view from the sideline. “Then, it’s just overwhelming joy.”
That essentially sealed the game for the Beavers — although Jermar Jefferson broke off a 65-yard run two plays later to put Oregon State in victory formation.
“After I passed the second level, I was like, ‘We won it. It’s over,’ Jefferson said with a smile.
While the win will surely be a shot in the arms for the Beavers heading into a short week against Oregon, there were still worrying signs throughout. Until the fourth quarter, Oregon State’s defense struggled to get off the field in third-down situations — something that has been an issue all season.
Ironically, the defense began to deliver in big moments while running without two of its more dynamic players. Hamilcar Rashed Jr. and Simon Sandberg both left the game with injuries late in the third quarter. While Rashed Jr. returned in a limited role, Sandberg missed the rest of the game.
Without those two, Oregon State’s defense rose to the occasion and forced two punts and an interception throughout Cal’s final four drives.
“It’s a mutual effort out there defensively,” Smith said. “There’s 11 guys out there having to do their jobs. We rotate a bunch… It was a group effort. They didn’t play flawless football, but these guys kept on swinging.”
The offense was equally flawed. Oregon State’s scoring came in bursts, and those bursts were rather noticeable. Jermar Jefferson uncorked a 75-yard touchdown run on the Beavers’ first play from scrimmage to give the Beavers an immediate boost.
Jefferson found daylight and effortlessly sprinted away from the Cal defense. But it was tight end Teagan Quitoriano who did the dirty work on the play.
Quitoriano engaged a Cal linebacker just past the line of scrimmage and pushed him 10 yards up field as though he were on roller skates, knocking another defender out of the play in the process.
“Tristan checked the play to the weak side, and I knew it was gonna be open,” Jefferson said. “When he said, ‘Hike’ I knew it, and then I saw daylight.”
Oregon State’s next touchdown came just as quickly. Thanks to some good field position, the Beavers started their third drive on Cal’s 35. Gebbia found Quitoriano on the first play of the series on a fade route for a quick touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, the Beavers deployed some trickery when wideout Tyjon Lindsey received the ball on a reverse and lobbed a pass to Gebbia for a touchdown that gave the Beavers a 24-20 lead.
“We called it and got the look that we wanted for it,” Gebbia said. “Me and Tyjon were roommates our freshman year. I said to him, “Who would have thought our first touchdown connection would be you throwing to me?’ That was pretty wild.”
The offense struggled for most of the game aside from those three eye-catching plays. Gebbia threw two unnecessary interceptions, and Cal keyed in on the Oregon State run game to neutralize the ground attack for much of the game.
But the late-game heroics of the defense and special teams was enough to paper over whatever flaws might have plagued Oregon State on Saturday.
“I’m glad we came down with that,” Irish said of McCartan’s game-sealing interception. “We couldn't be in that situation again with these last two games we had. It was good we came out on top."
Jarrid Denney can be reached at 541-521-3214 or via email at Jarrid.Denney@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @jarrid_denney
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