Bo Nix spent the first 3½ quarters of the Holiday Bowl looking indecisive, inaccurate and not at all like the player who was one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in college football during the regular season.
Then he put on his rally cap.
Nix led No. 15 Oregon on a pair of late touchdown drives as the Ducks overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit for a 28-27 victory against North Carolina Wednesday night at Petco Park in San Diego.
The win snapped a two-game losing streak in bowl games for the Ducks (10-3), who have now posted back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time 2014.
It was far from easy, though it was certainly an entertaining and dramatic ending.
Trailing 27-21 with 24 seconds left, the Ducks faced fourth-and-2 from the Tar Heels’ 6-yard line.
Nix corralled a shot-gun snap that went wide left, quickly retreated into a dangerous patch of soft, mushy turf and off his back foot rifled a pass over the head of a ducking official and to Chase Cota, who secured the catch at the 1-yard line and rolled off a defender and into the end zone for the game-tying points.
After an official review to see if Cota was down before reaching the end zone confirmed the touchdown, Oregon’s Camden Lewis lined up for the go-ahead extra point and sent his kick caroming loudly off the right upright but through for 28-27 lead.
The victory sent first-year coach Dan Lanning into the offseason with a head of steam and a new addition to the Ducks’ trophy case.
“This has nothing to do with me, it has everything to do with our players,” Lanning said. “They believed from the beginning. We talk about connection, growth, toughness, sacrifice and these guys exhibited that tonight.”
Here are some takeaways from Oregon’s come-from-behind victory.
Nix came through when he was needed the most
Whether it was the ankle injury that limited him at the end of the regular season, or something new, Nix simply didn’t look comfortable Wednesday.
Until he suddenly did.
Before the Ducks’ final two drives, Nix had thrown for 100 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception on 14-of-20 passing and never challenging a North Carolina (9-5) secondary that had lost three starters to the transfer portal.
His off-target throw to tight end Terrance Ferguson with the Ducks deep in North Carolina territory in the final minute of the first half was intercepted and led to a TD and a 21-14 halftime lead for the Tar Heels.
But on Oregon’s final two drives, Nix completed 9-of-10 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns and twice threw deep balls that resulted in pass interference penalties against the Tar Heels.
One of those penalties came in a bomb to receiver Troy Franklin on the Ducks’ penultimate drive that put the ball at the 10-yard line and led to an eventual 6-yard TD throw to Franklin to make the score 24-21 with 6:58 to play.
A field goal by North Carolina put it up 27-21.
On the Ducks’ final drive, which began their own 21 with 2:24 to play, Nix completed 5-of-6 passes for 56 yards.
“Bo has done it all year,” Lanning said. “Everybody around him believed in him and our entire team believed in each other.”
Defense firmed up in the second half
Oregon came into the game without three starters after linebackers DJ Johnson and Noah Sewell, and cornerback Christian Gonzalez opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Early on, the new group struggled to stop North Carolina QB Drake Maye, who was 10-for-18 for 129 yards and three TDs in the first half.
But whatever halftime adjustments the Ducks made worked, because Maye ended the night with 205 yards as he completed just 8-of-17 in the second half with no touchdowns.
Overall, Oregon held the Tar Heels to 335 yards of offense.
“We were able to deliver because our defense stopped them,” Nix said when asked how the Ducks were able to rally. “When their number was called they all answered. … It was a complete team game. Everybody made a play.”
Mase Funa (7.0 tackles, 1.0 sack), Keith Brown (7.0 tackles) and Jeffrey Bassa (6.0 tackles, 1.0 sack) — the only experienced linebackers left on the roster — were the Ducks’ top tacklers and Funa was named the defensive MVP of the game.
Irving carries the load early
With Nix struggling, the Ducks needed someone else on offense to step up and sophomore running back Bucky Irving was exceptional filling the void.
Irving rushed 13 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns, with both scores and 117 of those yards coming in the first half.
That included a 66-yard run in the second-quarter during which Irving displayed his athleticism with three cuts to get out of traffic, and then his breakaway speed as he out-ran everyone to get into the end zone.
That run put Irving over 1,000 yards rushing this season.
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