PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — When No. 10 Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux returned for the second half against California on Friday, the standout defensive end helped rally the team to a vital win with a goal line stand.
The Ducks hope it might be an omen for how the second half of their season will play out, with several injured starters expected back for a critical game at UCLA on Saturday.
Injuries didn’t keep Oregon (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) from pulling off its signature win at Ohio State, but coach Mario Cristobal believes the constant attrition has kept the two-time defending conference champions from building the cohesion necessary to play at an elite level required to reach the College Football Playoff.
Mixing pieces on a consistent basis, you’re not getting the consistency of guys playing side-by-side with each other,” Cristobal said. “We’ve had moments where it’s worked out really well and other ones where it’s like, ‘Whoa, that doesn’t look like us.’”
Oregon lost top running back CJ Verdell, tight end Cam McCormick and touted linebacker Justin Flowe to season-ending injuries, while a number of other key players have been out of the lineup because of various ailments.
But relief could be on the way, as linebacker Mase Funa and center Alex Forsyth are among notable contributors expected to play against the Bruins (5-2, 3-1). Funa has been in and out of the lineup over the last few weeks because of a foot injury, while Forsyth missed the past two games because of back spasms.
Even Thibodeaux, who is regarded as one of the top defensive prospects eligible for the 2022 NFL draft, has struggled to be available. The Los Angeles native sprained his ankle in the season opener, forcing him to miss the next two games. He missed the end of the overtime loss at Stanford after being ejected for a hit on quarterback Tanner McKee, and the foul carried over to the first half against the Golden Bears.
When Thibodeaux finally joined the action, he delivered five tackles, one sack and multiple pressures as Oregon escaped with a 24-17 win.
“He’s a very good player,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “We got to be aware of where he is.”
MAKE OR BREAK
While Oregon still has aspirations of making the four-team playoff, UCLA needs a victory to stay in contention for the Pac-12 South. The Bruins already lost to Arizona State, so another defeat would make next week’s game at Utah a must-win while still needing help to reach the conference title game in Las Vegas.
“Every game is our Super Bowl, you know, just like last week Washington was our Super Bowl. We’re going to give it our all,” cornerback Obi Eboh said.
KEEP THE FAITH
Quarterback Anthony Brown has become a lightning rod among Ducks fans because of inconsistent play in the second and third quarters and accuracy issues, notably on deep balls. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is standing by the sixth-year senior for leading an attack that is still averaging 33.8 points.
“He’s not Marcus Mariota, he’s not Dennis Dixon, he’s not any of those guys, but he understands who he is and what he does well and how it’s going to contribute to our offense and team success,” Moorhead said.
ADD IT UP
UCLA running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown have combined for at least 150 yards rushing in five of seven games this season. Charbonnet made the most of explosive runs early in the season, but the Michigan transfer has shown he can handle heavy workloads with at least 21 carries in four straight games.
While he arrived at Oregon as left tackle Penei Sewell’s younger brother, freshman linebacker Noah Sewell is quickly making his own name for the Ducks. He has 32 tackles including 2 1/2 tackles for loss and two sacks in three conference games this season, which defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said reflects Sewell’s relentless quest for improvement.
“If we could get everybody on our team to practice the way he does, I don’t know that we could lose to anybody,” DeRuyter said.
AP Sports Writer Anne Peterson contributed to this report.
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