Ducks often find what they like in Pullman

FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2019, file photo, Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead watches from the sideline in the first half of the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game against Louisville, in Nashville, Tenn. Two people with knowledge of the situation say Mississippi State has fired coach Joe Moorhead after just two seasons. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because an announcement had not yet been made by the school. A meeting was scheduled Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, with Moorhead and athletic director John Cohen. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

During a Mike Leach news conference here last year, someone mentioned the peculiar Duck Drain that was occurring on his Washington State coaching staff — the fact that, every year during a four-year span starting in 2016, the University of Oregon had lured away one of his assistants.

He jokingly replied that he periodically checks in with the Ducks to see if they need anything from him.

Leach himself is now gone, replaced by the much different Nick Rolovich, but the Duck Drain still seems to be happening, in a weird indirect way.

When Leach landed the Mississippi State job in January, the man he replaced was Joe Moorhead, a renowned offensive mind who’d been fired after just two seasons despite an above-.500 record.

Now Moorhead is the offensive coordinator at you-know-where, and he made a bunch of very good play-calls Saturday night as the Ducks erased a 12-point deficit and defeated the Cougars 43-29 at pandemic-emptied Martin Stadium.

Yes, the Cougs beat Oregon four straight times during the height of the Duck Drain. Yes, that streak included the ESPN GameDay extravaganza here two years ago that made up for everything. And yes, compared to other Pac-12 schools, WSU in general has fared pretty well the past several years against the Nike-powered mean green machine.

Before that, not so well. And the Ducks this time played a better end game for the second straight year — surely a torment to the current and former Cougars who played for the three ex-Leach assistants still on the UO staff: Joe Salave’a, Jim Mastro and Ken Wilson.

Quick, Nick Rolovich, make sure none of your coaches boarded the plane back to Eugene.

Moorhead, 47, might not have been a great fit at Starkville, Miss. He grew up in Pittsburgh, quarterbacked and studied English at Fordham, in New York City — yes, football is played in that town — and had never previously coached south of Washington D.C.

A few disciplinary issues came up during his Mississippi State tenure, which rendered a Deep South-adoring hard-liner like Leach more attractive to athletic director John Cohen. Moorhead had heard the whispers about his job security last season, but perhaps thought he’d silenced them by beating Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.

“This is my team,” he said after that game. “This is my school. This is my program. You’ll have to drag my Yankee ass out of here.”

But then his quarterback reportedly got injured during a fight with a teammate and missed the team’s Music City Bowl game against Louisville. Mississippi State lost and Moorhead was canned — with a 14-12 record.

Because of his previous strong work as OC at Penn State and elsewhere, he drew plenty of job offers in the next few weeks. At his introductory news conference at Oregon in February, a reporter asked why he’d chosen the Ducks. He spoke in a gentlemanly, Pennyslvania-evoking manner that at once belied and added context to his “Yankee ass” quote.

The Ducks’ financial resources weren’t the main factor in his choice, he suggested. He mentioned the opportunity to work with head coach Mario Cristobal and alluded to the Ducks’ success — five Pac-12 titles in the last decade. He talked about the ocean to the west of Eugene, the mountains to the east.

In short, the Ducks should splice the audio of that clip into their recruiting videos, while they show highlights from Saturday’s game.

The Ducks were favored by 10 points and sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough was making just his second career start. So Moorhead was mostly prudent in his play-calling. When he did take shots, they were effective.

The first big example came after the Cougars had scored with 18 seconds left before halftime to stretch their lead to 19-7. Rather than run out the clock and try to regroup in the locker room, the Ducks struck back with Shough’s 57-yard bomb to Jaylon Redd to set up a quick touchdown.

But the most important play of the game happened with Oregon nursing a six-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.

With the Cougars threatening an all-out blitz on third-and-6, running back Travis Dye dashed past edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. on a one-on-one wheel route. The offensive line protected solidly, and by the time linebacker Jahad Woods looped into the backfield, Shough had lofted the back-breaking throw. The 71-yard touchdown gave the Ducks a 36-22 lead.

“Nice job by Oregon’s OC, play-calling,” Rolovich said afterward. “I think he found some things he liked.”

Ducks in Pullman often do.

Dale Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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