Washington outlasts Oregon as rivals provide fitting Pac-12 swan song

LAS VEGAS — Having already delivered one of the most enthralling games of the college football season, Oregon and Washington descended into the desert for a second act with even higher stakes, with even greater meaning and the chance to advance to the College Football Playoff. This was an evening that featured the two best teams from the sport’s best league and doubled as the conference’s emotional sendoff. Never again would the Pac-12 enjoy the kind of magic its member institutions produced the last few months, and never again will it have so many member institutions.

An offseason of turmoil and upheaval, conference realignment and the court battles that followed has left the Pac-12 gutted save for Oregon State and Washington State, the two schools none of the other Power 5 leagues wanted. But the caliber of football the Pac-12 produced in what amounted to a multi-month swansong was unmatched across the country. And Friday’s classic in Las Vegas was certainly no exception.

[Highlights: All the top moments from Washington vs. Oregon]

Bolstered by a regular-season win over the Ducks but doubted by seemingly everyone since then, Washington prevailed for the second time against one of its chief rivals. A pulsating 34-31 win mirrored the margin of victory at Husky Stadium in mid-October, and much like its predecessor, the sequel dripped with heart-racing drama.

It was a game so physical that pieces of plastic were ejected from players’ helmets. It was a game so intense that Oregon’s coaching staff began using sheets to block their play-calling signals. It featured 21 unanswered points by the Ducks followed by 10 straight points by Washington to seal the win in the fourth quarter. It featured one Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., outdueling another by throwing for 319 yards and a touchdown. It featured a storybook drive and an onside kick and a running back, Dillon Johnson, who rumbled for 152 yards and two scores on 28 body-bruising carries.

When it finally ended — after Johnson moved the chains one last time, after Oregon quarterback Bo Nix had draped his head in a towel along the visiting bench — the Washington sideline erupted. Nobody believed the Huskies could navigate this year’s Pac-12 unscathed, but that’s exactly what they did.

Here are some quick takeaways from Allegiant Stadium: 

Play of the game

The B-side to Penix’s jaw-dropping performance in the first matchup between Washington and Oregon was the ridicule heaped on Ducks coach Dan Lanning for what some perceived to be an overly aggressive approach. Twice Oregon’s offense had failed on fourth down inside the Huskies’ 10-yard line, and a third failure with 2:11 remaining set up the game-winning touchdown pass from Penix to wideout Rome Odunze. Love it or hate it, Lanning showed his willingness to live and die by the fourth-down sword.

Six weeks later, Lanning’s first gamble in the Pac-12 Championship game probably wasn’t what most folks expected. He didn’t throw caution to the wind in a critical moment or sacrifice field position with a gutsy call that might have kept a drive alive. Instead, Lanning used his timeouts when the Ducks were on defense in the waning moments of the first half, hoping like heck for a stop and a spark that would spur the betting favorites to life.

By snuffing out a screen that wrangled Washington into a field goal instead of a touchdown, Oregon’s defense gave Nix the ball with 1:39 left in the half. He ripped off completions of 39 yards to Tez Johnson and 12 yards to Troy Franklin before a questionable pass interference penalty also went the Ducks’ way. The clock ticked below 15 seconds as Nix rolled to his right on third-and-goal for a momentum-swinging touchdown to tight end Terrance Ferguson, who snared it with one hand and held on for a critical score. 

Seven plays, 75 yards, 90 seconds elapsed. The Ducks were alive thanks to Ferguson’s highlight-reel grab. 

Turning point

The life of an edge rusher is a life of near-misses — of chasing and straining and racing ‘round edges in pursuit of those dastardly quarterbacks. Time after time, play after play, Bralen Trice came within a whisker of bludgeoning Nix. But time after time, play after play, Oregon’s crafty veteran eluded him: a pump fake here, a juke step here, a backpedal or swivel to veer into open space. 

All of it looked so controlled, so effortless from the most experienced quarterback in the history of college football. But the life of an edge rusher can change in an instant, and Trice made his mark when it mattered.

Trailing by three near the midway point of the fourth quarter, Nix faced third-and-9 from his own 36-yard line. He climbed the pocket as his protection collapsed, but there was no escape route to be found for the first time all game. Trice hauled him down at the line of scrimmage. The Ducks were forced to punt.

In this league and in this particular season, teams have punted at their own peril. The quarterback play in the Pac-12 was unlike anything the rest of the Power 5 conferences could produce, and Penix seized the moment when given an unexpected chance. His 12-play, 82-yard drive drained more than six minutes off the clock and propelled Washington to a multi-score lead. At a time when the Huskies could have played it safe, Penix cemented himself as a program legend. 

A 25-yard completion to Ja’Lynn Polk on first down. A quarterback keeper that moved the chains after Penix absorbed a wicked blow. Another completion to Polk, this time for 19 yards. He maneuvered the Huskies to Oregon’s 2-yard line and the doorstep of what felt like a potential game-winning score.

But rather than returning to Polk or Odunze or Jalen McMillan, the Huskies authored a final, improbable twist: a lofted touchdown pass to reserve tight end Quentin Moore, who’d caught one pass for 8 yards all season. Moore faked his block at the line of scrimmage and leaked into the end zone for a soft-handed score. Washington 34, Oregon 24 with 2:44 remaining. 

Key stat

A 6-yard touchdown run from second-string tailback Jordan James thrust the Ducks in front for the first time with 1:51 remaining in the third quarter, his plunge across the goal line facilitated by a marathon scramble from Nix. The 20-3 deficit they’d faced late in the first half felt a world away after Oregon’s flurry of touchdowns went unanswered. Twenty-one points in a span of 13 minutes, with a halftime speech from Lanning in between. 

Such a resurgence made it easy to forget how insipid the Ducks had been in a languid start that pushed their playoff chances into peril. Nix and his running mates watched and waited as the Huskies milked more than seven minutes off the clock on the game’s opening possession, and when they finally took the field with 7:34 remaining, Oregon already trailed by a field goal.

What followed was a three-and-out of perplexing proportions as Nix, who entered the game with the best completion percentage in college football (78.6%), misfired not once, not twice but three straight times — and none of them were particularly close. Another three-and-out on Oregon’s next possession saddled the Ducks with an immediate 10-point deficit. 

Given how inseparable these teams had been across 58 vivacious minutes at Husky Stadium in mid-October, the dichotomy between their opening stanzas in Las Vegas was borderline bizarre: 

Total yards — Huskies 117, Ducks 9

Total plays — Huskies 25, Ducks 6

Rushing yards — Huskies 51, Ducks 1 

From that point forward, the chase was on. 

What’s next for Washington?

Disrespected and doubted, written off and disregarded, the Huskies are going to the College Football Playoff after arriving at Allegiant Stadium as 9.5-point underdogs despite an unblemished record. They survived the sport’s toughest conference and one of its toughest schedules to reach the national semifinals unscathed, a feather in the cap of coach Kalen DeBoer and his entire staff. With a résumé that includes high-profile wins against Arizona, USC, Utah and Oregon State in conjunction with consecutive triumphs over the Ducks, an argument can be made that Washington should be the No. 1 team in the committee’s final rankings — though it’s unlikely such an outcome will occur. But few teams across the country, if any, can match what the Huskies have done this season.

What’s next for Oregon?

It will be a long flight home for Oregon, whose hopes of competing for the national title were erased by a sparsely used tight end. Labeled by many as one of the best teams in the country, the Ducks will end their season competing for a secondary prize in a New Year’s Six bowl, wondering what might have been. A changing of the guard is in order following the departure of Nix, whose long and winding career is finally over after developing into one of the most impactful transfers in the short-lived portal era. Lanning and his staff continue to recruit at an elite level, which means the Ducks are more likely to reload than rebuild, but the months ahead will be difficult knowing just how talented this year’s team was.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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