No one wanted to leave this patch of golden sunlight, at the 50-yard line of heaven, with a bowl of blue sky overhead and a field of green below.
In the middle of everything was Mario Cristobal, the coach whose fingerprints were all over Oregon’s biggest victory in years.
The Ducks beat No. 7 Washington 30-27 Saturday afternoon when CJ Verdell scampered into the end zone on third down in overtime. The run touched off a celebration that had been building for years, through the anguish of two blowouts against the Huskies and the agony of blowing a similar game against Stanford earlier this season.
A sea of fans and players swallowed Cristobal as he made his way from the 50-yard line toward the tunnel. Everyone was slapping him on the back, reaching for his hand, trying to touch the hem of his shirt.
But Cristobal had a question.
“Where are my wife and kids?” he asked.
Understand how gutsy that call was. If Verdell doesn’t score from 6 yards away, Cristobal is getting roasted right now for running up the middle and taking the ball out of the hands of his star quarterback.
Justin Herbert didn’t have a great game Saturday. And if you’d asked anyone before kickoff, they would have said a great game from Herbert was the only way Oregon was going to beat the Huskies.
The Ducks had a different plan. They were patient, persistent, almost stubborn in their desire to run the ball. On first down after first down, they sent a running back plunging straight up the middle.
If the Ducks had lost this game, there would have been a lot of second guessing about that, about why Oregon didn't take more shots with its star quarterback. But Cristobal, the old offensive line coach, knew what he was doing.
“We felt if we could get underneath their pads and start getting some movement and knocking it back, we could eventually wear this thing down,” Cristobal said.
Maybe it took until the last play of overtime, but the Huskies finally broke. Later, it came out that they were expecting a pass. So was everyone in the stadium.
A run up the middle was both the boldest and the easiest call Oregon could have made.
“Coach Cristobal just told us we’re a downhill team and we’re going to keep running downhill,” said Verdell, who ran for 111 yards on 29 carries. “I’m just glad the coaches put the trust in me to run the ball.
“Man, that hole was big.”
Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo made the call, but Cristobal set the tone. On the way off the field, the two coaches found each other in the crowd and embraced.
Then Cristobal looked around.
“Where are my wife and kids?” he repeated.
As with any miracle win, there has to be some luck involved. And let’s call it like it is: Oregon got lucky when Washington’s Peyton Henry missed a 37-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
If the kick goes through the uprights, we’re writing a different story. We’re talking about how Oregon fizzled on its final possession and Washington’s Jake Browning led another gutsy drive in the fourth quarter. We’re talking about how Washington made the plays to win and Oregon did not.
Except Washington didn’t make the play. After two timeouts from Cristobal, Henry pushed the kick just enough to give the Ducks another chance.
Cristobal played his college football at Miami. He was part of a Hurricane team that beat Florida State in 1991 when the Seminoles missed a 34-yard field goal. If anyone knows how it feels to get a gift from the football gods, it's Cristobal.
“Wide right, the sequel!” he yelled as he left the field.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how Cristobal’s hard-nosed philosophy would play at Oregon, a program known for speed and finesse. Through his first six games as Oregon’s coach, the results were mixed — some good moments, but also some moments of doubt.
Saturday, we saw the payoff for everything Cristobal has been preaching. One after another, Oregon’s offensive linemen found their coach on the field and wrapped their arms around him.
“How awesome is this, my brother?” Cristobal told one.
“That’s why I’m always up your you-know-what!” he told another.
“I think I’ve hugged every single one of you,” he told a third.
Finally, Cristobal emerged from the mass of humanity and stood in the end zone. He looked around and repeated the question, the same one he’d been asking the whole way off the field.
“Where are my wife and kids?” he said.
They were right there, standing at the mouth of the tunnel. Cristobal kissed his wife, Jessica, and scooped up his two sons, one in each arm. Together, they walked up the tunnel and into a future that's bursting with possibilities.
“This isn’t a Mario Cristobal thing,” he would say later, but that’s not entirely true.
His fingerprints were all over this one.