John Elway and 58,691 others came to see Justin Herbert throw the ball.
Mario Cristobal came to win.
So on third-and-goal in overtime, with a chance to upset the program’s greatest rival, Oregon’s Heisman Trophy candidate and potential NFL franchise quarterback was asked to hand the ball off.
And to the same freshman running back, CJ Verdell, who had fumbled with 51 seconds left in regulation the last time they were on this field together, a gaffe that led to Stanford’s stunning 38-31 overtime escape.
“To me it shows that if you build a good relationship with your players, and you build trust with each other, you can find a way through your toughest moments,” Cristobal explained. “And it was dark. I thought it was tough three weeks ago. That was about as tough as it gets for all of us.”
Verdell and the Ducks have emerged from the darkness and are back into the national spotlight.
After a timeout, Herbert clapped his hands, took the shotgun snap from center Jake Hanson, placed the game in Verdell’s belly and watched him gallop through a gaping wound in the heart of the Husky defense for the 6-yard walk-off touchdown.
No. 17 Oregon 30, No. 7 Washington 27.
Saturday’s final score will be long remembered between these border rivals, just like the 70-21 meltdown and Jake Browning’s point stayed with the Ducks since 2016.
“The play call came in, and I was pretty happy. I was glad that the coaches put their trust in me to run the ball,” said Verdell, who earned the starting job in practice and finished with 111 yards rushing and two touchdowns. “Man, that hole was big. They parted the red sea.”
Travis Dye, another freshman, added 67 yards rushing in the second half. The young running backs have named the offensive line Moses.
The big guys had to help part the green and yellow sea that flooded the field after Oregon washed away the stain of losing the previous two meetings to Washington by a combined score of 108-24.
“I think we were just tired of getting our butts kicked by them,” said left guard Shane Lemieux, who is from Yakima, Wash. “Growing up in that neck of the woods, I was hearing, ‘Bow down,’ and it just really got to me. We knew we were ready, especially the offensive and defensive lines getting more physical.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s front seven, led by a great push from nose guard Jordon Scott, stopped Washington on a fourth-and-1 at the Oregon 26 in the fourth quarter.
On the first possession of overtime, a goal-line stand forced the Huskies to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
Cristobal said even if Verdell would have been stopped short of the goal-line, the Ducks were going for the win on fourth down.
“I just like the way Oregon football plays. This ain’t a Mario Cristobal thing,” Cristobal said. “I eat more humble pie than is out there, and for the right reasons. I’m a lineman, brother. So to me it’s all about serving (others).”
Washington had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but after two timeouts by Cristobal, redshirt freshman Peyton Henry missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired.
The first-year coach said he used to question the philosophy of trying to ice kickers.
“If we have a timeout, I’m going to keep doing that, that’s for sure,” said Cristobal, who was criticized for his clock management and giving the ball to Verdell in the final minute against Stanford. “You don’t have any other plays, it’s kick it or not. So we just kept playing, just kept believing.”
With a press box full of NFL scouts and executives, including Elway, the Denver Broncos’ Hall of Fame quarterback turned general manager, Herbert completed 18 of 32 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns.
With a chance to retake the lead on the first drive of the fourth quarter, Herbert threw behind an open Jacob Breeland on third-and-7, and Adam Stack shanked a 42-yard field goal.
But no one was happier after the game than the humble star from Eugene.
“I’ve been here for a lot of games and I think that’s one of the best experiences that I’ve ever been a part of,” said Herbert, who grew up watching Marcus Mariota lead his teammates to signature wins. “For us to fight back like that and not lose focus was unreal. It was great to celebrate with these guys.”
The Huskies (5-2, 3-1), the preseason Pac-12 favorites, are now out of contention for the College Football Playoff.
“This will fuel our fire,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “We’ll practice harder and analyze our mistakes and analyze the good things we did and build on those and come out next Saturday and swing hard.”
After a successful Husky hunt, Oregon is in contention in the North Division with a trip to Pullman, Wash., up next. Cristobal was asked if the Ducks (5-1, 2-1) are ahead of schedule with a top-five recruiting class expected to join the program in 2019.
"We’re progressing," Cristobal said. "We’ve got pretty high expectations for ourselves, we just don’t share them with the outside world because it will be bulletin board material."