Husky football coaches, and their fans, will forever question several called plays that had a dramatic impact on the outcome of the 110th Oregon-Washington football rivalry. The plays called were strange based on the success the Huskies were having on basic run plays by their running backs. The result was a 30-27 Duck win that lit up Autzen Stadium and a delirious crowd of 58,691.
Instead, Washington tried a quick running play by quarterback Jake Browning that resulted in a fumble and loss of yards on a short-yardage situation, and a fade route on third-and-two in overtime that came down out of bounds.
Why not keep running it? The Ducks were not stopping the Huskies' conventional run attack.
Washington was done in the last part of the fourth quarter and in overtime where it managed to stop itself running at will against a tiring Oregon defense and was able to score only a field goal after a series of questionable offensive play calls.
The Ducks, batting second in OT, knew what they had to do — score a touchdown and the game was theirs. Coach Mario Cristobal’s offensive line blew the Husky defense off their heels and scored a touchdown on a third-and-goal 6-yard run by freshman sensation CJ Verdell. It was physicality at its best against the toughest defense the Ducks will take on until they play Utah.
“It’s third-and-six in overtime to win a game and we run inside zone," Shane Lemieux, the talented guard for Oregon, said after the game. "That’s big-time. That’s a statement.”
There has to be great blocking for Verdell to be offered such a wide running lane in that situation. It was truly a testament to the physical brand of football Cristobal has demanded; and the Ducks’ front wall demonstrated that much progress has been made.
In the fourth quarter the Ducks made a long drive, but stalled and attempted a 42-yard field goal that was woefully off line. The Huskies then went on an 80-yard drive and bled the clock down to two seconds. Freshman Peyton Henry was called upon to sink the dagger in the Ducks and he made two kicks, unfortunately, right after timeouts were called by both Washington and Oregon.
His third try was wide right, the crowd went crazy and the game went to overtime.
After rushing for 22 yards in three plays, Washington’s Sean McGrew was stopped for no gain that set up third-and-three. Although the Huskies had good fortune running the ball off tackle and around end, they tried a fade route that if you’re not Stanford, is not a high percentage pass. Browning’s throw came down five yards out of bounds and Husky coach Chris Peterson had no choice but to go for the field goal to draw first blood.
But a three-point lead in overtime is not that daunting. If you score a touchdown the game is over and Washington doesn’t get a chance to add its own. Verdell rushed three times for nine yards and Justin Herbert threw a 17-yard completion to his favorite target, Dillon Mitchell, on third-and-11 after a holding penalty.
Verdell carried again for three yards and, after Herbert threw an incompletion on a poor fade route, Verdell blew through the right side of the Oregon offensive line for a six-yard touchdown that won it for the Ducks and every fan wearing green and yellow.
The touchdown marked a remarkable win for the Ducks, who stood in there and traded punches with the most physical team in the Pac-12. Although bloodied at times, Cristobal’s valiant group of men got in their own share of punches, and pushed the Husky defense around for 186 yards on the ground, with 99 in the second half.
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert made some running attempts on what appeared to be option plays, but was stopped cold, either from pre-determined runs or failing to read them properly. The Huskies, who are a well-coached defense, had two men outside to take care of Herbert on the option, so it seemed they either guessed right or were taking a gamble to stop Herbert and leaving an inside option open. Oregon offensive coaches are going to have to look closely at what the deal was, because someone had to be open as a running option.
One drawback for Oregon was that the game was stopped several times for injured Duck linemen to be helped off the field. Physical football is great when you’re rolling, but when the Huskies defensive front bulled their necks, it was apparent Oregon did not own the purple as opposed to the previous game against an underwhelming California team. They are not yet the physical outfit they aspire to be.
At halftime it was Huskies 17, Ducks 17. Oregon made a nice 75-yard drive for a last-minute touchdown that tied the score with 10 seconds left on the clock. Before the drive, Cristobal appeared to unleash his Heisman candidate Herbert, who was a measly 7-for-16 passing for an underwhelming 90 yards. The play calling was timid, with Herbert granted the opportunity of throwing on first down only twice, completing one for 11 yards. It was like owning a Jaguar and never taking it out of second gear.
The Duck defense played fairly well, but the few times Browning or any Husky running back was able to get outside of contain, good things happened for Washington and bad for Oregon. When the Ducks set the edge to their defense, they hemmed Browning in and caused him to look frustrated at times.
In one case the Ducks tried an end-tackle stunt in a passing situation with the end (a faster, better athlete) slanting inside and getting blocked while the defensive tackle (slower, less athletic) circled outside and was outrun by whomever had the ball. It was a no-win defensive call — the Ducks simply did not have the athlete to run such a stunt and it showed that Oregon still has some recruiting to do.
Herbert had several passes dropped, but also missed badly on passes that either should not have been thrown, or were over- and under-thrown. Still, the junior field general showed poise when he needed to, completing 17 of 30 passes with no interceptions.
Duck offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo was too conservative in his play calling or he was over-ruled by Cristobal who wanted to keep the Husky offense off the field with a ground-oriented attack. Still, as a play caller, it’s a lot easier when you have second-and-two instead of second-and-eight, which allows the defense to be more aggressive and attack the offense. Not throwing more on first down is like putting the brakes on Herbert and the offense.
The Ducks had seven penalties for 70 yards, although one holding call for minus-10 yards was actually minus-36 yards if you count the gain of 26 yards that was nullified by the penalty. It’s an old refrain, but Pac-12 officials do not pass the consistency test on, for example, holding penalties.
The Ducks’ offense was flagged three times for holding in the second half. Let’s pretend they were the right calls. Now, if you looked at the Husky offensive tackles, they were doing the same thing with Oregon’s defensive ends on both run and pass plays; but no holds. Several were right in front of the referee in the backfield that is charged with looking for such misdeeds. You almost had to try to not see the penalties.
Next week is the long-anticipated trip to Pullman, Wash., and the Palouse to take on Washington State, a team that has already exceeded Pac-12 preseason expectations. The Cougars will be licking their chops looking at an Oregon pass rush that just can’t get there and make a play, and a secondary that has a difficult task playing man-to-man and zone coverage.
WSU coach Mike Leach is a guru in the passing world, and it will be interesting if the Ducks’ defense can regroup and defeat the Cougars. It may come down to a physical contest between Oregon’s run offense and the Cougars’ defense, which tends to be more based on speed and quickness rather than muscle.
The Ducks still have a lot of work to do — Cristobal and his staff probably will point that out a few times watching the Husky films and on the practice field. It will be fun to see how they all do in meeting that challenge.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.