Those Oregon football fans lucky enough to get tickets in a sold-out Husky Stadium were treated to a titanic battle between two good football teams. In the end, the Ducks made big plays on both offense and defense, and Washington didn’t or couldn’t. The result was a 35-31 Oregon victory — cigars and drinks on the house.
The Ducks were off and winging, taking the opening kickoff and, behind excellent passing by quarterback Justin Herbert mixed with key runs, got off to an early 7-0 lead. The drive was a very crisp 75 yards. Unfortunately, the Huskies stiffened and the Ducks wilted, giving up two touchdowns on successive drives of 52 and 74 yards while the offense had three straight three-and-outs followed by a four-and-out, allowing the Huskies to take the lead, 14-7.
Oregon’s defense gave up its first first-quarter touchdown of the season, missed tackles, didn't get any pressure on UW quarterback Jason Eason and looked perplexed by the Huskies' tempo and shifting of formations. The Ducks were definitely on their heels. A majority of the rushing yards were on wide plays where the Huskies’ excellent offensive line did a great job of blocking Oregon’s edge defenders, the Ducks’ strength.
Oregon came back to tie the score but Washington, running and throwing the ball with impunity, went on a 75-yard drive in only 2:01 to go up 21-14. The Huskies were helped by Duck coach Mario Cristobal calling timeout twice on that drive, which also hurt the Ducks’ ability to come back after the Huskies’ touchdown with less than a minute to go before halftime. Herbert was able to complete a couple of passes, but lacked the time necessary to consummate the drive.
Herbert started out hot, hitting six of his first six passes. But as the half wore on, the Huskies got to him—not by sacking him, but by excellent coverage by the secondary and consistent pressure by Washington’s front four. It was obvious Herbert was out of sync as the offense had three-and-outs and only 13 offensive plays in four successive drives.
CJ Verdell ran the ball tough early on, but holes never stayed open long enough to make much yardage as the Huskies settled in, disrupting Oregon’s offense. Finally toward the end of the second quarter, Herbert started setting his feet before he threw and, voila, the passes became accurate and the Ducks got off the deck, going 69 yards in eight plays, capped by a wide receiver screen by Jaylon Redd.
Now was the time for the hyped Duck defense to hold the Huskies and maybe give its offense time for a last-second score, but it folded like a cheap suit, unable to get to Eason with any kind of pressure and being run over and missing tackles on running plays. The result was an eight-play, 75-yard drive for a score in 2:01 giving the Dawgs a 21-14 lead, hardly the kind of defense you need to play meeting your rival on their home turf.
Husky coach Chris Petersen was appreciative of the two timeouts the Ducks called on the drive, giving his team additional time to do its business. At that time, it looked like Cristobal may not have had a choice, as Oregon’s defense looked gassed, not to mention injuries to key linebacker Troy Dye and the loss of Deommodore Lenoir.
Herbert appeared to gather himself and begin getting his feet set on his throws in the last minute of the first half, especially when he had to do some scrambling and take a couple of hits as he threw that may have helped him clear his head. Problem was, the Huskies had a 21-14 lead and the ball first possession of the third quarter.
Herbert didn’t win any All-American votes. He looked tentative with his footwork and decision making in the first half after starting with a bang. In the first half he was only 2 of 6 converting third downs on pass attempts but, in the end, his athleticism and maturity showed mightily. He finished 24-of-38 passing for four touchdowns, no interceptions. It was his 35th straight game with a touchdown toss. The offensive line protected him like the precious resource he is, giving up no sacks against constant pressure from blitzes.
As a matter of fact, there was only one sack in the game, that by the Ducks on Washington’s last drive of the game when a beat-up Troy Dye blitzed, ran over the running back attempting to block him, and forced Husky quarterback Jason Eason to scramble out of the pocket where he was corralled by Popo Aumavae for a 12-yard loss. Aumavae did an excellent job spelling starting nose guard Jordan Scott, who the Huskies targeted on their inside running game, on passing situations as he is quicker on the rush.
After a false start penalty, Eason was able to complete his next pass for 20 yards on third down, but it was 3 yards short of a first down. Cristobal called a timeout for the Duck defense to collect itself for the most important play of the game, fourth-and-3 with the ball on the Duck 35-yard line and 54 seconds left on the clock.
Eason attempted a short post pattern against a raw freshman, Mykael Wright, who was filling in for the injured corner Deommodore Lenoir. Wright was all over the Husky, prompting some to think pass interference should be called. Bbut though there was some contact, Wright did not touch or hook the hands of the receiver, who, on a different day, might have come up with the ball. The pass went incomplete and the Ducks took possession. Herbert downed the ball three plays in a row to run out the clock and give Cristobal and his band of tough Ducks a hard- and well-earned win over a rival, who some might describe as “bitter.”
The victory will go down as one of the best ever in this rich rivalry. The Huskies played hard and made some big plays to get the lead 31-28 going into the fourth quarter. It was then the Duck defense and offense that came together and converted their opportunities to make big plays and turn the game around.
As Cristobal observed after the game, “the tougher it gets the better we play … this validates all the hard work we’ve put in.” He was exactly right, and this win is easily the biggest of his career as a head coach. The fact that the team understands this and came up with a gut-check effort in the fourth quarter should further solidify all that Cristobal, his staff, and the players, are working to establish as “business as usual” for Oregon football. It will be a boost to the second half of the season and reinforce all the little things coaches and players have worked on to be a competitive football team.
With Washington State coming to Eugene next week, the Ducks face a Cougar team that has whipped the Ducks four straight years, including two at Autzen Stadium. It will be interesting to see if the team’s sensational performance in Seattle will carry over and accelerate the improvement they need to achieve if they are to be the team they say they are determined to be.
After the kickoff this coming weekend, no one will care what happened in Seattle. But for now, what did happen against the Huskies was a fabulous accomplishment that will stand until the next play and the next game against an opponent that is as dangerous as a cornered rattlesnake. Be smart, play hard and never give up — that’s the lesson learned on this rainy day in Husky Stadium.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. He conducts a weekly coach's corner from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the 6th Street Grill.