Eugene – from the very beginning, you knew it was going to be different this time.
Two years ago, to start what would become an absolute ransacking at the hands of the hated Huskies, then true freshman Justin Herbert’s first pass as a starter was intercepted and the route was on. Saturday, Jake Browning (more on him in a moment) put up his first pass of the game that was…intercepted.
But it wasn’t simply a good read from the corner but the pressure Browning faced from Oregon’s advancing defensive line that lead to the pick. Just to clarify, not “The Pick”. That fabled interception ended a game against a Top 10 UW team, this one merely started it. But what Oregon’s defensive line had accomplished on that play became a fairly common theme throughout the game.
The offensive line? Well, they followed suit. For the second time in less than a month Oregon, the team so often associated with speed, tempo, and finesse over the past decade, pushed the #7 ranked team all over the field. Washington had developed a reputation much like Stanford in the last few seasons as being one of those “big, bad” teams that punished you in the trenches. But their trenchmen were suddenly met with an oncoming semi. Offensive lineman Shane Lemieux put it fairly enough: “we were just tired of getting our butts kicked by them.” However, it was the words of another offensive lineman that may have rung even more true. “They’re buying in to what they have over there”, said UW center Nick Harris.
It was becoming increasingly pronounced against Stanford but Saturday made it official: the players have bought into to head coach Mario Cristobal’s smash mouth mentality. You could see it firsthand. Oregon had multiple 4th and 1s throughout the game and elected to go for it every time, and every time they got it. But unlike the Chip Kelly days where this might involve some trick play or misdirection Oregon simply overpowered Washington on every conversion. That same mentality applied to the defensive line, which stuffed UW on similar 4th and 1 situations. Aaron Feld, Oregon’s mustachioed strength and conditioning coach, could be seen bouncing up and down on the sideline, waving his heavily muscled arms to illicit a louder response from the crowd on one of said conversion attempts. Washington tried to plow through Oregon to get it. Never had a chance.
It’s the kind of thing that lets you know the players are starting to “get it”. Cristobal is a former lineman himself. His philosophy, as he’s stated multiple times before, is downhill. Chip Kelly’s was sideline to sideline, as was Mark Helfrich’s. Willie Taggart in his lone season wasn’t quite as spread-happy but still utilized speed to the outside heavily. But not Cristobal, he wants his running backs going straight through the holes created by the line. As I sat at about the 10 yard line waiting for the snap on that 3rd and 6 in overtime I jokingly said to the guys next to me “Statue of Liberty! I mean, why not?” This obviously in reference to UW head coach Chris Peterson’s fabled play to win the 2007 Fiesta Bowl for Boise State. Well, Cristobal wasn’t fiddling with any of that. Noticing the UW defense dropping into zone coverage he decided that his beloved offensive line would simply finish the job on his downhill terms. CJ Verdell exploded up the middle through a red sea created by Lemieux and Brady Aiello, who has come on to replace injured starter Penei Sewell. Into the end zone he went. Game over. And like I said about the Statue of Liberty; why not? That’s Cristobal’s forte, it’s what Oregon football is going to look like moving forward.
Let’s not forget, either, that Cristobal succeeded in icing Washington kicker Peyton Henry on the 37-yard field goal attempt to end regulation. By calling two timeouts, he made Henry have to make the same kick thrice and apparently the third time was not the charm for the UW kicker. Henry hooked the kick to the right and Autzen Stadium exploded. In a game this close any number of plays could end up defining it but I think that miss has the potential to go down in Oregon/Washington lore. For so long the signature play that defined Washington at Autzen was Kenny Wheaton’s “The Pick”. However, after Washington hung 70 on Oregon in 2016 to emphatically end a 12-year losing streak many Husky fans promoted the idea of “The Point” replacing it. “The Point” was a still frame of Browning pointing at a pursuing Oregon defender as he strolled leisurely into the end zone to begin the Huskies avalanche. It was indicative of just how porous Oregon’s defense had become. However, this wide right kick by Henry may well end up haunting UW fans as much as Wheaton’s interception and I think it deserves proper establishment. So now when we talk of UW’s defining moment at Autzen, let’s bring up “The Miss”.
Following “The Miss”, a clutch conversion on 3rd and 11 in overtime by Justin Herbert and Dillon Mitchell eventually led to Verdell’s winning score. As the UO players charged into the end zone to celebrate Browning, who had been harassed by the Ducks defensive line all day, could be seen sitting with his hands clutched behind his head solemnly. The Ducks had bought in to Cristobal’s philosophy, and it looked like Browning got “The Point”.