Gold: First impressions of Washington vs. Oregon in Pac-12 Championship Game
They’ll meet in Sin City for the Pac-12 Championship with everything at stake, 2 teams on opposite trajectories excepting the one statistical category that means everything: winning.
No. 4 Washington and No. 6 Oregon, a pair Pacific Northwest powerhouses with distinctly different profiles, both led by 2nd-year head coaches and 2nd-year superstar transfer starting quarterbacks who should find themselves in New York City come the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
The Huskies and Ducks have appeared destined for this matchup since the beginning of the season — heck, well before the season.
And now it’s almost here.
“You know it’s hard to celebrate in this profession when you’re always focused on what’s next. I expected us to be here,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning told reporters. “I don’t really know what everyone else thought, but I expected us to be in this position because I know what our team’s capable of. We still have some unfinished business, we want to go out there and compete and put our best foot forward. Excited about what’s next, but we’re going there for an opportunity to play in a big-time game and perform our best.”
Here are my first impressions of what should be an incredible conference title matchup Friday evening in Las Vegas.
A rematch for all time
When they met in October in Husky Stadium, many thought they were watching a Pac-12 title game preview. That it turned out this way is not surprising.
Their head-to-head matchup delivered and then some, with Washington winning 36-33 on the strength of a Michael Penix Jr.-to-Rome Odunze touchdown with 1 minute, 38 seconds left, followed by a potentially game-tying, 43-yard missed field goal by Ducks kicker Camden Lewis.
It was a heartbreaking ending for Oregon, which outplayed the Huskies for much of the game, aside from a trio of questionable 4th-down attempts that went Washington’s way. The Ducks out-gained the Huskies, 541-415, including a 204-99 advantage on the ground.
Both quarterbacks were phenomenal, as were their top targets, Washington’s Rome Odunze and Oregon’s Troy Franklin. And both running backs hit the 100-yard mark. Both defenses had 1 sack, while Duck DB Jahlil Florence had the game’s lone takeaway, picking Penix.
“I think every player in that locker room knew what was in front of us and we knew we didn’t get there if we didn’t do a good job of focusing on the task at hand,” Lanning told reporters. “That is really what it has been about. It has been about that each day, each week, and each moment. Tomorrow isn’t going to be about Washington, either, it is going to be about the Ducks and what we can do tomorrow to be better. We have kept the focus on us and what is in front of us, and we know we have to play good teams to get to where we want to be. Again, playing our best ball and how can we get better. We talk about a growth mindset in this program. I think a lot of guys think, ‘how can I improve? How can I get better?’”
If this game is anything like that one, we’re in for a treat.
Oregon’s ruthlessness vs. Washington’s composure
Every so often, you can see a full in snarl come across Lanning’s face, usually when he’s getting fired up about competition, or competing, or winning, or victory, with spittle flying everywhere and the look of chaos crossing his eyes. Anything having to do with laying it all on the line.
And the Ducks play like their coach, a former college linebacker: Frenzied, impassioned, decisive. They’ve been steamrolling over teams, hitting reverse, backing over them, then driving forward once more. Their margin of victory in the past 6 games is 252-96, or better than 25 points per game against the likes of Oregon State and once-ranked USC and Utah.
The Huskies, on the other hand, are as cool as a cucumber behind Kalen DeBoer.
DeBoer is unflappable and Washington plays that way, too. Even when they got a tougher-than-anticipated push from Washington State in Saturday’a Apple Cup, the Huskies never folded, winning 24-21 on a game-winning field goal by Grady Gross. The key play came on 4th-and-1 in their own territory, when DeBoer trusted his stars to get it done. They did.
That was Washington’s 5th win in 7 games by a 1-score margin.
“They just hung together,” DeBoer said after the game. “It’s as tight a group as I’ve ever been around. They’ll play for each other, they’ll play til the very end. It’s one of the most unselfish teams I’ve ever had.”
Why it’s going to come down to defense
The Ducks defense was surprisingly stingy this season, but the Huskies were just as opportunistic.
Oregon led the league in turnover margin(+9), but Washington led the league in interceptions (15). The Ducks had 32 sacks and allowed just 5. Washington had 19 sacks and allowed just 9.
Am I crazy to think this one is going to be decided by a big defensive play?