Gold: The Ultimate Pac-12 Championship Preview
Everything you need to know about Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game showdown between No. 3 Washington and No. 5 Oregon.
The first time they met was arguably the national game of the year.
Now as No. 3 Washington and No. 5 Oregon get set to square off the for the Pac-12 championship and likely the College Football Playoff berth that would emerge from it, it just may be the matchup of the century in the dying conference.
What a way to go out.
The 2 top teams in what was the country’s best conference from top to bottom, vying for the rarest of rare chances to compete for the national championship, a pursuit that has eluded the Pac-12 since the Huskies made it in 2016, 2 years after the Ducks went to the title game for the 2nd time in 5 years.
The stage is set 🍿 pic.twitter.com/SKAm4vvJOJ
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) November 25, 2023
They were separated by just 3 points and 3 ill-timed and poorly executed 4th down calls the last time they met, in Seattle for Washington’s 36-33 win. Calling it back-and-forth is an insult to see-saws. It was brutal. It was fun. It was innovative.
It was a matchup made in heaven: Two terrific head coaches in Dan Lanning and Kalen DeBoer. Two brilliant offensive kinds in Will Stein and Ryan Grubb. Two all-time quarterbacks in Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr.
And now they’ll meet to decide it all. At stake is nothing less than a legacy, along with Pac-12 bragging rights for all eternity, not to mention one heck of a leg up as both teams head to the Big Ten next year.
Oh, and there’s that pesky Heisman matchup to weigh, as Nix can put the finishing touches on his brilliant campaign with a decisive performance against the Huskies, while Penix can remind voters who was on top of the rankings for much of the year.
So, yeah, there’s a lot at stake.
Let’s dive in to this extra-special tale of the tape…
When Oregon has the ball
1. Feed Bucky
Bucky Irving, one of the Pac-12’s most talented running backs, probably would have had 1,400 rushing yards in a Big Ten offense, without the services of Bo Nix at his side.
As it stands, he totaled 1,043 on 163 carries for a 6.4 average, to go along with 10 touchdowns.
He only had one game with more than 20 totes — against the Huskies, when he gained 127 yards on 22 rushes.
Of course, it’s not just Bucky, though. Jordan James might be the most dynamic No. 2 back in the league, and we know Nix is dangerous with his legs.
Key matchup: Oregon OL vs. DE Bralen Trice
Trice is an absolute beast both against the run and in pressure situations, one of Pro Football Focus’ top-rated players at his position. But he’ll have his hands full with a terrific Ducks offensive line that has almost completely retooled from last year’s remarkable group.
They’ve helped Oregon average nearly 6 yards per carry on the ground, along with almost 10 yards per passing attempt. The Ducks also lead the conference in several categories, including the key ones like first downs and 3rd-down conversion percentage.
They’ve also allowed just 5 sacks all year, while the Huskies have only 19 sacks. If Washington is going to win the day, it’s going to start against the run.
It’s been a monster 4 game stretch from #Washington EDGE Bralen Trice, who added 2.5 TFLs and a sack against Oregon State on Saturday.
Doesn’t always get home but the pressure/chaos he creates in the backfield goes beyond the stat sheet; helped cause an INT in the 3rd quarter. pic.twitter.com/VCrDcsXB7i
— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) November 20, 2023
2. Cross the Ts
Troy. Tez. Traeshon. Terrance.
Bo Nix knows his targets to a T, and he’s become intimately familiar with each of them. Troy, as in Franklin, should have been a Biletnikoff Award finalist after catching 77 passes for 1,349 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tez, as in Johnson, joins Traeshon, as in Holden, to present a perfect pair of complementary pieces, combining for 101 grabs for 1,262 yards and 13 more scores. Terrance, as in Ferguson, has emerged as one of the top tight ends in the Pac-12; he’s up to 36 catches for 369 yards and 3 touchdown grabs.
With Gary Bryant Jr.’s full availability in question, it could come down to the Four T-ops.
Key matchup: WR Troy Franklin vs. Jabber Muhammad
Franklin torched the Huskies last time around for 154 yards on 8 receptions, including a 49-yard catch and a 30-yard score.
Then again, who hasn’t he torched? He topped 100 yards 8 times this year, but that 154-spot was his best showing of the year. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. He had his best game of 2022 against Washington, as well, going 5-139-1.
He’s held his own with Odunze and the top receivers in the country and played his way into an early draft pick this year.
Muhammad, a much-needed transfer from Oklahoma State, has also drawn rave reviews this year and is also climbing up draft boards. He’s also 2nd in the conference in interceptions and 2nd in passes defended.
Washington’s Jabbar Muhammad is one of my fav risers in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Just watch the Oklahoma State transfer mirror Troy Franklin perfectly. pic.twitter.com/Joji3gbpvU
— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) October 14, 2023
3. Close out drives
It was the 0-fer heard around college football, with Lanning becoming the gopher.
Oregon’s fruitless 4th down attempts — 0-for-3. Yikes. — we’re the story of the first matchup with the Huskies. As was the potential game-tying field goal attempt by Lewis they went awry.
The Ducks went 48, 67, 51 and 50 yards without any points to show for it. That’s walking a tight rope against any team.
Key matchup: OC Will Stein vs. HC Dan Lanning
I love Lanning’s go-for-broke attitude, and I believe in it to my core.
That being said, it would be nice to have an angel on Lanning’s shoulder urging slightly more caution this time around.
And can we get some better play calls, just maybe?
When Washington has the ball
1. Plug the interior
Even if the final scores haven’t always shown it, the Huskies haven’t had all that much trouble with teams this year. The ones they have struggled against have been able to disrupt the rhythm and consistency of the vaunted Washington passing game, primarily by bringing the heat in the interior.
Arizona State did it and nearly pulled off an absurd upset.
That doesn’t necessarily mean landing at ground zero — Penix has an incredibly quick release, and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb is an ace play caller — but any disruption matters.
Key matchup: QB Michael Penix Jr. vs. DL Brandon Dorlus
Dorlus is listed as an edge but really is a defensive line Swiss Army Knife. Like Trice, he is a PFF darling, and like Trice, his numbers won’t overwhelm. But he is maybe the most versatile D lineman in the Pac-12 and someone who commands attention and frequent double teams.
I expect the Ducks to throw multiple looks at Penix, often before the snap.
I also expect Penix to hold his ground and deliver the ball early.
Oregon players are outright saying that their goal is to injure Michael Penix.
When asked about this weekend, Brandon Dorlus said his goal was to "Take out Michael Penix (Jr.)." He then smiled and celebrated the idea that Oregon may have hurt Penix the last time they played.… pic.twitter.com/8JyeA2mvoM
— Brandon C (@UWFBopinions) November 29, 2023
2. Ground and pound early
And speaking of early, it would behoove the Huskies to get Dillon Johnson the ball early and often to set the tempo against the gun-it Ducks.
Washington has been turning to Johnson more and more frequently in recent weeks, as he’s had at least 20 carries in 3 of the last 4 weeks, topped by a 256-yard, 4-touchdown game against USC.
The Huskies set the tone early in their Apple Cup win over Washington State, as Johnson had 5 carries on UW’s 2nd drive, which he capped off with a 1-yard touchdown drive.
Key matchup: RB Dillon Johnson vs. LB Jeffrey Bassa
Johnson hit the 100-yard mark for the first time this season in their first matchup, as Washington made it clear it wanted to out-physical the Ducks. Johnson had the first touch on the Huskies’ first 4 drives, the last 3 ending in touchdowns.
Can Jeffrey Bassa bring the noise? The Ducks linebacker stepped up in the absence of Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe to become a real team leader and active defender. His 52 tackles ranks among league leaders.
3. Clean it up
Penix’s first half/second half splits this year have been pretty brutal. In the first 6 games, including the win over Oregon, Penix completed 155-of-215 passes for 2,301 yards, 20 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. In the 2nd, Penix fell to 125-of-212 passing for 1,598 yards, 12 scores, 3 picks — good numbers, but not the Heisman pace he was on early.
There has been some scuttlebutt that Penix injured his ribs around the Oregon win, which coincides with his slide.
Key matchup: QB Michael Penix Jr. vs. himself
Anyone who watched Huskies game throughout the season saw a distinct difference between early season Penix and late season Penix. He was a totally different guy.
He’s going to need to be crisp and sharp and on his game if the Huskies are going to stay in this one.
Battled back from injuries ✅
Led the Huskies to a 12-0 season ✅
Headed to the #Pac12FCG ✅
Michael Penix Jr. is a Heisman contender 🏆 pic.twitter.com/KahNw1zGMQ
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) November 29, 2023
Oregon’s special teams is one of its strengths, as punter Ross James would lead the Pac-12 in punting average if he had enough attempts. Johnson ranks among league leaders in punt return yardage, as well, and Lewis leads the conference in PAT kicking, hitting all 61 of his attempts. Field goals have been a weakness this year, though, as he’s converted just 10-of-16 opportunities, including the potential game-tying kick against the Huskies.
Washington, meanwhile, has a solid unit headlined by kicker Grady Gross, who has hit 11-of-15 field goal attempts, and punter Jack McCallister. The Huskies would love to see Odunze get an opportunity to return a punt: he took just two, but one of them he broke for an 83-yard touchdown score.
If you’re wondering how Oregon can be 10-point favorites despite losing to the Huskies earlier this year, look no further than their scoring margin against common opponents.
They’ve played 7 of the same teams this year — Arizona State, Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, USC, Utah and Washington State.
Against those 7 teams, Washington outscored them 249-183. Not bad at all. Only Oregon ran it up 294-102. The Ducks held the Beavers, Cardinal and Utes to 10 combined points. Washington? Sixty-one.
It almost feels wrong to predict this game, like eating a beautiful plate of perfectly cooked steak, or popping a bottle of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc. It feels like it sullies the process. Let’s chisel these 2 fantastic programs into marble for all time, untouched.
Alas, games are made to be played, and champions are fit to be crowned.
And in this one, I like Oregon.
But not by the absurd margin some are projecting.
This one is going to back-and-forth like the last one, and unless the Ducks pressure Penix — and actually take him down — in a way that hasn’t happened yet this season, I don’t think more than a touchdown separates these 2 legendary squads.
Actually, not even that much. Let’s just go ahead and flip the final score from last time.
Enough for Oregon to sneak into its first CFP spot since 2014.
Oregon 36, Washington 33