CJ Verdell ran right up the middle, nearly untouched, into the end zone to give Oregon a 30–27 win over rival Washington in overtime. The touchdown was especially sweet for Verdell, whose costly fumble against Stanford last month gave the Cardinal a chance to force the extra session and hand the Ducks their only loss of the season so far. Everyone thought then that Oregon’s playoff chances were over. But maybe, just maybe, there’s still some hope for the Pac-12.
The last time Washington visited Eugene in 2016, the Ducks were blown out 70–21 and Huskies quarterback Jake Browning accounted for eight touchdowns. Oregon lost last year’s matchup too, 38–3. This year’s game was much tighter, as two prolific passers and stingy defenses that have frustrated the rest of the conference went back and forth with control of the Pac-12 North up for grabs.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert finished 18-of-32 for 202 yards with two touchdowns, numbers well below his averages. The Ducks relied on the freshman Verdell, who carried the ball a career-high 29 times for 111 yards and two scores. Rather than put the ball in the hands of Herbert in overtime to score the game-winning touchdown, Verdell swooped in and handled it.
Browning had a lot to prove heading into this game. He led his team to the College Football Playoff and was in the Heisman Trophy conversation as a sophomore, but he regressed sharply in his junior year. Then came the Week 1 loss to Auburn, inconsistencies in the red zone and disconcerting interceptions against teams like North Dakota and Utah. Heading into the Oregon game, Browning was completing nearly 67% of his passes, but only had nine touchdowns to five interceptions.
He did nearly lead the Huskies to victory. He started off slow, completing 6 of 14 passes in the first half, but finished 15 of 25 for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Washington missed a field goal in the final three seconds of regulation to force overtime, then kicked a field goal after coming up short of the end zone in the extra period, which gave the Ducks a chance to win the game with Verdell’s touchdown.
Many considered Washington to be the Pac-12’s only hope to make the playoff this year, even in spite of its early loss to Auburn (the Tigers, by the way, now have three losses). But is that still the case? Oregon still only has one loss (the overtime heartbreaker to Stanford), and its path is pretty clear now with this rivalry game out of the way.
Next week, the Ducks head to Washington State, but they wouldn’t have to face the league’s last undefeated team (Colorado, which plays USC on the road Saturday night) until a potential matchup in the conference championship game. Should the Ducks win out and claim the league title, would the selection committee let them into the four-team field? It will depend on what happens elsewhere in the country, but Oregon’s non-conference strength of schedule won’t help its case. The Ducks sleepwalked through early-season games against Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State.
This was an important win for Oregon, for the landscape of the Pac-12—the Ducks had not beaten Washington since 2015—and for Mario Cristobal as he rebrands the program in his first year as head coach. The Ducks have a long way to go before they can be confident about making the playoff, but maybe it’s not completely out of the question anymore.