Oregon Bucks the Narrative With Statement Comeback Win Over Washington

Mario Cristobal and his team showed the strides they have made since last season in a gritty road win in Seattle.
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Oregon football Justin Hebert Mario Cristobal

Oregon made quite the statement on Saturday afternoon in Seattle, as the Ducks edged Washington 35–31. At first glance, the No. 12 team beating the No. 25 team on the road by four points may seem unspectacular. And this certainly isn’t one of Washington’s better seasons in the Chris Petersen era. But how the Ducks pulled off this victory was a sign of a program on the right path under its second-year coach Mario Cristobal.

In Cristobal’s first full season at the helm, Oregon lost three of its five conference road games. In those three, the Ducks faced double-digit deficits at halftime. Despite having potential first-round pick Justin Herbert under center, it never really felt like Oregon had a shot at coming back in any of them. The 2018 Ducks were a team that needed to land the first punch, or else they didn’t have the resolve to fight back.

Additionally, coming into this contest, this was the type of matchup where Cristobal’s late-game coaching decisions and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s conservative play-calling had drawn heavy ire in the past. Collapses to Stanford in 2018 and Auburn to start off this campaign showed an Oregon team that was a bully against lesser teams, but couldn’t punch at or above its weight.

So when Washington reached the end zone on its first drive of the second half to go up 28–14, it seems like this familiar ugly narrative was about to be placed once against on this Oregon program following a marquee clash. Herbert was inaccurate and the Ducks' coaching staff was once again under scrutiny.

A defense that had been elite for the majority of the season had finally looked vulnerable in Seattle. Coming in, it was a unit that ranked fourth in the country in yards per play allowed and had allowed seven or fewer points in five straight games. This time, the defense needed Herbert, Arroyo and Cristobal to carry the team in a time of need. And while that trio has had mixed results in this spot in the past, they were the ones who not only saved Oregon’s season, but also showed a side to Oregon that had been rarely seen.

Oregon promptly marched down the field on a 10-play, 79-yard drive that was capped by a Cyrus Habibi-Likio touchdown run from 14 yards out. What kept the Ducks afloat, though, occurred on a third-and-10 at the Washington 37-yard line three plays earlier. Washington sent five, and Oregon right tackle Calvin Throckmorton was beat by his man. But Herbert, with pressure in his face, still was able to deliver a dart on an out route to true freshman wideout Mycah Pittman for a first down—a throw that deserved every bit of his potential early draft pick reputation.

Washington then responded with a Peyton Henry 30-yard field goal with 3:39 remaining in the third quarter, and the scoreboard read 31–21 in favor of the host.

The Ducks needed another big drive, and immediately they faced a fourth-and-one decision from their own 34-yard line. This was a gamble that Cristobal may have shied away from in the past, however this time around, he kept his offense on the field. Habibi-Likio converted with an eight-yard run, and Oregon’s drive continued.

Then another fourth down loomed, this time from Washington’s 36-yard line with the Ducks needing three yards to move the chains. Arroyo devised a beautiful play, having Pittman motion to the backfield from the left-hand side of the field. Herbert faked a hand-off to his right and Pittman reversed course, with Herbert then finding his receiver in the flat with plenty of room and multiple blockers in front. Pittman easily reached the end zone, and Oregon cut the deficit to three as the third quarter came to an end.

Oregon’s offense marched down the field again midway through the fourth quarter, as the ground game was churning and the Ducks were winning in the trenches. The offense faced a third-and-2 from the Washington five-yard line, and while a field goal would’ve tied it, a touchdown would force the Huskies to reach the end zone on the ensuing drive. Herbert smartly kept the zone read and connected with a previously in-motion Jaylon Redd in the flat. Redd was barely able to get the nose of the football across the goal line before his knee hit the ground. The extra point gave Oregon a 35–31 advantage with 5:10 remaining, its first lead since the first drive of the game.

The defense came through to finish off the comeback, with Washington quarterback Jacob Eason failing to connect with true freshman wideout Puka Nacua on fourth-and-3 from the Oregon 35-yard line (though there was some contact on the play). The dramatic victory over its rival gives Oregon firm control of the Pac-12 North, as its path to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 championship game is essentially wrapped up in mid-October.

While Oregon and the Pac-12’s Playoff chances are slim, this was the type of win that showed the rest of the country that the conference isn’t just a mess of parity. There is at least one legitimately top-tier contender out west, with a possible second one emerging in Salt Lake City. And that’s the first step back to the Pac-12’s national relevancy in January—the best teams winning their toughest road games and establishing a true top tier in the conference instead of the teams meshing together into a blob of mediocrity.