LAS VEGAS – With the stakes attached to it, the rivalry between the teams involved, the Heisman hopefuls under center and the sense of finality that came with the Pac-12 Championship game, No. 3 Washington and No. 5 Oregon made sure Friday’s sequel was something you had to follow.
Then, over the course of 3½ hours at Allegiant Stadium, the Huskies and Ducks did just about everything possible to ensure it was a game you couldn’t turn off.
Oregon fans might have been inclined to bail early after their team surrendered a three-score lead, but the Bo Nix-led Ducks scored touchdowns on consecutive drives in the second and third quarters and held a brief led, only to see Michael Penix Jr. and the Huskies punch in two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to prevail 34-31.
Washington’s third victory in the Pac-12 championship game – where the unbeaten Huskies (12-0) were 9½-point underdogs – all but locked up a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff. Oregon, which had just one loss entering the title game – to the Huskies in Seattle on Oct. 14 – was projected to make the CFP had it won Friday.
“They tried to write us off, but we ain’t write back,” Penix, UW’s Heisman candidate quarterback, said in a postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe, imitating Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Geno Smith.
The Huskies became the first Pac-12 team since USC in 2004 to open a season 13-0 and extended their active winning streak to 20 games, the second-longest stretch in the country behind two-time national champion Georgia.
“It took a team effort,” UW coach Kalen Deboer said. “Defense did a nice job getting off the field early in the game. Started fast. Got us off to a great start. That lead, we lost it at one point, but that lead was important because it still put us in a small deficit. A great drive there in the first quarter by these guys.
“Just again, proud all the way around.”
Oddsmakers injected another storyline into a Pac-12 title game filled with them when they announced the pregame betting line last weekend. Despite losing to Washington in the first game this season between Northwest foes who’ll renew their rivalry next year in the Big Ten, Oregon came in favored by more than a touchdown after reeling off six straight victories – five by more than 14 points.
The Huskies were intent on using that as a rallying point, taking command early on Friday while outgaining Oregon 117-9 in the first quarter.
Running back Dillon Johnson had rushing and passing touchdowns in the first half to help the Huskies establish a 20-3 lead, but Nix and Oregon engineered a touchdown drive inside the final 2 minutes – aided by a controversial pass interference call – to close the deficit.
Bucky Irving was held up on second-and-2, but Nix dialed up a touchdown pass to Terrance Ferguson, who made an impressive play, cradling the ball with one hand to make it 20-10.
Oregon’s offensive momentum rolled into the third quarter, as did the Nix-to-Ferguson connection.
The Ducks got the ball to open the half and drove 75 yards on 15 plays before Nix fired to Ferguson on the run to close the deficit to 20-17.
After Penix and Nix traded interceptions, UW squandered an opportunity to extend its lead and Oregon took its first lead four plays later. Nix scrambled for a 44-yard run to set up running back Jordan James for a 6-yard touchdown run to make it 24-20.
“I thought we found some positive runs there to where we could get into a little bit more of a rhythm,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said. “… Once we got behind a little bit more, we had to get a little bit more aggressive in the passing game.
“You have to establish the run a little bit earlier to have that success.”
After giving up 21 unanswered points, the Huskies responded on offense to retake the lead. Penix completed three straight passes – one to Devin Culp, a Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep product – to set up Johnson’s third touchdown of the game.
Oregon’s offense ran five plays before punting from its 36-yard line, and UW followed with another long, methodical touchdown drive – capped by a 2-yard pass from Penix to Quentin Moore – to give the Huskies a 34-24 lead with less than 3 minutes remaining.
That didn’t settle things in Las Vegas, though.
Nix kept the ball for a 12-yard gain on the first play of Oregon’s next drive and then fired a 63-yard touchdown pass to Traeshon Holden, cutting it to 34-31 with 2:14 left.
UW’s Johnson carried the ball for 3 yards on consecutive plays before Penix effectively sealed the final result when he completed a 6-yard out route to Jalen McMillan for a Husky first down.
Penix , who earned championship game MVP honors, became the first QB in school history to surpass 4,000 yards in multiple seasons and finished Friday’s game with 319 yards on 27-of-39 passing.
Johnson had 28 carries for 152 yards and three all-purpose touchdowns while UW’s receiving duo of McMillan and Rome Odunze combined for 17 receptions for 233 yards.
Nix completed 21 for 34 passes for 239 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He was also Oregon’s leading rusher, carrying the ball six times for 69 yards.
“I just thought the explosive plays weren’t there for us tonight,” Nix said.
Top Oregon receiver Troy Franklin was limited to just four catches and 34 yards.