Perhaps like many Ducks fans, Washington Huskies cornerback Jabbar Muhammed wondered what Oregon coach Dan Lanning was thinking when he opted against a couple of red -zone field goals and attempted to score touchdowns.
“I guess that’s just them,” Muhammed said shaking his head with a shoulder shrug.
Lanning’s decision to go for it on fourth down on three different occasions – and the Ducks failing to convert – will surely be a cause for consternation and debate for years in Eugene.
However, the Huskies and their maligned defense will fondly remember their clutch performance on each of those situations.
“If we don’t make those plays, we don’t win,” Muhammad said following No. 7 Washington’s thrilling 36-33 victory against No. 8 Oregon on Saturday in front of a sold-out crowd at Husky Stadium.
That’s not an overstatement.
On a day when Washington surrendered a season-high 541 yards and Oregon quarterback Bo Nix looked every bit like a Heisman Trophy contender while throwing for 337 yards and two touchdowns, the Huskies made the critical defensive plays when it mattered the most – on fourth down.
“Fourth downs are big downs,” Muhammed said. “That determines if you get off the field or not.”
Before Saturday, Oregon had gone for it on fourth down in each of the previous five games and was 8 for 10.
“I think I’ll always go back and evaluate myself,” Lanning said of his fourth-down philosophy. “With that being said from a probability standpoint, how we felt about looks that we were getting, we felt like we had a chance to have success. All the situations today where we went for it on fourth, we had an opportunity to call timeout if we didn’t like what we saw.
“I’ll certainly go back and evaluate myself, and it’s about adapting. The game is about adapting and figuring out where you can be better. You take one of those field goals early on and we are looking at probably a little bit different situation.”
However, Washington turned Lanning’s go-for-broke tendency against him.
The Huskies led 22-18 when the Ducks had the ball near the goal line with five seconds left in the first half. Rather than attempting a field goal, Nix threw a short pass to running back Bucky Irving that was incomplete.
Midway through the third quarter, Oregon drove to the UW 8 and went for it on fourth-and-3. This time, Nix’s pass to Troy Franklin fell short.
“You get in those moments and you keep playing,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said. “You understand this is a four-down zone and we know that Oregon is aggressive. They just are all the time.
“It’s not just one more stop that we got to get on third down, but we got to get another one. … Just grinding it and gutting it out and learning from things that we saw before and what the tendency might be. Just always working together. Maybe we didn’t get the stop on second or third down, but here we are in that big moment learning, taking in all of the information and getting the stop.”
In the final minutes, Oregon led 33-29 and needed to convert a fourth-and-3 to keep possession and run out the clock. However, Nix’s pass to Tez Johnson also fell short, which gave the Huskies the ball at their 47 with 2:11 left and set up a game-winning drive.
“It made the game,” said Husky receiver Rome Odunze, who hauled in an 18-yard grab in the end zone for the go-ahead score. “They kept us in distance to strike. That was huge. If (the defense doesn’t) get that right there, the game is over.
“For them to get that and rise up to that moment, it’s their identity and who they are. They lean on us and we lean on them. That was a perfect sequence of plays.”
Perfect hardly describes Washington’s defensive performance in which Oregon’s Franklin compiled 154 receiving yards and Irving had 127 yards on the ground.
Still, Muhammad wouldn’t change anything about Saturday’s game, which ended with a missed 43-yard field goal by Oregon kicker Camden Lewis that sparked a massive celebration as fans rushed the field.
“I can’t even explain it,” he said. “I’ve been playing ball for a minute and that’s probably my favorite (game). Just the crowd. After they missed the field goal and they started storming the field. It took me about 10 minutes to find my family. That was electric. I wouldn’t trade nothing for it.”