Washington halts UO comeback to win Pac-12, secure playoff spot

NCAA Football

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LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 01: Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) celebrates after a pass pass during the Pac-12 Conference championship game between the Oregon Ducks and the Washington Huskies on December 1, 2023 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No. 3 Washington bounced back after a 21-point run by No. 5 Oregon to beat the Ducks 34-31 in the final Pac-12 championship game and assure itself a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The undefeated Huskies led 20-3 with less than two minutes to go in the first half before Oregon reeled off 21 consecutive points to take a 24-20 lead. But Washington got the lead back for good when Dillon Johnson scored a one-yard TD with 12:23 to go.

Washington then forced an Oregon punt and drained as much clock as possible on its next drive. That drive was powered by two great catches by Ja’Lynn Polk as the Huskies extended the lead to 10 points.

A two-yard TD pass from Michael Penix Jr. to Quentin Moore made it a two-possession lead with 2:44 to go. The TD pass capped a 12-play drive that took 6:20 off the clock. It was Washington’s second scoring drive of the night that took over six minutes as the Huskies made it clear from the start that they wanted to limit the time that Oregon’s offense spent on the field.

Oregon got a TD 30 seconds later on a 63-yard Traeshon Holden catch-and-run TD. But after the onside kick failed, Washington was able to get a first down and run out the clock even though Oregon had all of its timeouts left.

After Oregon spent its first two timeouts following run plays, Penix hit Jalen McMillan for a first down. The Huskies then converted another third down with 61 seconds to go to end the game.

With three other unbeaten Power Five teams playing on Saturday, Washington will be no lower than No. 4 in the rankings on Sunday barring something unprecedented from the selection committee. When Washington is announced as a member of the playoff field, the Huskies will be the first Pac-12 playoff team in the four-team playoff since they were in the playoff in 2016.

Oregon was favored

Oregon entered the game as a 10-point favorite despite being ranked two spots lower in the playoff rankings and losing the first matchup between the teams 36-33 in October.

But the Ducks went three-and-out on their first two possessions of the game and trailed by two touchdowns midway through the second quarter.

A huge TD before halftime gave Oregon life, however. The Ducks went 75 yards in seven plays to cut Washington’s lead to 10 with nine seconds to go in the second quarter. Oregon then scored to open the third quarter on a 15-play drive and took the lead with 1:51 to go in the third after both Penix and Bo Nix traded interceptions.

The defense couldn’t get a stop in the fourth quarter, however. Washington’s three drives that happened all or in part of the fourth quarter resulted in two touchdowns and the end of the game.

Is Bo Nix still the Heisman frontrunner?

Nix entered the game as the betting favorite for the Heisman Trophy thanks to a completion percentage of nearly 79% and just two interceptions.

He ended up having a game that didn’t do much to pad his stats. Nix finished 21-of-34 passing for 239 yards and three touchdowns along with his third pick of the season. He also rushed for 69 yards.

If Oregon had won and Nix had a fantastic game, it was easy to envision Nix winning the Heisman next weekend. Now, it’s hard not to wonder if LSU QB Jayden Daniels is the player to beat for the award. LSU isn’t playing on conference championship weekend, but Daniels has stats that are better than Nix in some categories.

Jayden Daniels (12 games): 236-of-327 passing, 3,812 yards, 40 TDs, 4 interceptions, 1,134 rushing yards, 10 rushing TDs

Bo Nix (13 games): 326-of-435 passing, 4,140 yards, 40 TDs, 3 interceptions, 218 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs

No matter who wins, it should be one of the closest Heisman races in years.

Michael Penix Jr. throws for 319 yards

As Nix’s Heisman hopes might have disappeared, Penix’s teammates were chanting “Heisman” as he accepted the game’s MVP award. Though Penix may be a distant third behind Daniels and Nix, he should still be in New York City for the ceremony on Dec. 9.

Penix was 27-of-39 passing for 319 yards and a TD and an interception on Friday night. It was the ninth time in 13 games that he had thrown for over 300 yards and he threw for 33 TDs and over 4,000 yards in 2023.

Penix transferred to Washington in 2022 after Kalen DeBoer was hired as the Huskies’ head coach. DeBoer and Penix worked together at Indiana where DeBoer was the offensive coordinator before taking the head coaching job at Fresno State.

The two combined to orchestrate one of the best offenses in college football over the past two seasons. Washington was one of the surprise teams in the country a season ago as Penix threw for 4,641 yards and 31 TDs in an 11-2 season.

This year, Washington’s excellence wasn’t unexpected, though the Huskies did have to walk a tightrope late in the season. Their three-point win over Oregon on Oct. 14 was their second of seven one-possession wins and the games at the end of the regular season got exceptionally close. After beating Utah 35-28 at home on Nov. 11, Washington beat Oregon State 22-20 and needed a last-second field goal to beat Washington State 24-21 in Week 13.

Those close wins were a big reason why Oregon was favored. But Washington simply showed again that it is the best team in the Pac-12 on Friday night as the conference’s football era came to an end.

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