Saturday was one of those days for Washington. A missed 37-yard field goal with three seconds left put the game into overtime, and the Ducks took it from there. Now, a playoff spot out of the question, the Huskies are fighting for position in the Pac-12 for the remainder of the season.
EUGENE, Ore. — The Huskies’ national playoff hopes died in a flash of blinding yellow — Oregon tailback CJ Verdell bursting through a gaping hole in the middle for an overtime touchdown that changed everything for Washington.
Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven would say that the call by the Ducks on third down from the 6 was the perfect play against that Husky alignment — “the one play that could hurt the defense we were running.”
It was that kind of day for Washington at Autzen Stadium in a 30-27 overtime loss that belied the recent lopsidedness of this rivalry, which has rarely been more intense.
It was a day of near-misses, agonizing breakdowns, close calls and second-guessable strategy at the end that just barely offset a ledger of valiant plays and sturdy resilience by the Huskies.
The glory would have been theirs, in fact, had freshman Peyton Henry nailed a 37-yard field-goal attempt with three seconds left. But twice iced by Oregon timeouts, Henry yanked the ball to the right as regulation expired.
“I wish they wouldn’t have had that many timeouts to keep doing that,’’ Husky coach Chris Petersen sighed. “I feel bad for Peyton. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a young guy.”
Instead, it was Oregon’s players that celebrated wildly in the end zone and its fans who stormed the field. The Huskies’ last time here at Autzen had been a joyous, cathartic romp, epitomized by Jake Browning’s defiant point as he scored the first of their 10 touchdowns. This time, Browning trudged off the field with his teammates and pondered how a winnable game got away from them.
“There’s a lot of football left,’’ Browning said. “We have to keep battling.”
But poof, there went whatever chances Washington might have had at the national playoffs, had they won out after the season-opening loss to Auburn. Now they’ll be in a fierce battle to win the Pac-12 North for a chance at the Rose Bowl — and now they’ll officially need help to accomplish that.
“We’ve got a tough road here,’’ Petersen said. “Everyone in the North is pretty darned good. These guys will reload. This will fuel our fire. We’ll practice harder, analyze our mistakes, analyze the good things we did and build on those. We’ll come out next Saturday swinging hard.”
This game was tied 10-10 after the first quarter, 17-17 at halftime, 24-24 after the third quarter and 24-24 after the fourth quarter. It was so evenly matched that the two teams even traded targeting penalties. But the Huskies were well positioned to win it in regulation when they got the ball at their 8 with 5:05 to play.
Browning moved the team swiftly down the field, the big play a 22-yard completion to tight end Drew Sample. But rather than aggressively going for the end zone, Petersen elected to play for a field goal contested under pressure that his freshman kicker had never faced.
“It’s definitely within Peyton’s range, and he had the wind at his back,’’ Petersen said. “We thought we’d win it right there.”
They didn’t, of course, which dimmed what had been an outstanding second-half effort by Browning. Rebounding from an interception on his first pass of the game, and a fumble in the fourth quarter on a key fourth-and-one situation, the senior led a game-tying drive and then put Washington in position to win it.
“He’s not going to back down, ever,’’ Petersen said. “He threw some tough pinpoint balls in there. He stood up in the second half.”
The Huskies insisted they didn’t suffer a letdown after the missed field goal, though it would have only been human nature.
“We go over stuff like that in practice all the time, so it wasn’t really like a stressful situation,’’ center Nick Harris said. “I think we were all ready to go. We all had the right mindset to get in there and get it done.”
“You can’t say we weren’t ready to play overtime,’’ added Burr-Kirven. “They just outplayed us when it mattered.”
The Huskies played much of the second half with running backs Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed hobbled by injury. That led to unexpected playing time for Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, both of whom had shining moments — McGrew accounting for 64 total yards, and Pleasant ripping a 19-yard run on the first play of overtime that put Washington in business at the 6.
But the drive fizzled at the 3, and the Huskies settled for a 22-yard field goal by Henry. The Ducks weren’t going to settle, said first-year coach Marco Cristobal, who declared that they would have gone for a touchdown on fourth down in OT if Verdell hadn’t scored.
After two years of backsliding, it appears that Oregon is back as a Pac-12 force. Petersen said he saw that on film all week, so he wasn’t surprised, nor were his players.
“They’re buying into what they have,’’ Harris said. “There’s not really a lot of different guys. It’s the same dudes they’ve had these last two years. Their energy is just different.”
The ebullient Cristobal was reveling in what he hopes will be a program-defining win for the Ducks.
“In terms of a rivalry game, this thing is as intense as it gets,’’ he said. “But for our fan base, for these guys, for the Pac-12 race, this was immense.”
One team’s immensity is another team’s challenge. The Huskies didn’t flinch in the face of a hostile road environment, Petersen would say afterward. He also said that one play doesn’t lose a game, and that the Ducks just made one more play than they did.
All that may be true, but it doesn’t change the new predicament for the Huskies, who will spend the remainder of the season fighting for their Pac-12 lives.