After Oregon lost to Washington by three points earlier in the football season, with Coach Lanning inexplicably choosing to not attempt several short field goals on fourth down, followed by a field goal miss in the closing seconds that would have tied the game, I was super excited when Oregon earned a rematch with Washington in the Pac-12 championship game.
After all, Oregon had been winning by large margins since the Washington loss, while Washington looked beatable in most of its games, winning by just a few points while still remaining undefeated. Oregon was favored by about ten points.
Plus, there was a lot at stake in the championship game.
The winner likely would be in the four-team national playoff since Oregon was ranked #5 and Washington #3. And a Heisman Trophy could be had by either Oregon quarterback Bo Nix or Washington quarterback Michael Penix depending on how well they played in a high stakes game in front of a national audience.
So I settled in to my television-watching chair at 5 pm yesterday with a reasonable hope that in a few hours I and other Ducks fans would be celebrating a victory that would be remembered over the years as one of the most important and memorable in the history of Oregon football.
Sadly, it was not to be. The image that sticks most in my mind was Nix sitting hunched over on the sideline with a towel draped over his head after Oregon had lost to Washington 34-31.
So close, yet so far. That's been a theme for Oregon football. Teams have enjoyed a lot of success in recent years, yet just when you think they're ready to hit the next level needed to win a national championship, something happens.
Quite a few somethings happened in yesterday's Washington game. What stands out is a horrible first quarter that put Oregon in a hole that they struggled to dig themselves out of for the rest of the game. Sports writer John Canzano spoke about this in a Bald Faced Truth column (I'm a subscriber.)
UW dominated the opening period, taking a 10-0 lead. The Huskies ran 27 plays and had 118 yards of offense. Oregon’s offense ran six plays and had only nine yards.
Think about that.
In the biggest game of its season, Oregon’s prolific offense moved the ball only 27 feet in the entire first quarter. A week earlier, the Ducks did better than that on the first two plays of the game — getting 11 yards against Oregon State’s defense.
Canzano noted the pregame difference in intensity between Washington and Oregon.
During pre-game warm-ups, I watched Oregon’s players on the field. The Ducks came out more than 90 minutes before kickoff (much earlier than Washington). Oregon’s players stretched. They got loose. It felt like a business trip. But I immediately noted to others on the sideline that the Ducks were far less emotionally charged than they were in Week 7 at Husky Stadium.
I was there in person for that pre-game scene, too. Oregon’s players shouted and whooped it up that day. UO center Jackson Powers-Johnson, pulled together a group of teammates about to take the field in Week 7 and shouted, “When we step on the f**king field, it’s ours! Wherever we roll, it’s ours!!”
Were the Ducks flat on Friday? More focused? Distracted by the glare of the big stage and the College Football Playoff pressure? Something else?
Oregon was oddly quiet in the warm-up. Almost muted, compared to their earlier matchup with their Pacific Northwest rival. Across the way, the Huskies were barking, and getting ready to play. At one point, JaMarcus Shephard, UW’s receivers coach, turned toward the Oregon sideline in defiance and shouted: “We ALL want it! We ALL want it!”
How is it that Oregon could be so flat in the first quarter given how important this game was? Maybe it was the fault of the players, but seemingly the coaching staff deserves some blame also. Regardless, when I turned off the television after this disappointing loss, the most reassuring thing I could say to myself was, "The better team won."
There weren't glaring mistakes as occurred in the first loss to Washington. It just seemed that Washington had more of a will to win, and its players were more tuned in to the game that Oregon's players. Washington made more key plays at key times than Oregon did, leading to another three point loss that could easily have been an Oregon win.
After Oregon's bowl game, which will be a prestigious one given their high national ranking, the team will either be 12-2 or 13-3. That's a really good season, the last for Oregon in the Pac-12 before they and Washington head to the Big Ten.
It's just frustrating that a really good season wasn't an insanely great season, because of the two three-point losses to Washington. As Canzano said:
Experience isn’t everything. Nor is it an excuse. Oregon has to play better and make the opportunities count. It just didn’t do enough to win the title. But Friday was game No. 114 for DeBoer as a head coach. It was game No. 26 for Lanning.
In league play, Lanning’s record is 15-4.
0-3 vs. Washington and 15-1 vs. everyone else.
What I’m saying is, there’s a growth curve at work here and the most important thing now — the only thing Lanning can actually control — is whether he wants to do a deep self examination and figure out where it went wrong. Great leaders make difficult decisions. Lousy ones ignore them.
Does Lanning need to examine his coaching staff and make changes? His team’s pre-game preparation? Does he need better defensive backs and pass rushers? Or was Friday’s loss simply part of the progression of an eventual champion, sniffing around big-time success before a breakthrough?