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Washington upsets oregon to claim final Pac-12 championship game

THE WASHINGTON HUSKIES narrowly defeated the Oregon Ducks 34-31 in the final Pac-12 championship. PHOTO courtesy of flickr

With a towel draped around his head, Bo Nix, the quarterback and unquestioned leader of the University of Oregon Ducks, watched in silence as University of Washington Huskies running back Dillon Johnson caught a pitch from Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr., bursting forward for a gain of 18 yards on third and nine, ending Oregon’s chances of securing their fifth Pac-12 championship in the conference’s final year of existence.

Nix, 23, has been playing college football since 2019, beginning his career at Auburn University. In a peculiar twist of fate, Nix’s first start as a true freshman saw him lined up opposite Oregon, the team he would join via the transfer portal three years later. 

In his three years at Auburn, Nix enjoyed varying amounts of success. Perhaps the apex of Nix’s career in the navy and orange was a thrilling 48-45 victory over their hated rivals the University of Alabama in the Iron Bowl in his first season, propelling Nix to the SEC Freshman of the Year award. 

Compared to his electric freshman year, the rest of Nix’s time at Auburn was pedestrian, full of high highs and low lows. In his second year, Nix defeated Ole Miss, the No. 10 team in the country at the time, but was also benched late in a game against Georgia State, a low-tier FBS team, due to poor performance. After his third year, Nix entered the transfer portal, choosing to take his talents to Oregon.

Washington’s quarterback Penix Jr. underwent a similar journey to Nix, although not quite symmetrical. Penix started his college career at the University of Indiana, where he spent four injury-marred years, never playing more than six games in a season. Yet Penix’s talent was undeniable and attracted many suitors following his choice to enter the transfer portal after his fourth year. Penix’s choice? The University of Washington, led by first-year head coach Kalen DeBoer. 

In many ways, this year’s Pac-12 championship matchup felt like destiny. In addition to the similar career trajectories of the respective quarterbacks, Washington and Oregon were clearly the two best teams in the Pac-12 this year. In their regular season matchup on Oct. 14 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington secured a hard-fought 36-33 victory, a game many felt Oregon deserved to win. 

The moment the final whistle blew in Seattle, Oregon gained a massive chip on their shoulder. A 63-19 victory over the University of California Golden Bears and a 31-7 victory over rival the Oregon State Beavers were highlights of a six-game win streak in the buildup to the championship game. 

The win appeared to have the opposite effect on Washington. While Washington still won every game on their schedule, they were tighter than expected, especially in comparison to the demolitions Oregon were handing out week after week. 

While Washington maintained a higher position in the polls entering Championship Week, Vegas, as well as the court of public opinion, considered Oregon the better team, resulting in the one-loss Ducks being an astounding nine-and-a-half-point favorite over the undefeated Huskies. 

In the first half, Washington played like a team who heard everything that was said about them and took it personal. Late in the first half, Penix Jr. and the Huskies held a 20-3 lead, looking every part the undefeated juggernaut they were judged not to be. 

Nix and the Ducks did not go down quietly, however. Beginning with a remarkable one-handed touchdown grab by tight end Terrance Ferguson at the end of the first half, Oregon began a 21-point scoring run seeing them take a 24-20 lead with 1:51 left in the third quarter. 

Truly a game of runs, Washington struck back twice in the fourth quarter with a field goal and a touchdown, gaining a 34-24 lead with 2:44 left in the game. Like lightning, however, Nix responded, throwing a 60-yard touchdown pass to keep Oregon in the game just before the two minute mark.

Following a failed onside kick attempt by Oregon, Washington bled the rest of the clock led by strong runs from standout back Johnson, culminating in the aforementioned 18-yard-toss that sealed the game for the Huskies. 

In the aftermath, Washington is vindicated. Oregon, on the other hand, is shell-shocked. In the macro, this cemented Washington’s place in the College Football Playoff, likely as the No. 2 seed following No. 1 Georgia’s loss to Alabama. Meanwhile, Nix looks to be selected in the 2024 NFL draft, likely to be a first round pick, while Oregon looks to recover and rebuild in the offseason. 

In the micro, this game represented everything excellent about the Pac-12 as a conference: stellar quarterback play, entertaining high-scoring games and forward-thinking coaching. It is truly a shame this conference will be lost beginning next season due to its failure to acquire a media rights deal. The Pac-12 isn’t done yet, however. Washington will attempt to deliver the conference its first College Football Playoff champion in its final season. While likely to be massive underdogs in the first and potential second game of the playoff, if Washington proved one thing in their win over Oregon, it’s that you cannot count them out.

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