Saturday Night Five: Washington’s escape, Lanning’s mistake, USC crumbles and the CFP path narrows

The Oregon coach repeated his fourth-down gaffe from 2022

Instant reaction to Pac-12 field developments…

  1. Suitable for all ages

It says something that Stanford’s 29-point, double-overtime comeback to defeat Colorado wasn’t the most exciting game of the weekend.

And here’s what it says: Oregon-Washington was a classic.

The first meeting between the bitter rivals, when both were ranked in the top 10, had the Pac-12 championship, College Football Playoff, and Heisman Trophy on the line, as well as a visit from ESPN’s ‘College GameDay’ and dozens of NFL scouts. And it rose to the occasion admirably.

“That was an amazing football game,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said after the Huskies’ 36-33 victory.

The two heavyweights were at the pinnacle of their abilities. They combined for 956 yards, converted 15-of-27 third-down attempts, committed only 10 penalties, and had a single turnover.

It was spectacular, especially for the Huskies, who are one of only eight unbeaten Power Five teams, and for quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who delivered a Heisman-worthy two-play touchdown drive in the final minutes.

  1. Rinse and repeat

On the other hand, it was a spectacularly bad day for Oregon coach Dan Lanning, whose blunders doomed the Ducks for the second year in a row against their sworn enemy.

Lanning twice opted for fourth-down field goals instead of short-range field goals, costing the Ducks six points and valuable momentum. But his most perplexing decision came with two minutes left in the game and a 33-29 lead.

Lanning kept his offense on the field despite fourth-and-three at Washington’s 47.

A punt would have pinned the Huskies deep and forced Penix, who was clearly in pain at the time, to take UW the length of the field against an Oregon defense that had found its backbone in the second half.

Lanning chose to be reckless rather than cautious. After quarterback Bo Nix’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete, the Huskies took possession near midfield, and Penix, energized by the change of possession, ripped off a two-play touchdown drive to give UW a 36-33 lead.

Lanning’s decision mirrored one he made 11 months ago in Eugene, when he kept his offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 at Oregon’s 34 with less than a minute remaining in a tie game.

UW thwarted the conversion attempt and scored the game-winning field goal.

With 1:38 remaining, the Huskies took possession near midfield and scored the game-winning touchdown. They won when Oregon missed a 43-yard field goal as time expired.

This time, the score was UW 36, Ducks 33.

The last time these two teams met, the score was UW 37, Ducks 34.

Didn’t Lanning learn his lesson? Can he not tell the difference between an aggressive approach and rash decisions?

Combine the missed short field goals with the short field he gave the Huskies and you have a 13-point swing in a three-point game.

“This game is 100 percent on me,” he said after Saturday’s loss.

“This game 100% falls on me,” he said after last year’s loss.

He’s being paid well to not make the same mistakes again, especially against the dreaded Huskies.

  1. The CFP formula

Aside from Lanning’s poor choices, the outcome affects Oregon more than Washington.

UW’s calculation for the College Football Playoff has not changed. Prior to kickoff, the Huskies (6-0) were a leading contender with margin for error, and they remained a leading contender with margin for error at the final whistle.

However, the dynamics in Oregon have shifted. Prior to kickoff, the Ducks (5-1) were a leading contender with margin for error, but they are now a second-tier contender with zero margin for error.

You’re out of the running after two losses.

The Huskies have no defeats, while the Ducks have one.

The Huskies can afford one league loss; the Ducks cannot.

  1. A perfect scenario

If the Pac-12’s goal is to maximize options for sending a team to the playoffs, the correct team won in Seattle on Saturday.

If the goal is to have at least two teams in the CFP hunt at the end of the regular season, Washington’s victory was the best possible outcome.

Why? Because the Huskies’ closing schedule is more difficult than the Ducks’.

Each team has six games left, five of which are against common foes: Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington State, Utah, and USC.

The unusual games include Washington’s visit to Stanford and Oregon’s visit to Cal.

But there is a distinction among the points of commonality. The Ducks have one difficult road game (against Utah), while the Huskies have two (against USC and Oregon State).

We believe that a first loss by Washington is more likely than a second loss by Oregon. If neither team has two losses, they will meet again in the conference championship game in Las Vegas as 11-1 opponents, with the winner guaranteed a playoff spot.

If the Huskies lost today, with that difficult road schedule ahead of them, the endgame would be two-loss UW versus no-loss Oregon. A playoff berth would be far from certain in that scenario.

  1. The road narrows

We’ve only mentioned Washington and Oregon as playoff contenders thus far because, well, that’s the extent of the Pac-12’s upper tier.

This evening, USC suffered its first loss of the season, a 48-20 thrashing at Notre Dame in which every flaw was exposed. (The offensive line for the Trojans was so bad that we forgot how bad the defense is.)

As a result, USC must run the table in order to qualify for the CFP and has upcoming games against Utah, Cal, Washington, Oregon, and UCLA.

The Trojans have no chance of winning all five games and the conference championship unless Lincoln Riley finds a new offensive line and a completely different defense. A second defeat is unavoidable. A third could be as well.

In terms of the CFP, they are finished.

The Pac-12 has two other one-loss teams, Utah and Oregon State, but neither is a legitimate CFP contender, according to the Hotline.

The Beavers have looked strong at home but shaky on the road, and they have trips to Boulder and Tucson coming up, as well as the season finale in Eugene.

Meanwhile, quarterback Cam Rising is out for the Utes. The longer he waits before returning to the field, the less likely he is to reach peak form before the season ends.

Without Rising at his best, the Utes will struggle to get through a stretch run that includes USC, Oregon, and Washington.

We believe the Pac-12 has two playoff contenders and three playoff pretenders until proven otherwise.

That’s a lot of money compared to previous seasons.

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