Did the Washington Game Foreshadow Arizona State Outcome?

Nathan Roholt Editorials

Even on the weeks the Ducks have a bye, college football Saturdays are great. Midseason may have a large number of teams on their bye week, and many highly-ranked teams delivered blowouts Saturday, but that doesn’t mean Saturday wasn’t filled with plenty of sneaky good games.

It started with a pair of quadruple-overtime games in the first two blocks of the day, and ended with two top ten teams going down in the evening, one of which, Florida State, lost in a fashion nearly as dramatic as Michigan had the week prior.

The most interesting of those outcomes was the four-overtime affair between Auburn and Arkansas in an early-day matchup.

Not because their loss was the biggest or most highlight-worthy; it was the Tigers‘ third loss of the season and was dwarfed by the ending of Florida State-Georgia Tech. 

But because the loss came in a close game/overtime shootout; the type of game the Tigers have regularly miracle their way to victory since coach Gus Malzahn has been at Auburn.

Auburn's 54-46 loss to Arkansas on Saturday dropped the Tigers to 4-3 on the season.

Auburn’s 54-46 loss to Arkansas on Saturday dropped the Tigers to 4-3 on the season.

It was a perfect regression to the mean for a team that has, time and again, found incredible ways to win by the skin of their teeth, the most fortuitous of which coming at the cost of breaking an opposing player’s leg late in a game.

For years, my friends and I had jokingly tried to guess what human sacrifice Malzahn had made that week to get the win.

The loss put Auburn’s record at 4-3, identical to Oregon’s record this season, which made me think about the parallel fates these two schools share, and in particular, their head coaches.

Both Malzahn and Mark Helfrich, the two offensive coordinators in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, are now the head coaches of the schools they arrived at as coordinators in 2009.

And while both have led their teams to national championship appearances, each is finding their 2015 season to be particularly challenging, largely due to a shared inconsistency from the quarterback position.

Their records have been the same this year, but the way their games in recent years have been won and lost couldn’t be more different.

Auburn won 10 consecutive one-possession games from 2010-11, and then went 6-1 during the 2013 regular season, notably highlighted by two of the luckiest victories ever against Georgia and Alabama to get to the National Championship.

Last season, Auburn faded late, but the miracle appeared to return early in 2015, with the Tigers a perfect 3-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer, sneaking out one-score wins against Louisville, Kentucky, and even FCS foe Jacksonville State.

De'Anthony Thomas in the 2012 Rose Bowl, Oregon's only one-possession win over a quality opponent this decade.

De’Anthony Thomas in the 2012 Rose Bowl, Oregon’s only one-score win over a quality opponent since 2009.

As for the Ducks, one-possession games have yielded quite a different result. From 2010 to the first six games of 2015, Oregon has gone 4-7 in one-possession games.

While one of those wins was the 2012 Rose Bowl, the remaining three came over a 5-7 Cal team in 2010, an Oregon State team, which was its fifth straight loss in 2013, and a 3-9 Washington State team, all marginal teams that Oregon managed to outlast in victory.

Oregon has 64 wins since 2010, but only one of those wins has come against a good team in a close game.

This has been confusing for long-time Oregon fans, given the team’s success in close games the decade prior.

From 1999-2009, the Ducks were 35-14 in one-possession games, including some of the most memorable comebacks in Oregon history: Oklahoma in 2006, Washington State in 2004 (a game Oregon fans would remember more fondly had the game actually been broadcast on TV; we’ve come a long way in a decade), and Cal in 2003.

In all these games, Ducks came back to win after trailing by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter, something they haven’t done since 2009.

Lisa Simpson: Look on the bright side Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for “crisis” as they do for “opportunity?”
Homer Simpson: Yes, crisi-tunity!

Two weeks ago, I wrote that if the Ducks want to win, they need to know who they are and establish their own identity.

Much of their success in the early part of this decade was forged by years of success in close games.

And while it may not be the reason for any shortcomings in big moments, the Ducks have suffered in recent seasons; it certainly can’t help that the current team lacks experience winning close games.

If Oregon wants to climb back to the top of the conference, they’ll need exactly the type of confidence that experience brings.

Which makes last week’s win over Washington significant for two reasons: First, while the circumstances of the game may have facilitated a closer result than necessary, it was important because it was Oregon’s first win in its last four one-possession games.

And despite a rocky fourth quarter, the Ducks still gained experience in winning a close game.

Vernon Adams against Washington.

Vernon Adams against Washington.

Second, we saw the return of Vernon Adams. Yes, Adams is the man who has shown the Oregon offense is at its optimal with him at quarterback, but it is also his experience in close game situations that could prove to be most valuable.

In fact, Adams is still yet to finish a game against a Power Five opponent that doesn’t end in a one-score result.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Miracle in the Desert, a stunning double-overtime, 56-55 comeback win over Arizona State in Tempe, arguably the greatest comeback in school history.

The Ducks play the Sun Devils in Tempe again this week, as a two-point underdog, led by a quarterback with a history of close games. It’s hard to find an omen bigger for the opportunity to develop those close game skills than the one setting up for Thursday night.

Top image by Kevin Cline.

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