ONE DUCK'S REDEMPTION IS A METAPHOR FOR OREGON'S DEFENSE
THIS TIME Tony Washington didn't bow.
On Oct. 2, Oregon and Arizona were tied 24--24 with less than nine minutes to go. The Wildcats had a third-and-goal from the eight. Washington, a senior linebacker for the Ducks, dropped quarterback Anu Solomon for a nine-yard loss. Fired up, Washington ran to midfield and bowed. Flag: unsportsmanlike conduct. Awarded another set of downs, Arizona scored the game-winning touchdown. Oregon appeared to be out of the playoff hunt, and after the game fans and message board posters blamed Washington.
In the Rose Bowl, Washington went from humbled to hero. Oregon led 39--20 midway through the third quarter, and Florida State had a fourth-and-five on the Ducks' 30 when Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston stumbled and fumbled. Washington scooped up the ball and streaked for a 58-yard score (below), blowing open a game that would end as a 59--20 Oregon win. When he reached the end zone, he simply pointed at the sky.
It was a high point for Washington, a key player in a season of resurgence for the Oregon D. The Ducks haven't cracked the top 30 in total defense in the last decade. So the Oregon faithful were leery when coach Mark Helfrich promoted Don Pellum—who had coached the linebackers for the previous 14 years—to defensive coordinator last January, but the choice has panned out. Oregon has given up a lot of yards this year (421.9 per game), but it's in the top 30 in scoring defense (27th, at 22.3 ppg) and has displayed toughness and aggression. In the Pac-12 title game, a rematch with Arizona, Oregon held the Wildcats to 25 yards in the first half, including minus-nine rushing. And in the Rose Bowl the Ducks, playing without All-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (he tore his right ACL on Dec. 16), forced five turnovers.
The next challenge? Getting pressure on Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones. The Buckeyes' high-powered offense will gain yards and score points, so the key for the Ducks will be perseverance and determination, which Washington knows a thing or two about. And if he does something great, he'll save his bows for postgame.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED