SEATTLE — Steve Sarkisian finally has the Washington Huskies where he believed they could get when he inherited a 0-12 football program: on the cusp of leaving behind mediocrity and returning to Pac-12 Conference contention.
All they need is a validating victory, and none would be more meaningful for the 16th-ranked Huskies than to knock off No. 2 Oregon this afternoon at Husky Stadium.
Washington nearly took a step toward contention last week before falling 31-28 at No. 5 Stanford. It was a gutty effort but still left the Huskies (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) searching for a win that would get them into the Rose Bowl conversation and make the Pac-12 North race about more than just Oregon and Stanford.
“We played a top-five team in America, a week ago on the road, and played our tails off and had a chance to win and just missed it,” Sarkisian said. “We have another opportunity this week to show our resolve and show how we can respond from that tough loss.”
Oregon (5-0, 2-0) has dominated the series, winning nine straight over Washington with each decided by at least 17 points. And the Ducks are yet to be tested this season, having scored at least 55 points in all five games.
Washington may finally have the tools to combat the problems Oregon presents. No longer should the Ducks’ speedy offense be unfamiliar; the Huskies’ defense has been going up against its own blistering-paced offense. And Washington’s offense has depth and skill that is inching closer to being on par with Oregon, led by quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey.
“I feel like the entire Washington offense is totally different,” Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone said. “I feel like they have more confidence in themselves. They’re out there working.”
Here are five things to watch as the Ducks and Huskies meet today for the 106th time:
Mirror mirror: When the Huskies made the decision that they were going to play in constant motion, they used Oregon’s offense as an example of the speed and execution they aim to reach. While the plays each team runs are different, the fundamental functionality of both offenses is strikingly similar. Essentially, both are trying to get the ball in the hands of dynamic athletes in space as fast as they can.
Sarkisian pondered this week what the NCAA record is for most combined plays in a game. While it is unlikely they will approach the 209 combined plays Houston and Louisiana Tech ran last season, both the Ducks and the Huskies could easily top 80 offensive snaps.
“They’ve got a lot of big, fast, talented guys, and their schemes have changed to accentuate their athleticism,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of the Huskies.
Make ’em sweat: Oregon has not been remotely challenged into the second half this season. The Ducks’ halftime leads in five games: 38-3, 28-10, 38-7, 41-3 and 43-16. The last time anyone was within 17 points of the Ducks headed to the fourth quarter was last November when they lost 17-14 at home to Stanford. That is one of just two games over the past two seasons in which Oregon did not hold at least a three-score advantage headed to the final quarter.
If Washington can hang around as they did last week at Stanford, how will the Ducks respond?
De’Anthony in doubt?: Oregon RB De’Anthony Thomas sat out against California two weeks ago after injuring an ankle on the opening kickoff, and he did not play at all last week at Colorado. He clearly was not needed against either the Bears or the Buffaloes, as Oregon easily overwhelmed both with its fastest Duck watching. The Ducks could use Thomas against the Huskies. Washington’s defense has been especially stingy the first five weeks and ranks third in the country, limiting opponents to 3.9 yards per play. Meanwhile, Thomas is averaging 8.1 yards every offensive touch.
“I feel like the decision is up to me on how I feel,” Thomas said regarding his status for today’s game.
Quality QBs: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has been impressive without playing much in the second half of games this season. Price has been at his best in the final 30 minutes. Both are putting up eye-catching numbers on their respective offenses. Mariota passed for five touchdowns and 355 yards in just 2 1/2 quarters against Colorado. Price passed for a regular-season career-best 350 yards and two touchdowns and took some punishing hits against Stanford. The duo rank Nos. 1 and 3 in the conference in pass efficiency.
Handle the hype: Oregon is used to being in the spotlight and facing distractions. For Washington, the experience is relatively new. The Huskies have received blips of attention during Sarkisian’s tenure, but this is the first time such attention has been sustained. The outside noise only got louder this week with ESPN’s “College GameDay” coming to Seattle for the first time. It is a drastic change from when Sarkisian arrived and Washington was the punch line after a winless season.
“I think our program deserves it,” Sarkisian said. “I think we’ve come a long way.”