This was supposed to be the defense that could actually contain Oregon.
Former Duck safety and current Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox figured to have the scheme that would find Oregon's weakness by forcing untested freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota to pass.
And with the Ducks' affinity for letting inferior teams hang around in the first half before blowing their doors off in the second half, many thought that Washington could still be in the game in the fourth quarter.
But no, there was no stopping the No. 2 Ducks on Saturday night at raucous Autzen Stadium, as they claimed their ninth straight victory over their Northwest “rivals.” Mariota appeared a savvy senior in Oregon's 52-21 hammering of the No. 23 Huskies.
After the first quarter, the score was 21-0 and the game was essentially over. What a stark contrast it was to Oregon's previous games this season. The Ducks put away the Huskies early, never giving them a chance to makes things interesting in the second half.
Oregon did so with opportunistic play on special teams and defense, and yes, by some precision passing by Mariota.
Mariota was coming off an average performance against Washington State in which he threw two interceptions.
After throwing an interception on a deflected pass on Oregon's first possession against Washington, Mariota settled down to complete 15 of 24 passes for 198 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran seven times for 40 yards. Not exactly video-game statistics, but Mariota appeared poised and unfazed all night as Wilcox threw different schemes at him.
“The last few weeks I've been trying to do too much,” Mariota said. “There were some throws I wish I could have back, I'm not going to lie. I wanted to make sure I took better care of the ball.”
Mariota showed on Saturday night that he has the “intangibles,” that favorite word of talking-head analysts, used and overused to describe positive quarterback character traits that do not appear in the box score. He “feels” the defense. He “manages” the game.
“He's a real thirsty kid,” Oregon head coach Chip Kelly said of Mariota. “He always wants to get better. He's learning every day out there, and it's fun to watch him learn from mistakes and improve.”
On his second touchdown pass, a 10-yarder to tight end Colt Lyerla that gave the Ducks a 28-7 lead in the second quarter, Mariota was patient as he scrambled away from pass rushers and waited for Lyerla to break free in the end zone.
A 34-yard touchdown pass to Josh Huff put Oregon up 35-7 at halftime, Mariota felt the Husky pass rush before seeing it, stepped up deftly in the pocket, and fired a laser to Huff, who used his speed to reach the end zone.
Early in the fourth quarter, as Washington showed some faint signs of life trailing 38-14, Mariota again found Lyerla in the end zone on a 13-yard touchdown pass. This time, Mariota faked a handoff, pumped to his right, then threw the ball high across the middle to where only the 6-foot-5-inch Lyerla could snag it.
Minutes later, Mariota showed his running ability with a 31-yard scamper on which he nearly scored.
“He showed improvement and that's one thing that's awesome about Marcus,” Kelly said. “Very rarely does he make the same mistake twice. I think he played really well tonight, and if he can play at that level we'll be really good.”
“I think it was just the preparation and the work in practice all week,” Mariota said of his performance.
So now we know Mariota has the ability to lead Oregon's vaunted spread attack on another special season. And we also know that Oregon can win with its defense — which forced five turnovers against the Huskies and, two weeks earlier, shut out Arizona 49-0.
Still, at the halfway point of the season, do we really know just how good a football team the Ducks really are? Their most notable victories have come against the then-No. 22 and -No. 23 teams in the country.
The Ducks' schedule is backloaded with four realistic threats to their fourth consecutive conference championship and a possible berth in the BCS title game in Miami: at Arizona State, at USC, Stanford at home, and then Oregon State in Corvallis.
The Pac-12 this season is competitive and deep, with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 coming into this weekend.
“I don't think the conference got credit for depth the last couple years,” said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who answered questions from the media in the Autzen press box at halftime Saturday night. “This season is very different.”
If the Ducks run the table like they did two years ago to earn a trip to the national title game, they certainly will have earned it.
And if Mariota continues to play like he did Saturday night — welcome to Miami.