The nation’s fourth-leading rusher plows for 167 yards and two touchdowns. But two turnovers, Oregon’s pass rush on Keith Price and the lack of the same by UW on Marcus Mariota sends the No. 16 Huskies to a 45-24 loss to the second-ranked Ducks at jammed, jumping Husky Stadium.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Through the good and the bad – through the four big wins to begin the season and now two, wrenching losses -- Keith Price remains the Huskies’ clear and impressive leader.
The fifth-year senior quarterback was walking alone down the tunnel back toward the Huskies’ locker room early Saturday evening. He had an ice pack on his throbbing right thumb – and a ray of hope in his eyes far beyond what had just happened on the field outside.
“We’ll be all right,” Price said, turning back over his left shoulder as he walked away from the No. 16 Huskies’ 45-24 loss to second-ranked Oregon, a game that was 31-24 with 14 minutes left.
Believe this, too: About an hour earlier, Bishop Sankey and the Huskies had their new building rocking and the Ducks in a second-half fight.
The nation’s fourth-leading rusher coming in bulled for 167 more yards and two scores. Sankey’s 60-yard sprint on fourth and 1 beat a Ducks’ linebacker blitz and had the Huskies within 21-14 early in the third quarter. His 25-yard bolt up the middle made it 31-24 going into the final period. And Husky Stadium was shaking to its two-month-old foundation.
Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” was blaring. The new press box atop the south stands was shaking for the first time since the stadium reopened Aug. 31. The thousands who had been up since 5 a.m. for ESPN’s College GameDay pregame show like none other at the center of campus were still buzzing down on Montlake.
But the party abruptly stopped there.
That was the closest the Huskies got. In the end they could not overcome two turnovers – a killer, first lost fumble of the season by Sankey at the Oregon 31 then Price’s miscommunication with Jaydon Mickens when the wide receiver broke off his route, both in the first half. The Dawgs chased those turnovers the rest of the afternoon.
Nor could they overcome Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. He ultimately and decisively silenced 71,833 at roaring, ultimately deflated Husky Stadium.
“Man, we’re not that far. We’re not that far,” Price said after he completed 19 of 32 passes for 182 yards, a miscommunication interception and a first-quarter touchdown to leaping Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
The Huskies (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) showed their resolve if not a perfect game a week after losing late 31-28 at No. 5 Stanford.
Thing is, against Oregon there is no margin for error. And the Huskies made mistakes they could not afford.
“They may more plays than we did, fair and square. That’s a good football team,” Price said of the Ducks (6-0, 3-0). “But as you’ve seen we went toe to toe with both those guys. We had an opportunity … so we’re not far at all.
“They are a very talented team. They deserve their rank. But we’re not far away from being right there, either.”
Price and his sore thumb on his passing hand, which had an ice bag wrapped on it afterward, was hit and harassed for the second consecutive game. Oregon’s defensive front did what Washington’s could not: affect the quarterback -- and thus the game -- with a pass rush.
Oregon sacked Price four times and forced him throw the ball away out of bounds on at least a half-dozen other plays. The fact Sankey was Washington’s leading receiver with five catches out of the backfield underscores two keys Saturday: How often UW’s receivers were covered downfield; and how often Price didn’t have time to look for them before he was forced dumped ball off to his running back in duress.
When asked to assess the play of his offensive line – which had previously injured, two-year starter Erik Kohler make his season debut at left guard filling in for Dexter Charles after Charles hurt his shoulder – Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian used the tepid term “adequate.”
Meanwhile, Mariota constantly had time to look at third and fourth receivers ultimately breaking free at the end of long-developing pass plays, usually without a Husky defender within yards of him. No defensive secondary in the nation can cover Oregon’s fleet receivers for 10, 12 seconds while they run pass routes with cuts as if on an Etch-a-Sketch. The only time he was sacked, by UW linebacker John Timu in the fourth quarter, Mariota waited a half dozen seconds to find a receiver before the QB’s “spy” finally closed on him. Mariota looked shocked that he finally went down.
Mariota was so comfortable looking over UW’s defense he completed 24 of 31 passes for 366 yards for three touchdowns. He threw on his receiver’s hands and away from defenders even when they were covered. He also ran 13 times for 88 more yards and another score. That was the biggest one of the game, a 5-yard run with 13:55 left that put Oregon back up 38-24 and blunted all that roaring and momentum that had been on UW’s side.
“We could have done better pressuring him, making him uncomfortable,” said Huskies co-captain and defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha. “That’s on us, the D-line, myself.”
After a first down on the ensuing possession down 38-24, Price was sacked on first down. Then Seferian-Jenkins was called for holding downfield. That made it second and 26, not the place to be against Oregon’s speedy defense. Price threw incomplete to Kevin Smith, then was forced to dump another pass off to Sankey on third and 26.
Oregon took the resulting punt and went eight plays and 75 yards – without a third down -- for the clinching score. Mariota’s pass to Josh Huff for 26 yards got the Ducks to the UW 6. Then Mariota completed an easy pitch and catch to Bralon Addison from the 3 to make it 45-24 with 7:37 remaining.
With the Huskies forced to pass on every down and Oregon’s defense knowing it, that was that.
For the season, Mariota has accounted for 25 touchdowns – 17 on passes – with zero turnovers. He has gone 233 attempts without an interception, an Oregon record.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said of his former UW summer camper, when Mariota was entering his senior year of high school in Hawaii.
The Heisman Trophy was in suite 5 of Husky Stadium for this hyped, 106th meeting of Dawgs and Ducks. Sarkisian thinks that award may need to go to Mariota, a mere sophomore, in December.
“I don’t have a Heisman vote, but I’d be hard pressed to say we’ll see a better quarterback this year,” Sarkisian said. “That guy is special. I don’t know when he is planning on going to the NFL but when he does, I think he’ll be a top-five pick.”
Huskies 36-year-old defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a former Ducks safety who grew up in Junction City, Ore., just north of Eugene, said that “I haven’t been around that long but” Mariota was “as good a quarterback as I’ve ever been involved with.”
Oregon’s pass rush, the Huskies’ lack of one, and UW’s two turnovers were ultimately the differences in the Ducks’ 10th consecutive win in this heated series.
“As coach said we feel like we went toe to toe for 3½ quarters with them. We just had little mistakes, mistakes you can’t make against a team like Oregon,” Sankey said.
Sankey churned and spun and broke tackles and who passed Rashaan Shehee, Rich Alexis, Louis Rankin, and Hugh McElhenny to settle into seventh all-time on UW’s rushing list. The junior has 2,525 yards, 111 behind Jacque Robinson for sixth place.
“Everybody’s hurting right now. We wanted to win this game, bad,” Sankey said. “But coming back (Sunday) it’s go time again.
“Back to the drawing board.”
Back, that is, for Arizona State (3-2 entering Saturday night’s home game against Colorado) next Saturday at 3 p.m.
“That’s a good football team we lost to. It’s been back-to-back weeks of really good football teams,” Sarkisian said of the Ducks, who won for the 18th straight time on the road. “We played with Stanford for 60 minutes and we played with these guys for three and a half quarters. We are a good football team.
“And we need to get back on the horse. We need to start preparing for Arizona State, because the biggest game of our season is next Saturday. We need to get ready for it.”