This is the fastest, best-conditioned, most mentally tough Huskies team to face Oregon in a decade. And the stage – the first visit from ESPN College GameDay, Husky Stadium sold out and “blacked out” – won’t be too large for them. It’s “another opportunity to show our resolve.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Sure, this is a monumental task, taking down Oregon.
And that’s how last week’s loss at Stanford may actually help the Huskies.
Moments after Keith Price entered the trailer-like, visiting locker room way behind Stanford Stadium following last Saturday’s excruciating loss to the nation’s No. 5 team, Steve Sarkisian sought out his gritty quarterback. He leaned into him for a quiet talk.
The Huskies coach asked his fifth-year senior co-captain to lead. He asked Price to exemplify the resolve needed to carry his teammates out of that 31-28 loss they felt they should have won – and into the most hyped, anticipated Pac-12 home game for UW in at least a dozen years Saturday.
“I think he’ll be a pillar for us. I think he will be one of the key leaders in that locker room for us to bounce back and get ready to play next week,” Sarkisian said on his way to the team bus out of Stanford.
Next week is here.
So are the No. 2 Oregon Ducks. So are ESPN’s “College GameDay” pregame show and Fox Sports 1 for the national game broadcast beginning Saturday at 1 p.m. More than 70,000 fans will be inside Husky Stadium by then, most of them in black to match the home team’s uniforms and its new, black matte helmets.
The 16th-ranked Huskies go into all this buoyed by the belief they took from the unsatisfying finish at Stanford that, in Sarkisian’s words, “we can beat anybody in the county.”
“Oh, yeah,” Price said, “we’re going to get back on the horse.”
They continue to ride high, even after the season’s first defeat. This is the highest the Huskies (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) have been ranked while hosting a top-10 team since Nov. 3, 2001, when UW was ranked 11th and beat No. 10 Stanford at Husky Stadium. A win over Oregon (5-0, 2-0) would not only end a nine-game losing streak to an archrival, it would also keep Washington in the running for the Pac-12 North division title, place in the conference championship game and a shot at the Rose Bowl.
“This is a great opportunity for us to show what we are really made of, and the mentality and maturity of our football team,” Sarkisian said.
What they are made of is the ability to regroup, lead and show resolve. And that points back to the seniors who have brought UW back from oblivion the last four years.
“They’ve been awesome, Keith Price, Sean Parker, the Will Shamburgers of the world, those guys have been tremendous in their resolve,” Sarkisian said. “How that (Stanford) game ended, how much they wanted to go win that game, and then their ability to refocus and bring the young guys with them … that’s a hard thing to do when you are 19, 20, 21 years old because you feel you have unfinished business. The game ended like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But they’ve come back.
“And I know they are excited to show what they are all about. There couldn’t be a better opponent for us to do that against.”
Best because first of all Oregon is … well, Oregon. But also because this is why the Huskies went to their high-speed, no-huddle offense as their base philosophy. It’s why they transformed their conditioning programs this spring and summer, why they had linemen endlessly pulling sleds like true Huskies. Why they went to new, simplified and quicker ways – one-word play calls, for instance -- to communicate plays and formations more quickly before fast snaps.
Last season in Eugene the Ducks took a big early lead behind an avalanche of Huskies errors. But in other seasons Sarkisian’s Dawgs have hung with Oregon for about a half. Then, like most of the Ducks’ opponents, UW has gotten steamrolled by Oregon’s pace, depth and skill in the second halves of losses.
These souped-up Huskies believe they are in better condition to stay with the Ducks late into the game. They are also empowered by their belief they can play with anyone in the land in any venue, the product of the narrow loss at Stanford that may not have happened without three long kickoff returns and 10 penalties against UW.
Three Keys for UW vs. Oregon
1. Bring Down the Ducks: Middle linebacker John Timu thinks the best way to defend the high-flying, high-powered Ducks is to “attack.” That’s what defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been having his guys do for two seasons now. Once they charge, the Huskies must bring down quarterback Marcus Mariota and his fleet teammates -- immediately. The Ducks will get open; they always do. The Huskies’ ability to make tackles in the open field may determine whether they end their nine-game losing struck to the “O.”
2. Sankey Right At ‘Em: For one of the few times this season, an opponent’s defense will match the speed of the Huskies’ skill-position players outside. UW’s advantage could come with the inside running of the bullish Bishop Sankey. The nation’s fourth-leading rusher at 146.4 yards per game specializes in running between the offensive tackles, making sharp cut backs at the line and breaking through tacklers for big gains – he’s been doing it since he was a Wildcat quarterback romping for Gonzaga Prep High School in Spokane. Just as with the defense, the Huskies’ best way to neutralize Oregon’s speed on offense may be by running right at it.
3. Show Off Your Shape: Keeping pace with Oregon’s super-fast pace deep into the second half is a large reason why the Huskies switched to the no-huddle as their base offense, why they redesigned their spring and summer conditioning program. All season – even last week when they out-scored Stanford 21-14 on the road after halftime – the Huskies have proven to be the stronger team during second halves. If they are against Oregon, they have a chance to win the most hyped game at Husky Stadium in at least a dozen years.
“What I do know is, we played top-five team in America a week ago on the road, and we played our tails off. We had a chance to win — and just missed it,” Sarkisian said of last weekend’s loss decided by a replay-review official overturning Kevin Smith’s fourth-down catch at the Stanford 33 in the final 75 seconds.
"We have another opportunity to show our resolve and to show how we can respond from that tough loss, and go play the No.-2 team in the country in Husky Stadium with the whole country watching in an amazing atmosphere for college football that we are fortunate to be part of.
"And we are going to go out and put our best foot forward — and see if that is good enough to win."
To pull off the win that shows the Huskies are back among the nation’s elite, UW must tackle soundly in space against what Sarkisian describes as Oregon’s “premier speed.” Even if running back DeAnthony Thomas, a Heisman Trophy candidate, doesn’t play because of the sprained right ankle that had him in street clothes for Oregon’s 57-16 victory at Colorado last week, quarterback Marcus Mariota can run as fast and as well as anyone the Huskies will defend this season.
Only a sophomore, Mariota is already just 152 total yards from breaking into the top 10 at Oregon all-time in total offense. Last season’s Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year has 5,125 yards running and passing in just under 1½ seasons as a Duck, a reason he is another Heisman candidate.
He had five touchdown passes last week at Colorado, the fifth consecutive game for Oregon scoring at least 50 points. Mariota hasn’t been intercepted in 202 pass attempts, a Ducks record.
“Marcus is playing such a high level at quarterback, both running it and passing it,” Sarkisian said of Mariota, who starred in a UW summer camp before his senior season of high school in Hawaii – but because he had yet to start in high school Sarkisian and the Huskies didn’t offer him a scholarship, not until after he had already committed to the Ducks.
The Huskies’ pass rush has been resurgent this season with 15 sacks in five games, 56 percent of the total UW had in 13 games last season. Ends Hau’oli Kikaha, Cory Littleton and on passing downs Josh Shirley need to contain Mariota inside while they rush to keep the quarterback from open field.
Asked the key to slowing down this high-speed circus, Huskies middle linebacker and co-captain John Timu said simply: “Attack.”
“That’s the best way to slow down these fast, no-huddle teams. Go right at them.”
Many believe the Ducks are most improved on defense, where their speed usually dominates in pass coverage, outside run defense and in pass rushing.
The Huskies may try to use the same “go-right-at-them” approach on offense with Bishop Sankey again running between the tackles, this time at Oregon’s 300-pound defensive tackles Arik Armstead and Wade Kelikipi. Sankey ran 25 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns last year in Eugene. The nation’s fourth-leading rusher this season at 146.4 yards per game may get more than 25 carries Saturday, and his specialty is cut-back runs inside.
Sankey’s running could set up Price for play-action passes and Austin Seferian-Jenkins on routes down the middle of the Oregon defense. Could this be the game the 6-foot-6, 270-pound tight end finally “arrives” in 2013? If it is, it could go a long way to UW keeping up with its averages 557 yards and 37.4 points per game.
After weeks of trying to develop depth and get younger players game experience on special teams, the Huskies are going back to putting starters on them. Stanford had 212 yards on kickoff returns that led directly to 17 of its 31 point. But the Ducks are even faster and more lethal. So the first thing the Huskies did in the first practice of this week was work on how they take on kickoff blocks and how they cover kicks.
The Huskies will have punter and field-goal kicker Travis Coons kicking off, as he did at the end of the Stanford game. Freshman Cameron Van Winkle, the kickoff man in the first five games, has a sore back.
So how much better equipped are the Huskies to pull off the signature win of not just Sarkisian’s tenure but of the last decade-plus?
“Well, I think we have a lot more depth on our roster than we’ve ever had. We have the depth in place to substitute guys in early in the ball game and not have such a significant drop off,” Sarkisian said. “We are a much better-conditioned team than we’ve ever been, and we see that in our own second halves against our own opponents; we perform a lot better in second halves. And thirdly, we are more comfortable in that environment and the speed at which they operate, because of the speed at which we operate on the offensive end.
“All that being said, it’s still a very tall task.”