By Brent Stecker
For all the strides the Washington football program has made, it's still hasn't reached the level of No. 2 Oregon.
That was evident after Saturday's 45-24 Huskies loss, their second in a row after a strong 4-0 showing to open the season.
The Huskies hung with the Ducks, keeping it a one-score game into the fourth quarter, but in the blink of an eye, Oregon ran away by scoring two unanswered touchdowns in the final frame to lock up the win.
Keith Price took a sack in one of the Huskies' two red-zone trips in its loss to Oregon, and the Huskies had to settle for a field goal that series as result. (AP)
A game like this says a lot more after the victor than the loser, but having seen the kind of top-tier program they want to be up close, the Huskies still have plenty to learn from Saturday's loss.
Three things we learned:
1. Oregon is a better second-half team than Washington.
The Huskies' calling card this year has been back-breaking second-half performances, and it seemed that could carry over against Oregon, considering they pulled within seven points by scoring on Bishop Sankey's 60-yard run just four plays into the third quarter.
Then the Ducks did what they do.
In a momentum-crushing show of one-upmanship, Oregon answered Washington by scoring on its next drive in just three plays, with quarterback Marcus Mariota connecting with wide receiver Josh Huff for a 65-yard score. Just like that, the Ducks were back ahead by two touchdowns. And even though the Huskies crawled back within seven by the end of the quarter, the Ducks blocked out a rumbling UW crowd, shook off a false start and outscored Washington 14-0 in the fourth to cruise to the win.
2. The Ducks can beat some pretty good teams without "Black Mamba."
The team that beat Washington on Saturday is one of the best (if not the best) teams in the nation. And that team played the entire game without offensive weapon De'Anthony Thomas, who dressed but didn't see the field because of a sprained ankle. Thomas has 338 rushing yards and six touchdowns on just 42 carries this season, but Byron Marshall (112 yards, two touchdowns, 19 carries) did just fine in his absence.
And then there's Mariota, who did nothing but strengthen his case for the Heisman Trophy. Oregon's quarterback was 24 for 31 passing for 366 yards and three touchdowns, plus he gained 88 yards and another score on the ground. The Huskies didn't have an answer for Mariota, Marshall, or receivers Bralon Addison (eight receptions, 157 yards, two scores) and Huff (six receptions, 107 yards, one touchdown). And just think – the Mamba awaits.
3. The Huskies need a better pass rush to beat top-tier teams.
Of the 16 sacks the Washington defense has amassed this year, 11 came in its second and third games combined. Just one came against Oregon, which is understandable considering Mariota's elusiveness. That doesn't mean the rushers should be let off the hook, though. The Huskies got to Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan just twice, and they lost. They got to Mariota just once, and they lost. A loss next week to Arizona State would turn a tough midseason run into a disaster, and if Washington wants to avoid spiraling out of control, it needs to start with getting pressure on the quarterback.
Three things we're still trying to figure out:
1. Will Austin Seferian-Jenkins get more attention in the offense?
Huskies tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, always the biggest target on the field, hauled in just two catches for 36 yards against the Ducks. One was an 8-yard touchdown strike where quarterback Keith Price took advantage of ASJ's 6-foot-6 frame for their lone red-zone touchdown of the day. Washington had to settle for a field goal in its other red-zone opportunity, though, after Price took a sack on a play that coach Steve Sarkisian said after the game was designed to give a look to Seferian-Jenkins. Whatever the case, the Huskies could stand to give the big guy more opportunities – especially in games where they need a lot of points – and fast.
2. Are the Huskies doing enough in the red zone?
Washington reached the red zone just twice against Oregon, scoring once on ASJ's aforementioned touchdown, and settling for a field goal in the other. Obviously two red-zone trips is less than ideal for the Huskies, but the 10-point total from those opportunities is certainly troublesome. Sarkisian made it a point early in the season that he wasn't happy settling for field goals, and Saturday's loss was an example of how it can cost them. Washington also came up empty once in their four red-zone trips against Stanford, so expect efficiency near the end zone to be addressed before the Arizona State game.
3. Where do the Huskies go from here?
Washington is at a clear turning point in its season, sitting at 4-2, ranked No. 20 in the nation, and facing a tough road game against Arizona State next Saturday. A win gets them back on track and in line for a good bowl berth. A loss could disrupt a huge turnaround for the program. Needless to say, there's a lot on the line next week.