SEATTLE — Steve Sarkisian finally has Washington where he believed they could get when he inherited an 0-12 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 today.
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 reinsert their name 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, having scored at least 55 points in all five games this season.
Washington may finally have the tools to combat the problems Oregon presents. No longer should the Ducks speedy offense be unfamiliar; the Huskies have been going against their own blistering 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 for the 106th time:
MIRROR MIRROR — When Washington 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's unlikely they will approach the 209 combined plays Houston and Louisiana Tech ran last season, both 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.
MAKE 'EM SWEAT — Oregon has not been remotely challenged into the second half. 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's one of two games the past two seasons Oregon didn't hold at least a three-score advantage headed to the final 15 minutes.
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 the past two weeks with a sprained ankle. He clearly wasn't needed against either California or Colorado. 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 rank 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.
QUALITY QBs — Oregon's quarterback Marcus Mariota has impressed without playing much in the second half. Price has been at his best in the final 30 minutes. Both are putting up eye-catching numbers on their respective offenses. Mariota threw for five touchdowns and 355 yards in 21/2; quarters against Colorado. Price threw 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, it's relatively new. There have been blips of attention during Sarkisian's tenure, but this is the first time it's been sustained. The outside noise got only louder this week with ESPN's "College GameDay" coming to Seattle for the first time. It's a drastic change from when Sarkisian arrived and Washington was the punch line after a winless season.
"I think our program deserves it. I think we've come a long way," Sarkisian said.