Ducks, Mariota pass bellwether test at Washington
SEATTLE Is quarterback Marcus Mariota the best player in the country and Oregon the best team in the country?
A strong case could be made for "yes" to both questions, as Oregon won its bellwether game of the 2013 season, beating rival Washington for the 10th consecutive time, 45-24 Saturday before 71,833 at revamped Husky Stadium.
With De'Anthony Thomas still sidelined, Josh Huff going out for a while with an injury and Washington trying to go toe-to-toe with the country's No. 2 team and its potent offense, Mariota stepped up and played like a superstar.
Mariota completed 24 of 31 passes for 366 yards and three TDs, and rushed 13 times for 88 yards and the game's key touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Mariota put the Ducks on his shoulders and carried them to 631 yards offense, backed by running back Byron Marshall (19 carries, 106 yards, two TDs), Bralon Addison (eight catches, 157 yards, two scores) and Huff (six catches, 107 yards), who had a blistering 65-touchdown reception at the start of the third quarter after he had limped off the field injured in the first half.
The Ducks moved to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in Pac-12 play, and face Washington State at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 at Autzen Stadium.
Always humble, Mariota said "it's a team sport, really, it takes all 11 guys to work hard and execute to be successful. ... I'm proud of this team. It shows the character we have."
Others spoke about Mariota, the super sophomore from Honolulu, Hawaii.
"He's on top of the Heisman (Trophy) list for a reason," Huff said.
"Obviously, with Marcus, I can't say enough about how he played," first-year coach Mark Helfrich said. "He played very smart and productive. Just awesome. But it was a total team victory."
"We just, unfortunately, had a hard time containing Marcus Mariota," UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. "He threw the ball extremely well, and when we covered him, he ran. We tried to catch him. We tried to spot him, we tried to blitz him, we tried to to contain him, but he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player. ... I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year. 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 draft pick."
UO's playmakers picked up the slack with Thomas sidelined dressed for the game, he literally walked the sideline, almost serving as a decoy. Addison was fabulous again, and Huff responded after being hurt on a first-half reception, partially hit by his own offensive lineman, Hamani Stevens.
Huff said he hurt his ankle but got treatment and X-rays (negative), and felt well enough to play in the second half.
After Washington scored on Bishop Sankey's 60-yard TD run to close within 21-14 to start the second half, Huff lined up at receiver, ran past his defender and caught a 65-yard bomb from Mariota for a touchdown.
The previous time Huff was visible in the first half, he was being helped off the field and treated on the sideline. Using him right away in the second half could be viewed as utilizing the surprise factor.
"I don't know if it surprised (the Huskies) or not," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "Josh just gives us that huge weapon."
Huff thought he would be out the rest of the game; "I told him he looked like a soccer player" with the injury, Frost joked. But, he recovered. Helfrich said he didn't have to campaign to get back into the game. "I told (coaches) that I felt good just running around," he said. "They told me to make some cuts, and I made some cuts, and I felt good. So, they allowed me to go back in."
Said Frost: "Our kids would have responded with or without Josh."
Defense also factored into the win, giving up some offense and plays to UW, but also getting its stops. Sankey had a 25-yard TD run to go with his 60-yard TD run and finished with 167 yards on 28 carries. But the Huskies couldn't ride their star running back, consistently falling into third-and-long situations.
Quarterback Keith Price was 19 of 32 for 182 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another 43 yards on 11 carries, but the Ducks sacked him four times and constantly pressured him. The Huskies had only 376 yards offense, at times balanced and at times put out of sync by the Ducks.
"Our defensive backs did a good job holding (receivers) back there, and it allowed us to get to him," said defensive lineman Taylor Hart, who had a sack; fellow D-lineman Wade Keliikipi had a sack and a half.
The Ducks faced down their toughest challenge, and came out unscathed.
"The resolve of this team is special," Helfrich said. "The group of people on this team is special."
A reporter suggested the Ducks made quite a statement with the win, and Helfrich, just like his predecessor Chip Kelly, countered: "We're not trying to make statements. We had to get through the sixth game."
The Ducks had opened the season with five blowouts, and followers were curious how they would play in a four-quarter, challenged situation.
Said Hart: "We're a tough team. We learned we can play with the best." Added Marshall: "I know we're a fourth-quarter team, but we haven't had a reason (to play four quarters). We just got one under our belt. Nobody said it was going to be easy. It was a grind."
It's 10 wins in a row against Washington, a streak dubbed "Decade of Dominance" by UO fans. "It is a great achievement," Helfrich said.
"We're just a better team," cornerback Terrance Mitchell said.
But Washington had the unfortunate schedule to play Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks, losing both. (Later Saturday, Stanford fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, losing 27-21 at Utah).
"I think our kids have showed a great deal of competitive spirit," Sarkisian said. "We played with Stanford for 60 minutes, and we played with these guys for 3 1/2 quarters."