Washington Sees the Future, and it's Oregon

SEATTLE - Standing near the tunnel in the fourth quarter, I watched Dubs. The Husky mascot was rolled over on his side, getting his belly rubbed by those more interested in the dog than the game. In the distance I heard the chant rise from the stands - 'Ten More Years! Ten More Years!' The Duckade of Dominance was complete when the clock read zeros; the scoreboard read Oregon 45, Washington 24.

ESPN, as well as any other national sports outlet you care to mention, considered the heated UO-UW rivalry game to be the premier game of the week, but it turned out to be more cubit zirconia than a five-star diamond lock for Washington fans willing to do everything short of selling body parts to secure a UW victory.

Justin Wilcox, one of the young, bright defensive minds in the college game today, was at a loss. He tried spying Marcus Mariota, he tried to keep Mariota 'in the cage', he tried to blitz the sophomore signal-caller from Honolulu - nothing worked.

"What was our answer at that point?" UW Head Coach Steve Sarkisian said post-game. "That's what was frustrating for us."

Mariota's 454 yards of total offense would have put him in the top-5 all-time if he had picked the Huskies out of high school, but Oregon's forward thinking earned his pledge, as well as all of the success that has come since.

Mariota hadn't started a game yet for Saint Louis, yet killed it in the summer circuit, especially after being hand-timed at a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash that May at Aloha Stadium during a combine put together by the Pacific Islands Athletic Alliance. I happened to be there that day, and as soon as I got a feel for not only what Mariota could do physically but how he could also throw the ball and take command of situations - even if it was only in a combine-style format - there was only one thought that went through my head; this kid would be a phenomenal fit for Oregon. I wasn't shocked one bit when word of Marcus' pledge hit the wires - he's always been a smart kid.

A trip back in time: the Oregon Ducks had started their offensive transformation under Chip Kelly in 2007 but didn't recruit a quarterback in that class. The first quarterbacks Kelly targeted to run the kind of spread run attack he had mastered at New Hampshire were Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas. The next year it was Daryle Hawkins, who would eventually be moved to receiver, and the year after that it was Bryan Bennett. But Kelly knew he had hit paydirt in 2011 when he saw Mariota - a kid that not only had speed to burn and an accurate arm, but the calm, cool, unflappable demeanor you'd expect from a humble island boy. He was the total package - a perfect fit.

All Mariota did Saturday was cause Wilcox - the former Oregon star - fits. "I think he's special. I don't know when he's planning on going to the NFL but when he does I think he'll be a top-five draft pick," Sarkisian said. "He's a hell of a player."

The game had all the makings of a true slugfest done at warp-speed; Sarkisian joked that we needed to look up to see if 200 plays had ever been run in a game before. Well, 155 plays were eventually run with a mix of pace and precision - mostly on Oregon's part. Washington's defenders, as much as their tackling in space has improved under Wilcox, was often left in Mariota's wake, grasping in vain for a piece of his clean white jersey. And when they did have him controlled he always seemed to be able to find an open receiver on the sidelines at the very last instant.

Washington has a warrior at quarterback in Keith Price. Anyone who saw his gallant performance against Stanford will never question his heart or toughness. In today's sped-up college football world, healthy legs come at a premium for BCS quarterbacks, and while Keith is by no means immobile he certainly seemed to be standing still in comparison to Mariota, who has unique speed in the game. It's that speed, and the elusiveness that comes with it, that makes Oregon's offense run at a high level of efficiency.

Arguably the last two times - outside of Oregon, of course - Washington has seen that kind of efficiency in action was when Nebraska and Oklahoma came into Husky Stadium and used up-tempo attacks with mobile quarterbacks to pick the Huskies apart. Up-tempo is not just a fad or the rage anymore; it's a fact of life in the college game. And when you have the right athlete and right leader running it, going up-tempo in a no-huddle format can be devastating. Oregon showed that Saturday with 631 total yards against the defense that had been ranked tops of the conference in total defense leading up to that game. And they could have scared 700 if Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich hadn't slowed the game way down by Duck standards in the fourth quarter.

Husky fans don't want to hear that Steve Sarkisian has turned Washington into Oregon, but he has - or at least he's trying to. Whether he's simply doing what every other great coach has done before him - take bits and pieces of other successful coaches and creating a style to suit his personality - or outright lifting Chip Kelly's green and yellow blueprint from the vaults hidden deep under Autzen Stadium - will be the subject of debate for the months and years to come. I know this because Washington is Oregon lite. They've done the uniform thing and they are doing the up-tempo thing. They are showing the goofy flash cards on the sidelines as a form of communication out to the field, something Oregon became known for under Kelly.

But here's the thing; it doesn't matter if Washington fans aren't willing to accept the blatantly obvious because the product on the field will do it for them. That's always told the story, and the story of Saturday's game was that strides have been made, the gap is starting to close. It's nowhere near close, which simply underscores how dominant the Ducks have been during this 10-year run. Even die-hard Husky haters will accede that progress is being made by the evil ones to the north - even if it's at a snail's pace compared to Mariota's march toward what has to be an inevitable matchup with Alabama for the national championship.

After Saturday's beatdown it's hard for Washington fans to look for silver linings, and there's certainly no moral victories won at Husky Stadium. But UW fans need to understand that what Sarkisian is doing isn't a short-term deal. It's not just being done as an experiment to gauge its successes and failures during the course of the season. Sarkisian has studied it, looked to those that are running it, and has tailored the offense to suit the personnel he has.

And for those that are wondering - will UW continue to try and imitate Oregon for the foreseeable future? The answer is an unequivocal YES. And all you have to do is look at Cyler Miles and Jeff Lindquist as proof. In some ways you could argue Sarkisian was always headed in this direction when Miles and Lindquist were pegged as future Husky quarterbacks, as their mobility is perhaps their greatest asset, the one intangible they hold that puts them above most when it comes to running offenses in the Pac-12.

2014 is already being held up as a watershed year for a Washington program that seems to have been continually besieged by a lack of upperclassmen, of fourth and fifth-year seniors that can often spell the difference because of their experience and maturity. Right now the Huskies have two fifth-year senior starters in Keith Price and Will Shamburger. If you extrapolate to next season based on Saturday's starting lineups, the Huskies will have four just along the offensive line alone - Micah Hatchie, Mike Criste, Colin Tanigawa, and Ben Riva - and seven total. Add to that Bishop Sankey, Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Danny Shelton to that mix, and the Huskies will start to look like a program that can now reload instead of having to constantly rebuild.

In many ways Oregon has been able to withstand the transition from Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly, and now to Mark Helfrich, because of the assistant coach continuity they possess. Defensive Coordinator Nick Aliotti has been in Eugene 22 years; Running Backs Coach Gary Campbell 31 years. Offensive Line Coach Steve Greatwood has been there 27 years and Linebackers Coach Don Pellum 21 years. John Neal and Tom Osborne, with 11 and 13 years respectively, seem like rank juniors in comparison. Overall, the Oregon assistant posses an unbelievable 132 years of coaching experience in Eugene between the nine of them.

Compared to that to the 22 combined years of Washington's nine assistants under Sarkisian in Seattle, and you can see that continuity matters. Obviously Sarkisian is still very much learning on the job, and his assistants are undoubtedly some of the best and brightest in the country - but what you can't make up for in experience you can in having the wisdom to pick the brains of those who do, hence Sark's move toward becoming Oregon.

As Sarkisian's offense evolves, expect that mirror image, as former UW Head Coach Rick Neuheisel has said, to become even sharper in detail. Right now that mirror is in the rear view. In Keith Price the Huskies have a very good quarterback, but he's not necessarily the best quarterback for the system that Sark can run. In Price they have the gamer, the guy who has the experience and he's the right guy to lead the team right now. There is no question that Price is the leader of the Huskies in 2013, but in Miles and Lindquist Sark has a future that promises Mariota-like magic. That's not to say they are Mariota, but if they can become half of what Mariota showed Saturday then Sarkisian is well on his way to completing Washington's transformation into what their fans despise.

Funny thing about that, though. As long as Washington is competing for conference championships and Rose Bowls no UW fan in their right mind is going to care. Winning is the ultimate antidote to any rivalry nonsense that takes part in the periphery.


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