Elite Dawgs? Well, not quite just yet

SEATTLE — As the final minutes ticked off the clock in another convincing Oregon victory, Ducks fans in the upper deck of Husky Stadium began a chant that was half celebratory, half intended as a dig at their conference rivals.

“Ten more years, 10 more years, 10 more years,” they shouted moments before Oregon’s 45-24 victory over Washington became final, giving the Ducks a 10th straight win over the Huskies.

First thought: ouch. Second thought: might they be right?

In four-plus seasons under Steve Sarkisian, the Huskies have risen from absolute bottom (0-12 the year before he took over) to a team that has played in three consecutive bowl games. But with a game at No. 5 Stanford last week and then at home against second-ranked Oregon this week, this was Washington’s chance to show it wasn’t just a good program, but one that is back to national prominence.

The Huskies lost to Stanford a week ago, but still showed they could hang with a top-5 (well not anymore thanks to Saturday’s loss in Utah) program on the road. But against Oregon, which unlike Stanford very much looks like a real title contender, the Huskies showed they still have a little ways to go to join the Ducks among the Pacific-12 Conference’s elite. This was the benchmark game for the Huskies, and it showed there is still a gap between the two Northwest programs.

Will it really be 10 years before the Huskies beat Oregon? Not likely, but Saturday showed the Huskies aren’t there yet. Not even when they get the Ducks at home, not even when Bishop Sankey is again spectacular, rushing for 167 yards and two touchdowns, not even when, finally, they are in the game in the fourth quarter.

“That, uh, that’s a good football team,” Sarkisian said, stating the obvious to open his press conference. “Their ranking is deservedly so.”

This wasn’t Oregon dominating from the get go, which they have so often done to the Huskies in the past. Rather this is what the Ducks do to teams that are good, but not quite on their level. Washington hung around, making it a seven-point game when Bishop Sankey took a fourth-and-one carry 60 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the first half. Three plays later, the Ducks, responded by essentially saying, “I see your big play and raise you a 65-yard touchdown pass.”

Yet the Huskies still hung around, again making it a one-score game on another impressive Sankey run, this one a 25-yard score that made it 31-24 at the end of the third quarter. Five plays, 66 yards and 1 minute, 31 seconds later, the Ducks answered again. And finally, down two scores late, forced to become one-dimensional in their offense, the Huskies could no longer keep pace with Oregon.

“We kind of kept going back and forth, toe-to-toe, toe-to-toe, and they just didn’t make a mistake to give us a chance to get even with them,” Sarkisian said. “They just kept making their plays. At some point — not ever would I say that our team quit — but at some point, when you’re fighting up hill and they feel like they’re playing downhill, you can kind of get worn out. And I felt like in the second half there, in the fourth quarter, we got worn out a little bit.”

The Huskies weren’t particularly bad on Saturday. Yes they lost the turnover battle, something you just can’t do against Oregon, and yes they were often beat at the line of scrimmage. But this game wasn’t about Washington not being a good team; it was about Oregon being a great one.

It was about Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota looking like a Heisman Trophy contender and a first-round pick whenever he decides to go to the NFL. It was about Oregon’s underappreciated defense slowing down a very good Washington offense. It was about the Huskies not quite yet being on Oregon’s level.

“It is frustrating, especially when you’re going toe-to-toe with a team, then it just kind of got ugly halfway through the fourth quarter,” Washington quarterback Keith Price said. “But I’m proud of our team. We have a good team, we just played a very good team. We’re definitely one of the best teams in the country, but it’s just kind of hard matching score for score with a team like that.”

Even after back-to-back losses, it’s clear Washington is still better than it has been in years. Justin Wilcox’s defense has made huge strides in the past two years since he took over as defensive coordinator. This up-tempo offense will put up a lot of big numbers between now and the end of the season, and the Huskies will be better than the seven-win team they’ve been for three consecutive years.

But to go from improved to Duck beaters, the Huskies would have had to be nearly perfect, which they weren’t, and a lot of that had to do with Oregon. Great teams make it very hard to be perfect against them.

“Credit Oregon, they’re a really good team,” Sankey said. “We had a few mistakes here and there and unfortunately you can’t have those mistakes against a team like Oregon.

It probably won’t really be “10 more years” before the Huskies end this streak, but Saturday showed they’re still not on Oregon’s level. The gap is closing, but they’re not there yet.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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