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November 6, 2010In one football game, the University of Washington learned how close, yet how far away it is from the Oregon Ducks.
Stepping into buzzing Autzen Stadium against the most dangerous college football team in the country, the Huskies faced an almost impossible task of breaking in a new quarterback while trying to hold their own against the No. 1-ranked Ducks.
And for a little more than half of a football game Saturday, that's exactly what the Huskies did.
But just as Washington feared going into Saturday's game against Oregon's dizzying offense, the Ducks eventually hit the afterburners and tired out the Huskies.
Oregon got a big spark from its kick return unit and turned the game into a track meet in the second half on its way to a 53-16 victory over Washington before the largest crowd (60,017) ever to watch a football game in the state of Oregon.
What's missing from the final score is that the Huskies trailed 18-13 early in the third quarter before special teams breakdowns led to Oregon breaking free and turning the game into a rout.
After an embarrassing 41-0 home loss to Stanford a week earlier, the Huskies were looking to get some respect back in a nationally-televised game.
And leaving Autzen Stadium, that's what they felt they did.
"I felt that we showed that we could play with them," Huskies linebacker Mason Foster said. "You've just got to keep playing all four quarters."
"I think we played really hard as a group," linebacker Cort Dennison said. "Obviously the outcome of the game isn't what we wanted it to be. But I don't think the score is indicative of any part of the game."
The Huskies (3-6 overall, 2-4 in the Pac-10) entered the game as 35-point underdogs and came in with a mindset and defensive game plan to try to contend with Oregon's no-huddle, spread-option offense that leads the nation in productivity.
To add to the challenge, redshirt freshman Keith Price made his first college start at quarterback in front of a Ducks crowd that is notorious for trying to rattle opposing players, especially their border state rival, the Huskies.
But the care-free Price coolly accepted the challenge, entering the stadium with a calmness and a smile.
Price's statistics weren't spectacular (14 of 28 for 127 yards and a touchdown without an interception), but he helped keep the Huskies in the game for more than a half.
He got hot late in the second quarter with the Huskies trailing 18-3 when he connected on three passes for first downs that moved Washington to the Oregon 16.
Then, on the next play he connected with Jermaine Kearse in the end zone, but the touchdown wasn't allowed as the Huskies were called for having an ineligible receiver downfield.
The Huskies had to settle for an Erik Folk field goal to go into halftime down 18-6.
"I think there was a little bit of disappointment that we didn't have the touchdown," coach Steve Sarkisian said of the Huskies' mood at halftime. "The touchdown got called back. But getting the field goal, I think there was some real confidence and belief in what we were doing."
Sarkisian said he felt that defensive coordinator Nick Holt's game plan was exceptional and felt it kept Oregon from sticking to its hurried, no-huddle offense.
Oregon was held scoreless in the first quarter for the first time this season and its normally potent rushing attack was held to 113 yards in the first half - with 34 of them coming on quarterback Darron Thomas' 34-yard touchdown run in the final minutes.
"I was trying to tell the team, 'Let's calm down, everything's going to be alright,"" Thomas said. "Some teams are going to come out and play hard just like we do. We feel the pressure a little bit, but coach (Chip) Kelly puts us in the right places to make plays."
What destroyed Washington's hopes of staying close was its kick coverage unit on special teams.
Oregon (9-0, 6-0) finished with 311 yards of kick and and punt return yardage, deflating the Huskies' hopes by setting up easy touchdowns.
The most damaging came with the game still close in the third quarter.
Washington's defense had just come up with its biggest play when safety Nate Williams hit Thomas to force a fumble that Foster recovered at the Oregon 17.
Price connected with D'Andre Goodwin in the back of the end zone on the next play to get the Huskies to 18-13.
But on the ensuing kickoff, Josh Huff sprinted 80 yards to the Washington 6, setting up a Thomas touchdown pass on the next play, making it 25-13.
The Huskies still weren't done, capitalizing on Oregon's botched field goal try by moving into field goal position themselves with a boost from Chris Polk's 31-yard scamper to start the drive.
Folk's third field goal pulled Washington to 25-16 with 6:14 remaining in the third quarter, but Oregon would score 28 unanswered points to turn a close game into a lopsided affair.
A 79-yard punt return by Cliff Harris would set up one of those touchdowns.
"I thought all and all, our guys battled," Sarkisian said. "They competed against an excellent football team. And I thought we had some real crucial missed opportunities early in the ballgame.
"I thought our defense played a really nice first half of football. Unfortunately, we didn't help ourselves on special teams. When we put a little bit of stress and pressure on them, where we get the turnover, score the touchdown there in the third quarter, that kickoff return I think really took a lot of wind out of our sails, which is unfortunate. It really spun the game back in their favor and got their mojo going. And when they got rolling they were hard to stop."
"You have to give Sark a lot of credit, they came out hard, but we wore them down," Kelly said. "You have to play a full 60-minute game. We knew going in that it'd be a big game."
Washington players couldn't believe their ears early in the second half when instead of hearing a deafening roar, they could hear some Oregon fans yelling out compliments for giving the Ducks a battle.
"I tip my hat to their fans," cornerback Quinton Richardson said. "Even their fans said we played a better game than they expected. I just feel like we gained some respect for the most part."
"I've never even heard that from an opposing crowd, especially Oregon," Dennison said. "We're used to having some mean things said to us from these guys. They were complimentary."
And for a team that has taken some tough blows lately in its third consecutive defeat, Washington will take what it can get.
"The positive you can take out of that is people respect how you play," Dennison said, "and that's what you want."