- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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SEATTLE -- When Washington running back Bishop Sankey burst through Oregon's defense for a 25-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left in the third quarter Saturday, causing the Husky Stadium crowd to erupt like a volcano of hope and joy, it was as though the second-ranked Ducks were at that moment handed a three-question exam.
How might the Ducks react to a tight fourth quarter, which they haven't faced this year? Is statistically impressive quarterback Marcus Mariota a clutch performer? And, really, does first-year head coach Mark Helfrich have the cucumber-cool of the guy he replaced, Chip Kelly?
The No. 2 Ducks sharpened their No. 2 pencils and then ...
They drove for two fourth-quarter touchdowns while shutting out the 16th-ranked Huskies in the final frame. Mariota was 5-of-6 for 75 yards in the fourth with a 3-yard touchdown pass and a 5-yard touchdown run. And Helfrich's version of the Ducks showed themselves as a complete and poised team, one that is clearly a national title contender after an impressive 45-24 victory.
"In a hostile environment, under some duress, when you can make some adjustments and execute those adjustments in all three phases, that's a big deal," Helfrich said. "It's a sign of a mature team."
True. The Ducks improved to 6-0 overall, and Mariota produced a Heisman Trophy worthy performance on a big stage. He completed 24 of 31 passes for 366 yards with three touchdowns and he rushed for 88 yards and another score. He has accounted for 25 touchdowns this season, 17 passing, eight rushing.
"I don't have a Heisman vote, but I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said of Mariota. "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."
It was a brilliant performance from bell to bell, the Ducks 18th consecutive road victory, the longest active streak in FBS football.
As a side bar, one noted by the Oregon fans in attendance with chants of, "Ten more years," late in the fourth quarter, the Ducks recorded their 10th consecutive victory in the bitter rivalry series, and each of those wins came by at least 17 points.
At this point, that dominance seems secondary, almost academic. The average high school senior can't remember Washington beating Oregon. But it's not secondary and academic to folks who can remember when the Huskies dominated the rivalry. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has been at Oregon for 21 years in three different stints starting in 1978. He paused when asked if beating the hated Huskies 10 consecutive times seemed possible during his early years at Oregon.
"This was a wild dream way back when," Aliotti said.
But Oregon is not a dream. It's 100 percent for real in all three phases. The Ducks outgained the Huskies 631 yards to 376, averaging 7.8 yards per play. They won the turnover battle 2-0. While the defense yielded 167 tough yards to Sankey, who also had a 60-yard TD run, it blanketed the Huskies' talented corps of receivers, holding Keith Price to 182 yards passing while sacking him four times.
But the star was Mariota, who didn't have his best weapon, running back De'Anthony Thomas, available due to a lingering ankle injury. Of course, it's not easy to get Mariota to talk about himself. When asked about his performance, he noted that it was "a team sport." When asked about feeling pressure in the fourth quarter, he shrugged off the question.
"We have this deal that if we're prepared, we don't feel pressure," he said.
Others are better spokespersons for his Heisman campaign.
"He threw the ball extremely well, and when we covered him, he ran," Sarkisian said. "We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him. But he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player, and you have to give them a lot of credit. They're a really good team."
Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost calls the Ducks' plays. He said Mariota's best qualities are his maturity and composure.
"It's really easy to be a play-caller when the ball is in Marcus' hands," he said.
It's not only Mariota, as he repeatedly pointed out. When receiver Josh Huff went down with what looked like a worrisome leg injury, sophomore Bralon Addison stepped up with eight catches for 157 yards and two scores. When Huff came back in the second half, looking none the worse for wear, he caught six passes for 107 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown strike from Mariota.
And the Ducks defense held the Huskies to 16 points and 178 yards below their season averages.
The big question entering the game was whether the Ducks would finally get tested. They were. That the final score suggests that they weren't only means that they earned an A-plus for this midterm exam.