SEATTLE — The value of Saturday night’s loss? The meaning of a 34-17 defeat at the hands of Oregon?
No, it wasn’t in the fact that the University of Washington bid adieu to Husky Stadium as we know it. It wasn’t even in the memories that came flooding back as the ghosts of the past were honored on the field.
No, the importance of Washington’s close-but-oh-so-far loss to Oregon was as a measuring stick. As a barometer. As a method for evaluating itself against the current kings of the Pac-12.
The verdict? Washington has come far. Very far. And yet the Huskies are not quite ready for prime time.
That’s what Saturday night’s festivities told us, and the opportunity for such clear-cut answers made it the most important game of the Steve Sarkisian era to this point.
Sure, the Huskies beat Southern Cal in 2009 and 2010, including once when the Trojans were ranked No. 3 in the nation.
But those were more like, “Hey, the Huskies can be competitive again” games. More like examples of what might happen if a team isn’t prepared for UW. More like fleeting glimpses of what might come down the road, rather than a reflection of the reality of the moment.
But Saturday, when a 6-2 Washington team faced sixth-ranked Oregon, there was no sense of the Huskies hoping to catch the Ducks by surprise. This was a game involving Northwest bragging rights as well as North Division pride in the newly configured Pac-12. This was a game Washington could use to figure out where it stands, lining up against the preeminent program in the conference.
“I was not anticipating our inability to block them up front,” Sarkisian said. “Six sacks is a crazy number. That’s embarrassing.
“This is the second time we’ve gone up against a really good opponent, along with Stanford, and we haven’t performed well up front.”
So, chalk it up as a learning experience. The Huskies have gone from an 0-12 program four years ago to one that can aspire to being elite. To one that is well on its way to a second consecutive bowl game. To one that might be on its way to reaching Oregon’s level.
But such an ascension is several years away.
The Ducks, with back-to-back outright conference titles, now inhabit the lofty place within the conference the Huskies once held. And there is an opening for the role of challenger in the North Division.
Oregon State and Washington State are struggling, after filling the power void during some of the Huskies’ down years. Cal has been unable to grasp anything resembling sustained excellence. Stanford is an outstanding football team, but an Andrew Luck comes along only once in a lifetime.
Washington, once it reaps the benefits of a revamped Husky Stadium, is the likely candidate to pose a long-term challenge to Oregon.
“For what they’ve done throughout the year to people, I thought our defense played a good football game,” Sarkisian said.
And yet the differences in the programs were evident. Oregon is fast. Really fast. Cheetah running across the savannah fast. And the Ducks tackle extremely well, rarely missing an opportunity to bring down an open ball-carrier.
Those were the differences Saturday, the things that bridge the gap between a solid football team and an elite one. Much is made of the Ducks’ scheme and style, but it works because they have an awful lot of talent.
So while the Huskies paid homage to their past on Saturday, hoping to send Husky Stadium out in style, they also did something much more important. They got a close-up look at what they hope is their future.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To “Like” him on Facebook, search for “Greg Jayne - The Columbian.”