Washington first announced that it had surpassed Oregon on the football field, on a sunny October afternoon in Eugene, in a 70-21 blowout that snapped the Huskies’ 12-year losing streak to the Ducks.
It showed just how much the two programs had changed in a short amount of time.
The Huskies won the Pac-12 North, won the Pac-12 championship game, won 12 games and made the College Football Playoff before losing to Alabama in the semifinals.
Oregon finished 4-8, lost to Oregon State to finish in last place in the Pac-12 North, and fired coach Mark Helfrich at season’s end — the same guy who led the Ducks to the CFP championship game in 2014.
But the event that best highlights this transfer of power might have come on Nov. 12, which, oddly enough, was the day Washington lost to USC, its lone regular-season blemish.
Hours before kickoff, Elijah Molden, a touted cornerback prospect from suburban Portland’s West Linn High School, announced that he had committed to the Huskies.
Longtime Ducks fans cringed at the thought. Molden was born and raised in Oregon and, as the son of Alex Molden, the former UO All-American and NFL defensive back, he was born and raised a Duck.
“I loved them,” Elijah Molden said last week. “I’m a huge fan of them still, but it’s a much different perception now being a recruit.”
That coach Chris Petersen and defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake were able to convince Molden to shun his upbringing and come to UW speaks volumes about how the Huskies are now perceived on the Northwest recruiting trail.
Oregon has the Nike money and the fancy uniforms and the super-duper, high-tech facilities. The Ducks dominated the Huskies for a decade-plus, played in two national title games in a five-year span, had a Heisman Trophy winner and seemed poise to maintain their supremacy as the Northwest’s premier program.
Then 2016 happened. 70-21 happened. Molden-to-UW happened. And even though defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu of Central High School (in Independence, Oregon) wound up switching his commitment from UW to USC, the Huskies still beat out the Ducks for him, and still had the top two players in the state of Oregon committed to them for several months.
“I would say, yes, Washington has passed Oregon in recruiting,” said Brandon Huffman, Scout.com’s director of recruiting. “Even with the loss of Marlon Tuipulotu, the fact the Huskies beat Oregon out for him was big. But the Elijah Molden recruitment and commitment to Washington stung the Ducks and only helped the Huskies with their perception in the state of Washington.”
Petersen’s aim never will be to stand out as the “cool” program, Huffman said, so Oregon still might have the edge for recruits seeking such a destination. But the Huskies may be carving out a more important distinction.
“Oregon has always focused a bit more on the flash and glitz in their approach,” Huffman said. “But while I think Oregon still is the ‘cooler’ program, per se, I think Washington is the ‘better’ program in the Northwest.”
And not just because the Huskies landed Molden. For the first time since 2010, Scout.com ranks Washington’s incoming recruiting class ahead of Oregon’s. As of Thursday, the Huskies currently were at No. 21 in Scout.com’s national rankings, with Oregon at No. 25 as new coach Willie Taggart assembles his first class (though by Sunday, Oregon had moved to No. 22, ahead of UW at No. 24).
There is reason to believe Oregon won’t be down long. A new coaching staff might be able to reverse some of the reported work-ethic issues that seeped in last season, and it’s not like the Ducks’ roster is void of talent.
But after losing to Oregon for 12 consecutive years — and lagging behind the Ducks in most recruiting rankings, too — the Huskies finally seem to be in position to regularly compete against (and actually defeat) Oregon on both fronts.
Chris Miller, who coached Molden at West Linn, isn’t surprised. The former Oregon quarterback said Petersen used to be a neighbor of Miller’s parents in Eugene, back when Petersen was coaching the Ducks’ receivers in the late 1990s.
“They have all the resources up there (at UW). They have the money. They’ve upgraded their facilities. The education is outstanding,” Miller said. “Coach Pete has been successful every place he’s been at. … I was confident in his ability to do that (at UW). There’s a lot of football talent up in the Washington area. He’s keeping some of the best players at home now, getting some out of Oregon and nationally. And his character as a man really speaks well of Elijah’s decision.”
Miller figured Molden’s decision would come down to Oregon and Stanford, and said Washington entered the picture relatively late. Huffman noted how rare it is for a player to be admitted to Stanford — which Molden was — and turn the Cardinal down.
Molden said he began seriously considering UW during the summer, and was ultimately sold after his official visit on Oct. 22.
“It starts with the coaches,” Molden said. “Coach Pete especially, and the culture that he’s trying to cultivate. From there it goes to the players. They all get along great. All the players work hard, and that’s something I want to be a part of and get better and develop my game.”
Of the 16 players who have announced commitments in Washington’s 2017 class, 10 — including Molden — are rated as four-star prospects by Scout.com. Oregon has six in its class of 2017.
The Huskies would have had a stronger class, of course, if they had kept Tuipulotu and four-star Sumner High running back Connor Wedington, another committed prospect who backed out.
And UW did lose out on five-star Graham-Kapowsin offensive lineman Foster Sarell, who chose Stanford.
But Washington likely will sign a class ranked ahead of Oregon, another step for the Huskies toward re-establishing themselves as the team to beat in the Northwest.