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Ducks-Huskies Has Turned Into A Bitter Pac-12 Rivalry

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Oregon's Arik Armstead needs to be part of a big effort up front against a Washington team that wants to run the ball. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
Oregon's Arik Armstead needs to be part of a big effort up front against a Washington team that wants to run the ball. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

Once upon a time on a football field far away, the Washington Huskies ruled the Pacific Northwest football roost. Don James had fashioned a semi-dynasty in Seattle and the rest of the Northwest schools — Oregon, Oregon State and Washington — along with a fair amount of the rest of then-Pac-8 and Pac-10, simply had to shut up and take it. "Thank you, Huskies. May I have another."

But that was then. The here and now is a different picture with Oregon atop the pile and the Huskies desperate to claw their way back to the top. It all started to change in 1994 when Ducks freshman cornerback Kenny Wheaton stepped in front of a Damon Huard pass at the Oregon 9-yard line and took it all the way back for a score and the win. At that moment, an inevitable game-winning drive by the Huskies was tossed back in their faces in what became knowns as "The Pick" to Oregon fans. Things haven't been the same since.

The Ducks have ascended to the top of the national rankings and have taken the measure of the Huskies most of the time during the last 13 years, a situation that drives Huskies fans to a foaming, frothing anger. Make no mistake, while the Civil War game between Oregon and Oregon State and the Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State still are heated and contemptuous games, Oregon-Washington now is one of the Pac-12's most heated and intense rivalry games. The Ducks lord it over their former oppressors in a polite, dominating way, while the Huskies yearn to reclaim what they've always felt was theirs — kingship of the Pacific Northwest. 

Oregon enters Saturday on a nine-game winning streak over Washington and in that span have outscored the Huskies by a 25.9 points per game. In fact, this game rarely has been close in more than a decade. The closest contest was a 27-22 Oregon win in 1998. In short, Oregon has dominated the Huskies in an embarrassing fashion.

But times, they may be changin' again.

Washington lost its first game last week, a hard-fought 31-28 battle with Stanford, a game the Huskies had a chance to win. Either Washington is, indeed, legit, or Stanford is less than imagined. From my vantage point, it looks like the Huskies are back.

The Ducks and Huskies square off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Washington's newly remodeled stadium. There's nothing the Huskies faithful would love more than to christen the new facility by watching Oregon trudge off the field after a loss. This game will be intense and physical from the start, which leads us to some keys to watch.

How Physical Will It Get?

The honest truth is, the Ducks have not played a physical opponent yet. They've played teams that tried to get physical, but didn't have the talent to make it stick. After struggling with injuries and youth the last two years, the Washington offensive line will provide that physical test for Oregon's front four. Washington running back Bishop Sankey led the nation in rushing until the Stanford game and if the Huskies are to keep Oregon's offense off the field, running the ball between the tackles will set up a whole lot of offensive possibilities.

Oregon's rotation of big guys, Alex Balducci, Taylor Hart, Arik Armstead, Ricky Havili-Heimuli, Christian French, Tony Washington, Wade Keliikipi and DeForest Buckner must stop the run inside and keep Washington quarterback Keith Price from getting outside. Washington's offense has taken a lot from Oregon, including playing at a faster pace, so Oregon's rotation of defensive linemen should be a positive for the Ducks. We're going to see how physical Oregon's defense really is with the Huskies wanting to run.

Will DAT play?

As of Friday morning, not even De'Anthony Thomas was sure if he would play Saturday. Thomas, who suffered a sprained ankle two weeks ago, sat out last week's rout of Colorado and the hope was that he'd be ready for the showdown with Washington. Perhaps there's a bit of brinkmanship going on and DAT knows what's going to happen, but for the time being, the feeling is it's about a 50-50 chance he plays.

The road would be harder without Thomas at his dashing, darting, sprinting self in the lineup, but even without Thomas, the Ducks have plenty of offensive weapons that can deliver home run plays with one touch of the football: Josh Huff, Bralon Addison, Byron Marshall, Keenan Lowe and the developing Thomas Tyner at running back. So whether DAT plays or not, the Ducks have the weapons to win a lot of battles and get into the end zone.

What about the tight ends?

This could be Oregon's wonderful little secret heading into the Washington game. With Colt Lyerla out, the tight end duties fall to Johnny Mundt and Pharoah Brown. We've already had a taste of what Mundt can do catching the ball, but be assured that Brown has even better skills and speed. While the Huskies may be overtaxed trying to deal with Oregon's speed on the outside, as well as the occasional run by quarterback Marcus Mariota, that may provide some room for Oregon's young tight ends. This is a matchup to watch throughout the day — Oregon's Mundt and Brown against the Washington secondary. At some point, you can't blanket everyone. Look for the youngsters to be open a lot Saturday.

Keith Price vs. Marcus Mariota

This is one of those marquee games in which Mariota needs to not only win, but flourish to keep his name on the lips of Heisman voters. In Price, Mariota is going to face a nemesis that has many of the same skills and will bring plenty of weapons. Price led the NCAA in passing touchdowns just two years ago and seems to be back on his game behind an offensive line that's finally jelled.

The two have some statistical similarities. Mariota leads the league in quarterback rating (176.3), Price is third (163.4); Price has thrown for 1,394 yards and 11 scores while Mariota has 1,358 yards and 14 scoring passes. Here's the biggest difference, however. Mariota has run for 338 yards while Price has 42 total yards on the ground. That's the difference created by a series of injuries to Price's legs the last two years — a gifted and dangerous running quarterback now seldom runs. That's too bad because Price was  Mariota-like when he was limber. Despite that, Price and Mariota are savvy quarterbacks who can get hot at a moment's notice. Expect scoring and enough big plays to keep a national TV audience enthralled. For Mariota, the stakes are higher. A big performance will have lasting ramifications. 

A true test for Oregon's honored secondary

Washington quarterback Keith Price can throw it and we now know that receivers Kasen Williams (21), Kevin Smith (21) and Jaydon Mickens (30) can catch them. Throw in athletic tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and you have the makings of a fun battle with Oregon's linebackers and secondary. As noted before, Oregon's secondary has seemed a bit sluggish at the start of the season, recording only six picks (eighth in the Pac-12) and having taken none of those to the end zone. Only California and Utah have worse numbers.

The chance to shine is upon Oregon's defensive backs. Oregon needs an all-American effort from cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and elevated play from all those returners from a year ago: Terrance Mitchell, Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson, Erick Dargan, Dior Mathis and Tony Hill. The thought is that Oregon has cover guys and big play players in a secondary that returns starters and plenty of bench experience. This should be a game that provides opportunities for the secondary to make plays. If they make some, Oregon should roll. If the Huskies receivers win the day, Oregon could be vulnerable. This should be as good a matchup as the Washington offensive line versus Oregon's defensive line. 

Notes

Oregon has had 39 scoring drives so far this season, 31 of which have taken less than two minutes ... Oregon has 17 straight road wins, which leads the nation. Second is Northern Illinois with 12 ... Washington leads all-time series with Oregon at 58-42-5, including a 33-24-4 edge in Seattle ... Oregon ranks second in scoring offense (59.2) and defense (11.8) nationally.