These aren’t the Huskies of three or four years ago. #2 Oregon is coming to town and this time Husky fans aren’t praying for victory and privately hoping for anything but a blowout. Washington is #16 in the country after an extremely close loss at #5 Stanford. At 4-1, that very understandable loss is the only blemish on the year.
So expectations are higher. Some fans are standing staunchly behind the “Expect to Win” banner, and they really do seem to expect a win. Few and far between are the fans that would acceptanything less but a narrow loss, given that this game will be played at the new Husky Stadium in front of a national audience, with hype boosted even further by the presence of ESPN College GameDay on campus.
The only problem is that no matter how much Washington has changed in the past few years, Oregon hasn’t. Carrying a 5-0 record into this game, they’re still dominating everyone in sight. And, much to the chagrin of Husky fans everywhere, the Ducks are also carrying with them down to Montlake a winning streak against the Huskies that will extend to a full decade with a UO victory. Last year, they won 52-21. The year before, 34-17. In 2010, 53-16. As a nineteen year-old UW student, I literally cannot remember a Husky victory in this rivalry.
Historical advantage and recent improvement aside, winning this game would mean leaping from years and years of uncompetitive beat downs right to a massive, program-altering upset with no contests in between. One year can certainly make a massive difference in college football. The Huskies are running a new offense (Sark may have said nothing changed by the tempo, but a ton has changed), and new depth and experience at key positions like the offensive line and wide receiver have elevated the team. That still doesn’t mean the Huskies are automatically ready to do what pretty much only elite SEC teams and Stanford have done (oh, and USC managed it as well, back in 2011).
The most obvious thing that stands in the way of such a victory: stupid mistakes. Washington will not beat Oregon if they’re busy beating themselves. It took arguably the best game of Keith Price’s career for the Huskies to stay so close to Stanford given all the issues with special teams play and penalties. Oregon won’t allow that. If tomorrow’s game starts off with a 99-yard kickoff return and ends with the Huskies having accumulated 10 penalties for 89 yards, there are no reasonable scenarios in which Washington wins.
It’s a well-worn refrain in sports, but it’s true. The Huskies, clear underdawgs (couldn’t help myself), will have to play their best game to win. If the Ducks play their best game, it likely won’t matter what Washington does. It may be discouraging, but it’s reality. That means few penalties and no mistakes on special teams. It also means the much-improved offensive line pass-blocking well enough for Price to do his thing. He hasn’t had a poor game yet this season, and both he and Bishop Sankey will likely have to score multiple touchdowns in order to give Coach Wilcox and the defense a chance.
Wilcox, UW defensive coordinator and former Oregon player, engineered a perfect gameplan in the upset win over Stanford last year. His unit followed that up with a total flop at Autzen Stadium. With 70,000 fans screaming in support, that sort of failure won’t be an option. As previously mentioned, neither will the eight flags for 102 penalty yards racked up on that day last year.
Marcus Mariota and whoever is running the ball (De’Anthony Thomas may not play due to injury) will move the ball and they will score. They just have to be three or four-minute drives ending in field goals or the occasional hard-earned touchdown, not twenty second drives ending with 67-yard touchdown runs. And it must be 28-38 points allowed, if Price and Sankey are to have a chance to win in a shootout, rather than 45+ points.
It’s impossible to know if Washington is ready to play that sort of game. It’s also tough to fully evaluate the Ducks, given that they played three unranked non-conference foes before facing the two worst Pac-12 teams, Cal and Colorado. All five wins were blowouts, so we know it’s Oregon, but we can’t know now if this is the Oregon team that lost to Stanford at home or some evolved, stronger version.
We’ll know by tomorrow afternoon.