For those just catching up, allow me to offer an abridged history of the Oregon-Washington rivalry, 2016-present.
October, 2016: Oregon was 2-3, Washington 5-0. With Oregon’s 12-year grip on the series slipping, offensive line coach Steve Greatwood made a promise.
“The streak’s not going to end,” he said.
You know what happened next. The Ducks started a freshman quarterback, Justin Herbert, who threw an interception on his first pass attempt. Jake Browning pointed, Oregon panicked, and Washington hung 70 on the Autzen Stadium scoreboard.
Afterward, an Oregon player suggested some of his teammates didn’t care about winning and losing. The season ended in a 4-8 dumpster fire. Mark Helfrich got fired, Willie Taggart came in, and the Oregon-Washington rivalry appeared to have juice again.
“That’s the team you want to beat,” Taggart said.
Ah, never mind. With Herbert sidelined by a broken collarbone, the Ducks lost 38-3 last year in a cold and dreadful drizzle. Though I have no proof, I’ve always wondered if that was the night Taggart started looking for real estate in South Florida.
Two games with a cumulative score of Washington 108, Oregon 24. That’s a whole lot of comeuppance to pack into two years of a rivalry. And while the trend lines appear to be converging a bit this season, it’s hard to ignore the butt-kicking Oregon has absorbed the past two seasons.
When did Husky Hate Week turn into Husky Hurt Week?
I remember covering the first Oregon-Washington game of Chris Petersen’s tenure and offering a warning. As much as Oregon fans hated to hear it, the days of dominating Washington were about to end. You could tell Petersen was building something, and Oregon no longer could count on the Huskies as an easy win.
Well, the pendulum has swung. Hard. Now Mario Cristobal is the coach trying to restore balance to the rivalry. Without over-dramatizing things, competing with Washington is pretty much a prerequisite for any Oregon coach.
“It’s as important as it gets,” Cristobal said.
Cristobal doesn’t need to dominate this series the way Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly did. If the Ducks and Huskies could split the next 10 games, that would be exactly what the rivalry needs.
The way I see it, Oregon should be contending most years in the Pac-12 North and winning the division once every three years or so. That’s not going to happen unless the Ducks can win their share against Washington. With a loss to Stanford already on the ledger, the Ducks can forget about winning the North unless they beat the Huskies on Saturday.
Both teams have been choosing their words carefully this week. As he usually does before the Oregon game, Petersen locked down media access and kept most of his best players sequestered. Oregon wasn’t quite as restrictive, but the Ducks took great pains not to give the Huskies ammunition.
“I mean, it’s a game,” co-defensive coordinator Keith Heyward said. “I’ve been around the Pac-12, and all these games are the same.”
The Ducks can say that if they want, but I have to believe this one comes with some extra baggage. Not just because it’s a rivalry, but because Washington has dominated the Ducks so thoroughly the past two years.
“We’re not too focused about what happened in the past, because we know we’re a different team and we’re a new organization,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “We haven’t focused too much on it, but I know guys have it in the back of their head.”
Also in the back of their heads is the memory of Browning pointing his finger in the face of linebacker Jimmie Swain on his way to the end zone in 2016. If you had to sum up the past two years of this series in one image, that would be it.
To understand why the gesture was simultaneously hilarious and demoralizing, you have to understand something about Browning. He’s a terrific quarterback, the Huskies’ career leader in passing yards, but he’s not the most physically imposing guy on the field. It was kind of like playing pickup basketball and getting dunked on by your CPA.
“He didn’t point at me, so I always think about it in that way,” defensive end Jalen Jelks said. “It’s always disrespectful when something like that goes down. You always keep that in the back of your mind when you go to hit somebody.”
That’s a lot of stuff the Ducks are keeping in the back of their minds. I know coaches talk about staying even-keeled, about playing with passion rather than emotion, but the Ducks are coming into this game with two years worth of IOUs they’ve saved for the Huskies.
I have to think some of that history will come to the forefront Saturday.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.