NCF Nation: Keith Lewis

Oregon-Washington: Competitive again?

October, 31, 2011
10/31/11
7:03
PM ET
Oregon at Washington on Saturday: Is this the year hate becomes tethered to meaning and competitiveness once again?

Perhaps.

I've been pondering this for years. While Huskies and Ducks fans insist that I favor the other, I really only root for the game to be relevant and meaningful. What I want is two ranked teams hating each other. It makes my job -- standing in the middle, fanning the flames -- much more fun.

I, a transplanted Southerner, first learned about the rivalry's intensity in 1999 by being ignorant of it, as I recounted here. Note to future Huskies beat writers: Don't write a laudatory piece about the Oregon coach your first year in Seattle.

I once spent an evening in Eugene wearing a purple mock turtleneck with a big gold "W" on the front and giant foam Husky hat just to see what would happen.

I was there when things seemed most bitter. And I've pondered a potential renaissance with the Huskies hiring of Steve Sarkisian, a guy who clearly can coach.

But the media can only do so much. The problem with the rivalry has been simple: Oregon has been putting a footprint -- webbed -- on the Huskies foreheads for the past seven years.

Huskies, don't get mad. It's a fact: The Ducks have won seven in a row, their longest streak in the series, by at least 20 points. The average margin of victory during the run is 26.4 points.

What can you possibly say to that?

Well, Washington fans do have some arrows in their quiver. Chief among them: When did Oregon last win the Rose Bowl?

Then Ducks fans observe Huskies fans are living in the past, and Huskies fans -- fully knowing they have been doing exactly that, at least since 2000 -- use a variety of rhetorical tricks in order to yield no ground, as every college football fan should.

I miss the glory days, which can be loosely defined as 1994-2003, starting with Kenny Wheaton's game-clinching interception return for a touchdown -- "The Pick," as Ducks fans lovingly call it -- and the Huskies last win in the series, when Oregon safety Keith Lewis trashed talked before the game and got in a fight late in the 42-10 loss.

"Raw animosity," said former Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel of the feelings among the fan bases.

That's why our friends at Addicted to Quack warmed my heart Monday with this: "Happy I Hate Washington Week." Ahhh... they still care enough to talk about their hate.

The fact is the Pac-12 will get more respect nationally and become a better conference in a real, measurable way if Washington-Oregon becomes an annual measuring stick in the Pac-12 North. In other words: A game that conference TV partners salivate over and broadcast in a primetime slot.

Many college football fans -- Pac-12 and otherwise -- hate USC. They hate USC because it's won so much. In the 1980s and '90s, Pac-10 fans started to really, really hate Washington. Why? Washington won a bunch of Rose Bowls and a national title. Over the past few years, Oregon hate has reached a high-water mark. Why? Because the Ducks are looking for a third consecutive conference title and have been stomping foes while wearing loud uniforms.

And there is a rumor that, well, Oregon fans are a bit obnoxious. Not saying that's what I believe. No way. Would never even suggest it. But someone else might. Not me, though. Someone else.

Easy there, Washington fans. There are plenty of whispers about you, too.

This is not to say California or Oregon State rising in the national polls wouldn't be good for the conference. It's just that unadulterated hate moves the needle, and Huskies-Ducks is the Pac-12's only nuclear-powered rivalry.

If Ducks-Huskies on Saturday matched top-10 teams, with say Chip Kelly's ludicrous speed offense against a Huskies defense similar to the Don James years, let's just say that LSU-Alabama would share top billing.

I know the rest of the Pac-12 is going, "No way... screw them." But you're not really thinking that. You know where I'm coming from. You've seen it.

It makes me think of the Col. Nathan R. Jessep's speech in "A Few Good Men."

And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.


Jessep was the villain of the movie. But that speech was absolutely right.

The thought of Oregon and Washington lording over the Pac-12 North might sound grotesque to you, but the truth is deep down in places you don't talk about at tailgates, you want their mutual hate to matter, you need their mutual hate to matter.

Or at least I do.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

These are tough times. Lots of problems in the world. The economy. War. Bitter political divisions.

Todd Warshaw/Icon SMI
Rick Neuheisel was Huskies coach during arguably the height of the Washington-Oregon rivalry.

But, really, it wasn't clear how tough times were until this week.

Up in the Northwest, when things were difficult, you could always rely on Oregon hating Washington and Washington hating Oregon. This hate was a bedrock constant in a region that shared so much -- snow-capped mountains, fleece, rain, coffee, organic foods, great music scenes, a highly literate populace and microbreweries.

And it was great fun.

So what follows is tragic, particularly with No. 11 Oregon heading to rejuvenated Washington on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m ET).

"They're just the next team on our schedule," Oregon offensive tackle Bo Thran said.

Insert stunned silence from reporter.

Added Thran, "Did that kind of blow your story?"

Thran doesn't know this heated rivalry, even though he hails from Portland. And we don't give up so easily.

Still, what in the name of Keith Lewis, Rick Neuheisel and Kenny Wheaton is going on?

Part of the problem is this: Oregon has owned Washington of late, winning five consecutive games for the first time in the history of the rivalry, each by at least 20 points. Only one of those wins -- 2007, a 55-34 butt-kicking in the midst of a six-game UW losing streak -- was in Seattle, so none of the current Ducks really know what a frenzy Husky Stadium can be.

"I'm very aware (of the rivalry)," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "It's one that has gone on for years and gone back and forth and obviously Oregon has had a great run right now, but we are expecting it to be an exciting day at Husky Stadium.''

Part of the issue is Sarkisian and Oregon's Chip Kelly will be head coaches in the game for the first time this weekend, though Kelly was the Ducks offensive coordinator the previous two seasons.

Both coaches fielded inquiry after inquiry this week about the heated nature of the rivalry. Both said they were aware of the fan feelings but downplayed the importance of them within the locker room or on the practice field.

"I think some people would be happy if we finished 2-9 and beat Washington and Oregon State, but we would be very disappointed as a program," Kelly said. "We don't put any more stock in this game than another. By that, I don't mean to diminish it, but we put everything we have into every game. We haven't done anything different in terms of our approach. It's a league game. It's on the road. And that's enough to get our players up and excited for practice.''

The rivalry probably peaked from 1994 to 2003. That spans Wheaton's game-clinching interception return for a touchdown -- "The Pick," as Ducks fans lovingly call it, is endlessly played in Autzen Stadium -- and the Huskies last win in the series, when Lewis trashed talked before the game and got in a fight late in the 42-10 loss.

And, truly, it peaked when Rick Neuheisel was the Huskies' coach and Mike Bellotti led the Ducks. The two often traded barbs in the media, which eagerly scampered back and forth between the two camps looking for a new tweak.

"There is no love lost, that would be the way to say it," said Neuheisel, now UCLA's coach. "It's for the fans more than the respective teams. I think the teams have respect for one another and do things in the correct way and so forth. But for the fans, there is some raw animosity."

Neuheisel once referred to Oregon as the "propaganda machine." He then tried to sell it as a compliment. Bellotti scoffed.

And it was great fun.

The key element during the hate peak, though, was both programs were good and typically nationally ranked.

While Washington still leads the series by a decisive 58-38-5 margin, the Huskies haven't kept up as Oregon and Oregon State have risen in the Northwest.

Yet, while Kelly has the Ducks again ranked highly and in the middle of the Pac-10 race, Sarkisian seems to be leading a program renaissance in Seattle.

The Huskies went 0-12 last year and were rarely competitive. They are 3-4 this year against a rugged schedule, and only one loss was decided by more than eight points. Sarkisian also appears to be putting together an elite recruiting class, and competitiveness in recruiting is often where coaches develop their fire for a rivalry.

Perhaps that's why Kelly isn't as concerned about fans trading barbs as he is about the Huskies on the field, most particularly quarterback Jake Locker.

"I think he's lights out," Kelly said. "He's as good as anybody in the country at quarterback. He's the guy who scares us."

The biggest source of intrigue heading into the game is Kelly's quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, who hurt his knee on Oct. 3 against Washington State and missed the UCLA game the following weekend. He's been leading the No. 1 offense at practice this week, but how much of a run threat he will be if he starts remains a question.

What is not a question is the atmosphere Kelly and his Ducks will face. Husky Stadium has been mostly back to its old raucous self this season, and at least one rivalry veteran thinks the on-field experience might be transformative for Kelly.

"Yeah, no question," Bellotti said. "In the opponent's stadium, it's a different thing being on the field than being in the press box. I think in that regard he'll feel a lot more of it."

One of Neuheisel's favorite sayings is, "Tough times don't last; tough people do."

The Oregon-Washington rivalry has faced some tough times in recent years. But here's a guess that's about to end.

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