Ducks-Huskies: Nameless, faceless foes?

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
12:00
PM ET
We've got bad news. College football rivalries aren't really about the emotional roller coaster, the good guys versus bad guys of a Hollywood movie. Their fundamental essence is far more akin to those self-help books you see stacked high on the deeply discounted table at your corner bookstore.

While Oregon and Washington fans have spent a lot of time this week painting each other as inferior, uglier, stupider and enemies of all that is right and good, the Huskies' and Ducks' locker rooms have been talking about focusing on "things they can control" and about the "importance of preparation" and about "winning the day."

[+] EnlargeChris Polk
Steven Bisig/US PresswireWashington's Chris Polk remains friends with Oregon's LaMichael James despite the teams' rivalry.
Rivalry talk? It's for fans, not players.

"That stuff is so cool when you are on the outside," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "That's why I love this sport. But from the inside, the rivalry is not going to make us play better. It's our preparation."

On Monday, some Oregon fans probably will make up stories about being spit on in Husky Stadium, just like some Huskies fans probably made up stories about being spit on at Autzen Stadium in the past, as if spitting on people is more accepted as proper behavior in Seattle/Portland than in Portland/Seattle.

And Huskies running back Chris Polk will still be from California and Ducks running back LaMichael James will still be from Texas and they will continue to like each other, because the different colors of their jerseys don't hide the fact they have a lot in common.

"He's a real cool person," Polk said. "It just so happens that he's a Duck and I'm a Husky. I consider him a friend. I respect him as a player and a person."

Further, the bitter hate of this rivalry among fans apparently can be weened out of a young man if he should ever become a player in the game, either via coaching hypnosis, a magic ray beam set up in the locker room, or an untruth serum provided by a sports information department deeply paranoid about players saying anything inflammatory about the rivalry.

For example, Oregon defensive tackle Taylor Hart, a graduate of Tualatin (Ore.) High School, has this in his official bio: "Notable: Father is a UO graduate. Attended first Oregon game (against USC) when he was eight years old."

When asked about this, Hart acts as if he has little memory of it, other than admitting that, yes, he did root for Oregon growing up.

Asked if this game is special for him, he said: "We've been going into every game as the Ducks Super Bowl and that's worked for us. I feel like that's how we're going into this game."

Asked how his father, Doug, might feel about this game, Hart said: "I don't know how he feels."

Hmm.

This, of course, can be attributed to Ducks coach Chip Kelly's well-known mind-control techniques. While Kelly admits that he frequently hears from Ducks fans about their dislike of the Huskies -- "They bring it up. It's relevant to them," he said -- he also coaches by the mantra of playing a "nameless, faceless opponent" each week, and that each game is the equivalent of a "Super Bowl."

If you wish to mock this approach, please note that Kelly is 29-5 as the Ducks' head coach and is 22-1 in conference play.

"We don't get caught up in the 1923 game," Kelly said. "Or what happened in the '89 game or the '96 game. None of us were here. The only thing we can worry about is what we have an effect on. What we have an effect on is the game we're playing on Saturday."

By the way, the Huskies won 26-7 in 1923, 20-14 in 1989 and 33-14 in 1996. They, however, have lost seven in a row in the rivalry, each defeat by at least 20 points.

This "just another game" talk might feel like raining on a parade, but at least Ducks and Huskies are pretty good at handling rain.

Further, when taken as an observable social trend, this represents an interesting shift in thinking. Recall that some coaches celebrate rivalries and talk specifically about how rivalry games are more important than others. Jim Tressel was immediately embraced by Ohio State fans when he started trash talking Michigan before he'd even coached in the game.

And it wasn't too long ago that then-Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel and then-Ducks coach Mike Bellotti were trading barbs in the newspapers, players were openly taunting each other and Oregon players were wearing T-shirts that said, er, "Huck the Fuskies."

Now, instead, it's fairly clear that Sarkisian and Kelly like each other, at least as well as coaches in the same conference can.

"I think the world of Chip," Sarkisian said. "We've got a very good relationship. I probably communicate with Chip as much as any other coach in our conference in season or out of season."

Finally, the "nameless, faceless opponent" mantra makes sense. Shouldn't a team try to practice and play at its highest level every week? The whole "110 percent" cliche is mathematically impossible, after all, but giving just, say, 80 percent in practice and competition is something any coach or athlete would condemn. And the emotions of "We really hate these guys" can only last a few plays before the football part of football becomes most important: blocking, tackling, executing.

"I don't think you have the time or the energy to get up for one game more than another," Sarkisian said. "The preparation process is really more about us than about Oregon, and our ability to go out and play the best brand of football that we can."

Still, there is something there. Just as Kelly and Sarkisian admit that boosters frequently bring up the rivalry, Polk said he hears about Oregon "just about every day." Being that this is the last game in Husky Stadium before a massive renovation begins, and that former Huskies coach Don James and the 1991 national championship team will be on hand, there's an unmistakable gravitas to the approach of Saturday night.

Oh, and there's that whole Pac-12 North and Rose Bowl thing, too. Both teams have designs on those, the Ducks for a third consecutive time, the Huskies as a sign of program recovery from an extended downturn.

So the cumulative effect will be a game atmosphere that should feel more intense than, say, if either team were squaring off with Missouri State or Eastern Washington.

"There's definitely a sense of urgency," Polk said. "Win or lose, the most important thing is respect. Being that we've not really played our best game the last few times we've played them, and they kind of got in to us, we don't feel like they really respect us. They whole thing this weekend is to go out there and earn respect."

And the notion of earning respect works both as a self-help truism and as an us-vs-them cinematic plot point.

Ted Miller | email

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