Hate renaissance: Ducks-Huskies again relevant

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
1:12
PM ET
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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