Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Oregon-Washington: It's just business
By Ted Miller
Sometimes a reporter's job is easy. You pick up a riot shield, put on your protective armor and helmet, walk out into the blogosphere and throw out the bait.
"Oregon. Washington. Discuss."
Then you dive out of the way and let things take care of themselves.
Yet two fan bases engaged in a daily rhetorical bloodbath doesn't mean much for the Huskies' visit to Oregon on Saturday.
Oregon senior running back Kenjon Barner isn't feeling rivalry pressure against Washington.
Oregon senior running back Kenjon Barner is only 23, but his good-natured placidity makes him seem wise beyond his years. He's seen plenty of college football and all the hype and emotions that surround it. He sighs when asked about the rivalry with the Huskies. For one thing, it's not exactly a surprising question. But more importantly, it's not really an aspect of this week's preparation that sparks his interest.
"Our fan base is into the rivalry, as is Washington's fan base," he said. "For me, I look at it as another game."
He later adds, "[Our team] approaches the game from a business standpoint rather than like a college football game."
That attitude seems to be something the two programs share this week while the Purple remains separated from the Green along state lines. Neither team is interested in discussing the rivalry, or what has happened in the dusty or recent past. Oregon isn't gloating over eight consecutive victories in the rivalry by at least 17 points. Washington isn't focusing on it for special motivation.
"I'm kind of over the external motivators," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I think with this team, I don't think external motivators are what pushes their buttons."
Sarkisian pushed the right buttons last week. Only two teams have thoroughly dominated Sarkisian's team since he took over in 2009: Stanford and Oregon. Last Thursday, Washington upset the No. 8 Cardinal, shutting down a running game that had steamrolled the Huskies in three previous meetings.
Not only did Washington win, it showed the spine to come back from a late-third-quarter 13-3 deficit. Further, it displayed mental toughness 19 days after getting bludgeoned 41-3 at LSU, a game in which the Huskies appeared to wilt against an early Tigers barrage.
It's fair to say the comeback was unexpected after Cardinal outside linebacker Trent Murphy returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown and a 10 point advantage.
Said Sarkisian, "Earlier in this season, if we would have thrown that pick-six ...I don't know if we could have responded the way that we did."
So the Huskies' growth is a recent development, particularly on defense. That unit will face a major challenge when it squares off with a homestanding Ducks offense that is again among the nation's leaders in rushing, scoring and total offense.
Another button that Sarkisian apparently has pressed well: Hiring Justin Wilcox to run his defense. Stanford coach David Shaw called the Huskies linebacker play "stellar." At no point in 2011 did anyone think to use that term to describe the Huskies linebackers. John Timu and Thomas Tutogi have stepped up their play inside, while undersized but athletic Travis Feeney has made a nice transition from safety. Sarkisian also cited the play of true freshman hybrid safety Shaq Thompson.
The Huskies' D-line also held up well against Stanford, but Sarkisian gives top billing to his cornerbacks, particularly senior Desmond Trufant.
"The biggest key of all of this is the belief in our corners to play out on an island in one-on-one coverage," Sarkisian said. "Desmond Trufant has had as good of a year as I've seen out of a corner here in a long time. He's playing tremendous out there at the corner position, which is allowing us to do some unique things inside."
It's difficult to imagine the Huskies' offense and injury-depleted offensive line will be able to do much against a stout Ducks defense playing at home. The Washington defense will again need to turn in a stellar performance for this one to reach upset alert status. But that possibility might not be completely far-fetched.
Last week against Washington State, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota threw a pair of interceptions, and the Ducks' passing attack has been fairly muted against Pac-12 competition. While the Ducks and Cardinal run completely different schemes, the Huskies' basic plan likely will be the same: Gang up on the run and put the game into the hands of a first-year starter at QB.
"They were just physical," Barner said of the Huskies' defense against Stanford. "They got physical with those guys. They brought it. We expect nothing different from them this week."
While the animosity between the fan bases plays no substantive role in either team's preparation, it could play a role in the emotions of the game. Autzen Stadium has yet to hit its notoriously fevered pitch so far this season. It will on Saturday.
Expect bodies to be flying around in a physical contest, spurred on by a raucous crowd.
Said Sarkisian: "I'm sure as we get closer to the game, emotions rise. That is part of college football. That is the pageantry of college football. We haven't reached that point yet."
You will, Sark. Count on both teams, whether they claim to or not, feeling some external motivators by kickoff.