By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Somehow, the Washington Huskies have found themselves in the unusual position of juggling three Pacific-12 Conference North rivalries at once this week.
With the up-and-coming Huskies set to play host to second-ranked Oregon on Saturday, ESPN’s College GameDay is coming to the UW campus for the first time. For the Huskies, this clash with the Ducks, who have pummeled Washington for almost a decade now, is a chance to prove they are finally back amongst the conference elite and not just a team contending to qualify for mediocre bowl games. And that matchup, as well as the pomp and circumstance that comes with ESPN’s big Saturday morning pregame show, would be plenty to make this an intriguing week around these parts.
But why stop there?
The presence of GameDay means another chance for Washington State Cougar fans to continue their tradition of flying a WSU flag in the background of the show, a streak that dates back to 2003. Some Husky fans are determined to keep a WSU flag off their campus, including local sports radio host Dave “Softy” Mahler, who offered a $100 bounty via Twitter to anyone who stops it from happening. So now in addition to Oregon, we’re also talking about the Huskies’ other big regional rival this week.
And hey, let’s throw Stanford in the mix as well.
After Washington coach Steve Sarkisian implied that Cardinal players were faking injuries Saturday night to slow Washington’s up-tempo offense, Stanford coach David Shaw fired back during the Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches’ conference call, denying that his team would ever fake injuries while also calling such accusations “unprofessional.” Shaw even got in a good dig at Washington, noting that “the only assistant coach I’ve ever known to order players to fake injuries coaches (is) at Washington.” That’s a reference to UW assistant Tosh Lupoi, who while at Cal was suspended a game after his players faked injuries to slow Oregon’s offense.
Sarkisian’s line of “we saw what we saw,” may not be on par with “what’s your deal?” just yet, but it’s fun to know that the Jim Harbaugh-Pete Carroll rivalry now has a pretty juicy undercard that features former assistants of each of those coaches who now happen to be head coaches of teams in the same regions of the country.
Yet as entertaining as these WSU and Stanford sideshows are this week, by Saturday the focus of fans and media will be back where Washington’s has been (hopefully) all week — on a prove-it game again the team that has been the class of the conference for a while now.
The Huskies have done lot of good things under Sarkisian since he took over the program in 2009, from rebounding nicely following a winless 2008 season, to earning an early signature victory over USC in 2009, to beating other ranked teams like Stanford and Oregon State while making it to three straight bowl games. And no, 7-6 doesn’t sound very appealing to Husky fans anymore, but those three straight winning seasons are still quite an accomplishment considering where the Huskies were in their final years under Tyrone Willingham.
But nobody on Montlake is going to be happy with mediocrity any longer, and there is no better way to show that this 4-1 start is the beginning of something special than by finally knocking off the Ducks, a team that has made a habit of bullying the Huskies — and pretty much everyone else in the conference — for quite a while now.
If the Huskies can finally knock off their green (or whatever weird color they’re wearing)-clad nemesis Saturday, they suddenly will be contenders, along with the Ducks and Cardinal, to win the tough Pac-12 North. A close loss would hurt, but the Huskies could still recover and go on to perhaps a nine-win season that would represent progress. Another Oregon blowout, however, would open the Huskies up to questions about just how much progress is really being made in Sarkisian’s fifth season.
Sarkisian can’t do anything about the games his teams, or those that preceded him, lost to Oregon in the past. However, he also has been around long enough to know what a win Saturday would mean to his program and its fans. And the importance of this game is exactly why Sarkisian can’t let his team spend the week getting caught up in, well, the importance of this game.
“One game’s not going to change the last nine years,” he said. “We’re not naive to the fact that our fans, this university want to win this game, but we’re also understanding the process that it takes. Those rah-rah speeches on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, those aren’t going to help us play Saturday.
“Our preparation is way more important than getting caught up in, ‘we need to avenge the nine previous seasons’ and all that. That’s great for the blogs and all that kind of stuff, and it’s for the fans and that’s what rivalry games are all about. That’s what makes college football so unique and so cool, but the reality of it is, we need to understand how to fit outside zone. We need to understand how we’re going to block their pressures and how we’re going to block (Oregon defensive linemen) Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, and how we can get open against (cornerback) Terrance Mitchell. That stuff to me is more important, and then that puts us in a position on Saturday to maybe make up for some of that stuff that happened before.”
The good news for the Huskies is that, in addition to the advantage that comes with playing in front of what should be a raucous home crowd, they also are better prepared for Oregon than they have been in years. Their depth is significantly improved, which should help in the second half when Oregon traditionally buries gassed opponents. And Washington’s decision to go up-tempo with its offense — a change that had plenty to do with the success Sarkisian has seen Oregon experience by going fast, faster and fastest with its offense — not only means the Huskies might finally be able to match the Ducks score for score, it also means Washington’s defense should be better prepared for Oregon having spent so much time practicing against a similar offense.
“That’s what we face every day in our offense, so we expect it to be comparable to Oregon,” defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha told reporters Tuesday. “So playing against each other here in practice should help us very much on game day.”
Will all of that be enough for the Huskies to end Oregon’s nine-years of dominance? The Huskies better hope so, because as entertaining as these mid-week distractions might be, Sarkisian’s team needs the story of this week to be about its ability to finally put itself back among the conference elite.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.