Oregon defensive back Bryan Addison breaks up a pass intended for Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze (1) during the a game Nov. 12, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Andy Nelson)

Oregon defensive back Bryan Addison breaks up a pass intended for Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze (1) during the a game Nov. 12, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Andy Nelson)

UW’s rivalry with Oregon reaches new level with top-10 showdown looming

Both teams are led by Heisman candidates and have legitimate national-title aspirations.

By Mike Vorel / The Seattle Times

The letter “O” was used a total of 366 times in this story.

Apologies to JaMarcus Shephard.

In rivalries, purposeful omissions are par for the course. Michigan and Ohio State refer to each other as “that school down south” and “that school up north,” respectively. But before entering his second Oregon game as UW’s associate head coach and wide receivers coach, Shephard is considering axing entire areas of the alphabet.

“There’s a bit of fire that comes out of your soul when you even hear the letter O,” Shephard said Tuesday. “I’m starting to get to the point where I don’t even want to use O, just in general. So certainly there is that type of hatred between the two (programs and fanbases). I’ve been a part of some really tremendous rivalries over the course of my career, and this is probably the greatest one of them all.”

But could this be the rivalry’s greatest game? On Saturday, No. 7 Washington (5-0) hosts No. 8 Oregon (5-0) in a sold-out Husky Stadium, in the first meeting of top-10 teams in the series’ 123 years. Last fall, a redemptive Peyton Henry field goal sealed Oregon’s fate in a 37-34 upset Washington win.

With Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback, undefeated records and realistic title hopes, the stakes have entered the stratosphere.

Which is a credit to the Huskies and Ducks.

“We wanted to make sure this weekend was big, so I’m proud of the way the guys have weekly gone about taking care of business,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said Monday. “You saw this as hopefully inevitable, that it came to this point. I just (have) a lot of respect for what Oregon is doing with their season, too. I’m happy that this is a big week because we’ve done everything to make it that. If we slip up anywhere along the way, it wouldn’t be what it is.

“We’re excited for this opportunity. That’s what it is. It’s a challenge, but it’s an opportunity. That’s what our guys came here to do, be a part of games like this and moments like this and build the program to this point.”

So don’t expect UW’s coaching staff to downplay the stage. When asked Monday if this is the biggest game of his coaching career, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said: “Yeah, I think that’d be fair to say. It’s all relative, right? There’s some games where, with where you’re at in that moment, they were really, really big football games. Coaching in the 2008 NAIA National Championship, that was a big game. But certainly at this level, I think it’d be hard to argue with that.

“I thought last year’s game, going out to Oregon, with everything that was on the line, the type of team that they were, where they were ranked, I felt like that was a big opportunity as well.”

There’s that word again: opportunity.

(Apologies for the “O.”)

It’s also an opportunity — with ESPN College GameDay in town for the first time since 2016 and a 12:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC — to introduce UW’s program to a wider audience before entering the Big Ten.

“That’s what the Oregon-Washington game is all about. It’s all about culture,” said sixth-year senior linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, who has produced 27 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception in five games this fall. “It’s all about, what’s your identity as a football team? I know I just said not to make it about the big scene, but this is the perfect opportunity to show the country who we are and what we stand for and what we believe in. It means a lot to show the world what we’re all about and what we truly play for.”

Washington will also attempt to show that and more to 70,083 frenzied fans inside Husky Stadium, the program’s first sellout since the 2019 Apple Cup.

When asked for his expectations of the atmosphere, a smiling Ulofoshio said: “The censored version or the uncensored version? Man, it’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be super wild. It’s going to be super loud. I’m expecting Husky Stadium to be helping us out on third downs, every single third down. I’m going to need that. It’s going to definitely be exciting. I’m going to be expecting my ears to be ringing after the game, for sure.”

Added Shephard, whose ears may already be ringing from excess “Os”: “It’s always loud here. I don’t care if it’s a sellout. I don’t care what the attendance number is. These fans are passionate about Husky football. So I can only imagine, when we get a bunch of them [inside Husky Stadium], and they’re out there (with a) savage mentality because they get to rip apart a Duck.

“Guess what? Get your popcorn ready. It should be fun.”

Turnovers and takeaways

After sudden changes, the Huskies have excelled.

UW’s defense has forced eight turnovers in its first five games, all interceptions. Those picks have been immediately converted into 46 points, six touchdowns and a field goal. In fact, the only time UW hasn’t scored following a turnover was wide receiver Germie Bernard’s fumble at the Arizona 5-yard line on Sept. 30.

On the other side, Husky turnovers have rarely hurt. UW has lost three interceptions and two fumbles this fall, but opponents have managed just seven points (one Michigan State touchdown) on their ensuing drive.

“I think it’s a mentality piece,” said UW co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell. “We’ve talked a lot in the offseason about how elite defenses thrive in those types of situations. You want that situation. I think there’s a mentality sometimes if there’s a turnover of, ‘Damn, we’ve got to go on the field,’ versus ‘Let us on the field.’

“We want to be on the field. We want to be in that situation, because I think great defenses are judged by their response to adversity, and our guys take pride in that.”

Against a Duck team that has surrendered a single turnover (a Bo Nix interception) this fall, sudden changes could turn the tide.

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