CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: Why UW-Oregon rivalry game has never been bigger

Oct 12, 2023, 4:47 PM

UW Huskies Oregon...

The UW Huskies sideline celebrates a game-winning field goal at Oregon on Nov. 12, 2022. (Tom Hauck/Getty Images)

(Tom Hauck/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — When they come to plot the decisive moments of this ever-newsworthy era of UW Huskies football — the games and moments and wins and losses that most altered the program’s trajectory — there will be no single opponent more integral to that story than the one visiting Husky Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Oregon. Lately, it’s always Oregon.

‘So much at stake’ in UW Huskies vs Oregon, ESPN’s Herbstreit tells Huards

It was Oregon in 2021, when the Ducks stymied the Huskies’ offense, beat UW on a rainy night in Seattle and precipitated, albeit for varying reasons, the firing of coach Jimmy Lake.

It was Oregon in 2022, when the Huskies, as two-touchdown underdogs, prevailed over the Ducks in Eugene, Michael Penix Jr. establishing himself on the Rushmore of UW quarterbacks and Kalen DeBoer sewing up his first-year contract extension.

It was Oregon this August, when, on a wild Friday morning, the two schools decided, in concert with one another, that the Big Ten better suited their ambitions than the Pac-12.

And here they are again. These programs will make history on Saturday, their first meeting with both ranked in the top 10, before a sellout crowd at Husky Stadium, with NFL scouts crowding the press box and ESPN’s College GameDay broadcasting from that big square on campus between a couple libraries named for former university presidents.

If Washington’s victory in Eugene last season was its biggest ever against the Ducks — and I’d submit that it was — then even the Taj Davis Catch Heard ‘Round The Seattle will take a backseat to any potential UW win on Saturday.

These bitter rivals will continue to compete in the Big Ten, both programs bound for that league next summer, but Saturday’s game might help determine which of them will be better positioned to claim what could be the very last Pac-12 football championship. It has broader implications, too. Both teams harbor legitimate College Football Playoff hopes, and while the loser will not necessarily be eliminated from such a discussion, you can be sure the winner will assume the role of Pac-12 National Media Darling, particularly in light of everyone deciding USC’s defense isn’t good enough to qualify for the four-team Cool Kids Invitational.

It’s easy to forget, after an offseason of hype and a spotless start to this season, but there was a time last year when the Huskies had drifted from the national conversation. They started 4-0, yes, and dominated Michigan State before a large television audience, and it was obvious DeBoer’s debut season did not have the flavor of a methodical rebuild. But consecutive losses at UCLA and Arizona State dulled the excitement, UW dropped from the rankings, and narrow-ish victories over Arizona and California did little to rejuvenate belief that the Huskies were a top-10 team.

A grinder of a victory over Oregon State stood as DeBoer’s best win at UW before the Huskies visited Autzen Stadium, the Ducks unbeaten since their season-opening loss to the Georgia juggernaut. Washington’s 37-34 triumph put the Huskies back on the map, so to speak, vaulting them to a No. 15 ranking and granting Penix as prominent a place in the Heisman Trophy discussion as he’d ever experienced. Oregon collapsed in its regular-season finale against Oregon State, and the Huskies won out and finished the season ranked higher than any Pac-12 team.

It’s been 11 months since that fateful day in Eugene. UW has won each of its eight games since, and has spent the duration of this season ranked ahead of unbeaten Oregon in the polls (by one spot, currently No. 7 to UO’s No. 8). A win Saturday would provide further separation, and would give DeBoer a commanding 2-0 lead over Dan Lanning as the schools take their rivalry to the Big Ten.

The last UW coach to win his first two games against the Ducks, by the way, was Don James, in 1975-76.

DeBoer and Lanning seem to respect each other for their small-school roots, and Washington’s players say, as most players at most schools would, that each game is about their own preparation, and not the opponent. OK, fine. But you couldn’t have watched the Huskies celebrate at Autzen Stadium last year and not understood that beating the Ducks always means more. The athletic director, after all, does not hug the assistant coaches after defeating Tulsa.

In similar fashion, Penix says he doesn’t think about winning the Heisman Trophy, though I actually sort of believe him, professional and victory-oriented as his disposition seems to be.

I asked JaMarcus Shephard, UW’s receivers coach, for his favorite memory from last year’s game at Oregon. He said that was easy: Jalen McMillan’s tough-guy catch against star cornerback Christian Gonzalez.

“It’ll last for a lifetime,” Shephard said. “Everybody knows it. That’s one of those catches that goes down in Husky history, in Husky lore, and people talk about it like, ‘oh, man, no way that really happened.’ No, it actually did happen. No doubt about it, that one always is etched into my memory for a lifetime.”

He indulged in the rivalry, too.

“There is a bit of fire that comes out of your soul when you even hear the letter ‘O,’” said Shephard, who also has coached on both sides of the Apple Cup rivalry. “I’m starting to get to the point where I don’t even want to use ‘O,’ just in general. Certainly, there is that type of hatred between the two. 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.”

Shephard also foisted praise upon Oregon’s pass defense, which leads FBS in yards per attempt allowed and appears much improved from last season. In fact, Shephard was so complimentary of the Ducks that it made me wonder if he had an ulterior motive.

“Best pass defense in the United States of America, probably the best pass defense I’ve seen in my entire coaching career,” he said. “These guys are long, they’re physical at the line of scrimmage, they play with great technique, they’ve got guys who want to hit you, they’re going to attack the football, they’re going to play the football in the air. It’s been one of the best groups that I’ve seen.”

For much of this rivalry’s history, the primary stakes were bragging rights, considering how infrequently both teams have qualified as contenders in the same season. The squabbles rage online, regardless, over perceived differences in NIL strategy, recruiting philosophy, marketing priorities, academic (wait for it) prowess and, probably, TV ratings and revenue generation. The winners are kings of the Northwest, the losers are trash, and let’s get together and do it all again next year.

Vitriol has no bye week, but the feud will captivate a national audience this season, and a big chunk of the millions who tune in at 12:30 p.m. Saturday will care more about what the result means for the playoff race than about whether @Dawgs4Life91 gets a new profile picture out of it.

“This is a perfect opportunity to show the country who we are, and what we stand for and what we believe in,” said linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. “It just means a lot to show the world what we’re all about, and what we truly play for.”

Said Shephard: “This is what it’s all about. This is what you work for. This is what you come to Washington for.”

Lately, it’s what the UW Huskies play against Oregon for: an outcome, either way, that could shape more than its win-loss record.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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