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Chris Petersen’s keys for UW Huskies to beat Oregon for Pac-12 title

Nov 30, 2023, 4:32 PM

UW Huskies...

Ja'Lynn Polk of the UW Huskies is tackled by Evan Williams of the Oregon Ducks on Oct. 14, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

With a conference championship and a likely College Football Playoff berth on the line, the UW Huskies take on archrival Oregon in Las Vegas Friday night.

UW Huskies, Oregon meet in Pac-12 Championship for potential CFP spot

The undefeated Huskies enter the Pac-12 Championship as the No. 3-ranked team in the latest CFP rankings and a perfect 12-0, including a win over Oregon in October.

The Ducks fell 36-33 to Washington at Husky Stadium, but they’ve been on a roll since then, winning the rest of their games in rather dominant fashion. The Huskies have also won out, but their games since beating Oregon have been much closer, including four of their next six wins coming by one score.

The Pac-12 title game will be interesting not just because of the rivalry and the playoff implications for both teams, but because these schools and eight others will not be in the conference next year.

Former UW head coach Chris Petersen called it a “tragedy” that the Pac-12 as we know it is going away when he joined Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk on Thursday.

“But if it does have to go away – which it is – to end on this game with this rivalry, it couldn’t be any better,” said Petersen, whose 2016 Huskies were the last Pac-12 team to make the CFP. “This is how it should go out with these two great teams.”

When asked about how Oregon has played since losing to Washington, he said that he looks at every month of the college football season as its own category.

September is finding your identity and October is about building a skillset off of that identity. As for November, “that’s the competition month,” Petersen said, because it’s late in the season and every team is dealing with bumps and bruises.

“Who are the teams that progress and continue to get better, regardless of all the issues they have?” he said. “And I don’t think anyone’s been any better in this month than the Oregon Ducks. They are hitting on all strides and they might be as good as anybody in the country right now.”

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The Ducks’ hot play has them as heavy favorites in this game, even though they’ve lost the last two matchups to Washington going back to 2022. Petersen thinks that could actually bode well for the Huskies.

“In some ways I’m thinking that this is awesome for Washington. They’re hearing all this noise,” he said. “So here’s a team that’s beat a team two times in a row, but yet they’re the underdogs and people are saying they don’t have a chance? As a coach, you really like to play from that vantage point.”

“There is no doubt that Washington is going to come out swinging, that they’re going to have to play their best,” Petersen added later. “As good as they played (the last time the Huskies played Oregon), they’re gonna have to play their best. You never want to ask (of your team), ‘You’re going to have to play better than you’ve ever played before.’ But we’ve seen these flashes when Washington is just spectacular across the board. They’re gonna have to put that together in this game.”

Keys for a UW Huskies victory

UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has put up big numbers in 2023, but his play has dropped off a bit since the last time he played Oregon.

While Penix’s play will be crucial as to whether the Huskies get another win over the Ducks, Petersen thinks the key on offense lies with another position group.

“I don’t necessarily think so much about Penix – although he does have to play really well. I think about those three receivers,” Petersen said.

The Huskies boast maybe the best receiver trio in the nation Ja’Lynn Polk, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, the latter a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award which is given annually to the nation’s best receiver.

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Those three were on fire and clicking to start the year, but outside of Odunze, who Petersen called “consistent and spectacular,” that group hasn’t put up as big of numbers lately – partially because McMillan has been in and out of the lineup due to injury.

“To me, that was a big difference early on. Those guys were like rocking and rolling,” Petersen said. “… And all three of them have not been that three-headed monster coming at you. If that can happen, I kind of like their chances.”

Defensively, the Huskies face a big task in defending Ducks quarterback Bo Nix, the favorite for the Heisman Trophy. But Petersen thinks limiting Oregon’s run game will be critical for Washington.

“Oregon’s run game, that’s what I keep thinking about,” he said ” … I think about tackling, and tackling those running backs Bucky Irvin and Jordan James. UW’s defense is going to have to have their best game of the season tackling. And I think they’ve gotten better (at that), I really do, as the season has gone on … I think they’re tackling better than they have. But those two backs are legit, they break tackles. It’s not going to be just like one-on-one tackles. You’re not going to tackle those guys consistently one-on-one. It’s going to be that pack mentality, and they are gonna have to play with great energy to get those backs down and not let them break a lot of tackles.”

Whichever quarterback leads his team to victory may ultimately take home the Heisman, Petersen said.

“I think this is going to be a Heisman game. I think to win the Heisman Trophy, you’ve got to have a Heisman moment,” he said. “Well, this is gonna be Heisman moment for either Bo Nix or Michael Penix, and whoever can elevate their team to go win this, like, super important game to get into the College Football Playoff.”

That prestigious trophy can’t be Penix’s focus on Friday or in the lead-up to the game, however.

“If you start looking at those things, then you already know what’s going to happen. You’re paying attention to the wrong thing,” Petersen said. “It’s all about just winning the game … They hear the noise. That award is important and it would be cool. But it just can’t be about that or you’re going to end up not playing as well as you can. Let the chips fall.”

The ESPN Radio broadcast of the Pac-12 Championship will air live on Seattle Sports at 5 p.m. Friday.

Listen to the full interview with Petersen at this link or in the player near the top of this story.

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