SEATTLE — It’s a good thing the Washington Huskies didn’t have this kind of national stage the past nine times they played Oregon. If they had, their fancy new black helmets wouldn’t have been for looks. They would’ve been protection against flying tomatoes.
The Oregon drought is the one blemish the Huskies haven’t extracted during their long, arduous return to relevance. They’ve haven’t just lost to the Ducks nine straight times; they haven’t even come within 17 points of the Ducks. Oregon’s average margin of victory during this streak: 25.9 points. The scores read like a string of nonconference games against FCS teams: 31-6, 45-21, 34-14, 55-34, 44-10, 43-19, 53-16, 34-17 and 52-21.
The Washington football program won’t truly be whole again until this skid ends. Sure, it’s an aberration when you consider that the Huskies still lead the series 58-42-5 despite not winning for nearly a decade. Sure, it’s an occurrence that illustrates the cyclical nature of sports. But no Pac-12 team feasted on the Huskies’ downfall more than Oregon, and in the Steve Sarkisian era, the Huskies have returned to competitiveness against every conference foe except Oregon.
Oregon and Arizona State are the two Pac-12 opponents that Sarkisian’s Huskies haven’t beaten. The Huskies have a seven-game losing streak dating to 2002 against the Sun Devils, next week’s opponent, but the Huskies have played some close games against Arizona State. The best they can say about the Oregon losing streak is, “Uh, we hung with them for three quarters that one time.”
So it’s appropriate that the highest-profile regular-season game Washington has played in at least a decade comes against the Ducks. If the Huskies want to be anything more than an above-average team playing in midlevel bowl games, they have to get over the Oregon hump.
This is their best chance to beat Oregon since the Ducks became a perennial top-10 team and the Huskies sank lower than they ever have. This is easily the best team the Huskies have had since finishing 8-4 in 2001, a versatile and explosive squad deserving of its No. 16 national ranking. And though the Ducks are No. 2 and have outscored opponents 296-59 so far this season, there are some questions because first-year coach Mark Helfrich has yet to be in a competitive game. Oregon appears to be as potent as ever, but Saturday’s game will be its biggest test to date.
With ESPN’s “College GameDay” visiting Seattle for the first time, with the game featured on Fox Sports 1 and rivaled this week only by LSU-Florida, the renovated Husky Stadium will be on full display. Washington spent $281 million on the football program to win games like this and reclaim superpower status in the conference. They can’t ruin the opportunity by suffering another blowout loss to Oregon.
This game must be competitive, at least. A victory would be a final and punctuating statement that the Huskies are back. In terms of perception, there’s too much at stake for the Huskies not to be at their best.
So much of what still burdens Washington is attached to this period of being inferior to Oregon.
Detractors mock the Huskies as a has-been program that doesn’t realize 1991 was 22 years ago. Oregon is as new school as it gets, from its trendy Nike uniforms to its space-aged offense to lucrative ties with Nike mogul Phil Knight.
Detractors say the Huskies will never dominate the conference as they once did because their Northwest rivals aren’t pushovers anymore. Oregon stands as the fiercest example, with its four consecutive BCS bowl appearances and five straight double digit-win seasons.
When the Huskies were great, they did it in a fully dissimilar style. They did it with defense, not offense. They’ve always touted their rich tradition. And they were defined by toughness and the coaching brilliance of Don James, who spent 18 years taking the program to new heights.
During the James era, the Huskies were 15-3 against Oregon. Both teams were nationally ranked in only one of those meetings, in 1990, when No. 17 Washington crushed No. 19 Oregon 38-17.
Since 2004, both teams have been ranked entering this rivalry game just one other time. That was last season, when No. 2 Oregon whipped No. 23 Washington 52-21. The loss began the annual Sarkisian swoon that has kept the Huskies mediocre the past five years.
Sark hopes to avoid a crippling losing streak for the first time in his five-year tenure. He has had three-game losing streaks in each of the past three seasons, and during his first year in charge, the Huskies had a four-game skid. Oregon has been a prominent tormentor in all of that misery.
This Washington team feels different. But if the Huskies lose Saturday, they’ll be on a two-game slide heading to Arizona State, a team they haven’t beaten in 12 years. With the possibility of another humbling swoon looming, this enormous game only grows larger the more you dissect it.
The stage is set — literally, ESPN has been putting in work — for the Huskies to return to glory. All that’s left is the hardest part, beating Oregon, which seems to grow more difficult by the year.