Hostility, and Now Title Implications, Shape the Oregon-Washington Football Rivalry

Longtime Pacific Northwest foes Oregon and Washington have a heated history

One of the first questions asked of Chris Petersen at his University of Washington introductory press conference: How will you beat Oregon?

 

"Do we have to start that already?" responded Petersen in his signature tone, so dry that distinguishing where the joke ends and the genuine sentiment can be difficult.

 

In Seattle, beating the Ducks is no laughing matter. This was especially true in December 2013 when Petersen, an Oregon wide receivers coach from 1995 through 2000, took over a Washington program that was winless in the series beginning in '04.

 

The Oregon-Washington rivalry has no formal nickname; some call it the Border War, though that's a name more often associated with Colorado State-Wyoming. The winner isn't awarded a trophy akin to the Platypus or Apple Cup. But the series, playing its 112th installment Saturday at Husky Stadium, has the two most important ingredients of any college football rivalry: history and hate.

 

Other preambles on the Oregon-Washington rivalry point to various key dates that accelerated an original Pacific Coast Conference border skirmish into a full-blown Pac-12 war. The 1948 season is often cited as the origin, when Washington administration conspired with conference members Idaho and Montana voters to keep the Webfoots out of a Rose Bowl Game rematch with national champion Michigan.

 

Fourteen years later, the hand-painted game program depicted a Huskies receiver hauling in a pass over an Oregon defender. However, the play that defined that 21-21 tie between the Webfoots and Huskies looked different: It was UO running back Larry Hill reaching for a pass that would have knocked off No. 8-ranked Washington, and given Oregon its fifth consecutive win.

 

Instead, Washington students rushed the field and tackled Hill. The tie and denial of a top-10 win damaged the Webfoots' hope of a bowl invitation as an independent.

 

Wait...independent?

 

Yes, despite being a charter member of the original PCC, Oregon was not initially part of the Athletic Association of Western Universities. The AAWU functioned as the brief bridge between the PCC and Pac-8 when the conference was embroiled in scandal — but that's a discussion for another time. The history of the Oregon-Washington rivalry spans multiple decades, as well as multiple affiliations. The PCC years had the Rose Bowl double-dealing; Oregon's brief independence had the Hill play. In the Pac-8 years, each team ran up the score on the other in successive years.

 

Oregon won a 58-0 rout in 1973. It was a low-point in Washington's winless Pac-8 campaign, and the losing streak rolled over into 1974. The Huskies' skid hit 11 games heading into a matchup with... Oregon. And the embarrassment of the previous season lingered with head coach Jim Owens. He ran up a 66-0 throttling of the Ducks, out-shooting his own stated goal by a full touchdown and extra point.

 

"I sat down and subtracted 24 from 59," Owens said of his halftime address to the team when leading 24-0 at intermission.

 

The late legend Don James took over at Washington the next year, and the foundation for a dynasty was laid in Seattle. The Huskies dominated the rivalry to the tune of 15 wins in James' 18 seasons: a key part in Washington's 60-46-5 all-time series lead, and the Huskies' version of the 2004-15 Oregon streak. Between those two runs was a balanced decade that saw both programs win five games.

 

And in that Pac-10 era, the rivalry teemed with controversy.

 

In 1995, after a two-year bowl ban ended for Washington, Huskies head coach Jim Lambright launched a public campaign for a Cotton Bowl invitation over defending Pac-10 champion Oregon.

 

"Where you really get into why we ought to go is that this is a year of NCAA sanctions and we still [have been] chosen by ABC for four [TV] appearances," Lambright said, per a 1995 Spokesman Review article. "They have no restrictions and have been on twice ... Just look at the TV market. We're 12th and they're 124th. And you can throw out the difference in attendance and see how many more people will follow us."

 

Despite the TV market — and perhaps because of Oregon winning a head-to-head matchup Lambright said the Ducks were "damn lucky" to claim — UO went to the Cotton Bowl. Fans of the two teams in the '90s had renewed reason for hatred.

 

Every generation seems to have its own marquee moment, a snapshot that shovels the embers around and keeps the fire burning. This generation — the Pac-12 generation — can point to a point.

 

Washington's first win of both the Petersen era and since the 2003 season saw the Huskies run up a rivalry record 70 points. No six were any more emphatic or infamous than Jake Browning's touchdown run, punctuated when he pointed at Oregon linebacker Jimmie Swain, late in pursuit.

 

The Point is like a Washington version of Oregon's The Pick. Browning's touchdown run was a highlight-reel moment on the Huskies' way to the College Football Playoff, much in the same vein as Kenny Wheaton's 98-yard interception return for a touchdown defined the Ducks' road to the 1995 Rose Bowl, their first Granddaddy of 'Em All since '58.

 

 

 

Although it's a defining moment in the modern history of the rivalry, The Point isn't something Browning champions.

 

"It's still pretty embarrassing. We played such a good game as a team, and everybody wanted to talk about the point. It was one little thing that happened that wasn't in my character."

 

"I got ripped after that," he added." Not a whole lot of pride in that."

 

Indeed, this era with Petersen and Mario Cristobal at the head of each program seems to set more of a premium on competition over hatred in the rivalry. Last year's first meeting between the two also set the tone for this to grow into the preeminent rivalry of the Pac-12 moving into the 2020s. CJ Verdell's touchdown run in overtime added another classic moment to the series.

 

"That's probably one of the best experiences I've ever been a part of," said Oregon quarterback and Eugene native Justin Herbert afterward, via GoDucks.com.

 

While the Oregon win didn't keep Washington out of the Pac-12 Championship Game, it ostensibly ended the Huskies' College Football Playoff aspirations. The roles are reversed this year. The Ducks are hot since losing a heartbreaker Week 1 to Auburn, off to their best Pac-12 start in six years. Washington clings to slim but hardly dashed conference title hopes, which get a considerable boost with a defeat of the Ducks.

 

The rivalry has indeed changed considerably since Petersen was hired almost six years ago. The new layer to it is one of title implications.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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