Washington quarterback Jake Browning does not especially enjoy talking about "the point." After all, Huskies head coach Chris Petersen disciplined Browning for his finger-pointing taunt of an Oregon player during last year's 70–21 Huskies rout — though neither provided specifics at this summer's Pac-12 media days.
Browning may be contrite discussing the point now, but it's a moment that will live in Washington-Oregon rivalry lore forever. One gesture crystallized the exorcising of frustrations built up over 12 years of Huskies losses to their border foes.
Oregon vs. Washington is one of the most acrimonious rivalries in the Pac-12. However, with Oregon dominating the series from 2004-15, it wasn't much of a rivalry. The tables turned quickly. Washington's 70-21 blowout marked the most points scored in one game in the series and provided the Huskies a stepping stone to the College Football Playoff. For Oregon, the loss was one of eight in a pivotal season for the direction of the program.
First-year head coach Willie Taggart faces a tall task in preventing last season's blowout from turning into a longer-term trend for the Ducks.
Oregon at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov.4 at 10 p.m. ET
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback play
Oregon's talented sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert sustained a collarbone injury in September, a devastating blow after the Ducks started new head coach Willie Taggart's debut campaign at 4-1. Oregon dropped the next three straight with Taylor Alie and Braxton Burmeister (above, right) manning the job, but last weekend's 41-20 defeat of Utah might have marked a turning point for the position.
Burmeister was a perfectly efficient 9-of-12 passing with a touchdown and no interceptions. The latter is important, because turnovers crushed the Ducks during the losing skid. With a multifaceted rushing attack featuring running backs Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, having the proficient passing of Herbert maximizes Oregon's offensive potential — and Herbert isn't definitively ruled out for the Washington game just yet — but the run game is good enough to need only the threat of a pass to flourish.
Meanwhile, the Washington defense has been one of the nation's best at generating turnovers in the past two seasons.
2. Sled Dawgs
One of the quiet surprises of this college football season is the unreal turnaround in run defense that Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has engineered. After fielding one of the worst run defenses in the nation a season ago, Oregon comes into Saturday's rivalry tilt ranked No. 15 in the nation against the run.
Take away Stanford's 6.1 yards per carry average with Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love, and Oregon's game-by-game per-carry yield goes like this: 2.6, 3.8, 3.7, 2.7, 0.3, 3.5, 3.8 and 3.3. But here comes a Washington offense with an impressive 22 rushing touchdowns on the season — as many as Louisville with reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson — and a solid 4.9 yards per carry.
Washington dumped 333 rushing yards on UCLA last week, with running back Myles Gaskin's 169 setting the pace. The Huskies' offense is at its best when it is balanced, as Browning feeds off the multifaceted backfield look with Gaskin and Lavon Coleman.
3. Special teams playmakers
A big special teams play can be pivotal, and both Oregon and Washington feature playmakers who can change the complexion of a game in a matter of seconds.
Washington's Dante Pettis leads the nation with three punts returned for touchdowns on the season. With Pettis leading the way, the Huskies are tied for first in the FBS in punt returns of 20 yards or more with six.
Oregon's Tony Brooks-James is a difference-maker in a similar vein. He has a kickoff return for a score and averages almost 26 yards per opportunity — 20th in the nation.
Last season's meeting in Autzen Stadium provided the perfect storm for Washington to end Oregon's streak in the series in spectacular fashion. Washington was playing some of the best football in the nation, while the Ducks sputtered badly. Willie Taggart and his staff have reinvigorated Oregon football, with the Ducks now sitting just one win shy of bowl eligibility.
Oregon should get to the postseason, but the bowl-sealing win won't come against Washington. Oregon should be more competitive than a 49-point margin this time around, but the Huskies are clearly the better team on both sides of the ball.