LOS ANGELES — Think of swagger in college football, and certain programs are bound to come to mind: Miami in the 1980s and early 2000s; Florida State through the 1990s; USC in the 2000s or many SEC teams of the last decade.
Swagger probably isn't the word one associates with Boise State during its rise under head coach Chris Petersen.
Petersen’s best Boise State teams embraced the role of underdog with a swagger that came out in defeats of traditional powerhouses like Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia. For Petersen’s Washington squad, it came out in a 17-12 upset of traditional power USC.
“We love being underdogs,” said wide receiver Marvin Hall. “At the end of the day, we’re going to fight. That’s all we know is to fight.”
The Huskies brought the fight to the Trojans with undeniable swagger. They talked the talk — wide receiver Jaydon Mickens could be seen woofing on almost every Washington offensive play — and they walked the walk with their tenacious defense on erstwhile Heisman contender, Cody Kessler.
“We went to bed last night with a comfort and confidence,” linebacker Travis Feeney said. Feeney was the catalyst of a stifling defensive effort, swarming on Kessler to force him into his worst game of the last two seasons.
For his seven-tackle, 3.5-tackle for a loss, 2.5-sack night, Feeney was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. He definitely embodied the swagger now shaping Washington football, looking to the Los Angeles sky on each big play, fists clenched at his sides in celebration.
That “comfort and confidence” of which Feeney spoke also was fueled by another motivating factor, one that drove Petersen's most successful teams of years past.
“Seeing how people said we were underdogs... we were going to lose,” Feeney said. “It wasn't a matter of if it was going to be a fight or not: They already had us down.”
It’s not the ubiquitous chip on the shoulder so commonly referred to in this sport. There’s no offense taken.
On the contrary. At Pac-12 media days in July, Feeney said he appreciated the conference’s voting media tabbing the Huskies near the bottom of the North division.
His stance hasn’t changed midway through the season.
“It goes back to what I said in the summer,” Feeney said. “Everybody has us down, that we’re not going to be that good, that we can’t beat these teams.”
Through Washington’s first two encounters against ranked opponents, the pontificators were right, albeit barely. A great defensive effort at Boise State in the opener was for naught in a 16-13 loss.
One bad quarter against Cal doomed Washington to a 30-24 loss in Week 4.
But the previous stumbles helped fuel the Huskies for their breakthrough at No. 17 USC, a particularly sweet win for a roster featuring a remarkable 32 players from Southern California.
Among them are Hall and tight end Joshua Perkins, heroes of Washington’s win. Hall and Perkins connected on a trick-play touchdown that harkened back to Petersen’s Boise State days, when the Broncos would unveil the unexpected against heavily favored Goliaths.
“All the Southern California boys were talking about this game for a while,” said Perkins, who caught Hall’s double-pass heave. Perkins attended Gahr High School in Cerritos.
“Any time we win is great,” Hall said, wearing a t-shirt with the phrase, “Just A Kid From Los Angeles” printed across it. “Just knowing my family’s here and watching me do what I have to do, it’s like playing in my backyard.”
When he called it his backyard, Hall’s hardly exaggerating. He went to high school at Dorsey, which sits in walking distance of USC’s campus off Exposition Boulevard.
Representation from family and friends for the many Southern Californians on Washington’s roster made last week’s contest as an underdog just a little bit more special.
This week, the Huskies stay on that emotional high against rival Oregon.
While the Ducks and Dawgs play in-state rivalry contests each Thanksgiving weekend against Oregon State and Washington State, the animus befitting a true rivalry is reserved more for this contest.
Unfortunately for Washington, however, the Oregon series has had about as much rivalry as Hammer vs. Nail in recent years. Oregon owns an 11-game win streak dating back to the 2004 season.
You know swagger when you see it. Washington’s heading into Saturday’s matchup with Oregon having swagger to spare.