The border rivalry takes on its greatest significance in several years
The rivalry between Oregon and Washington is one of the oldest in the West, dating back to 1900, and one of the nation's most bitter. There is no rivalry trophy at stake when these foes clash; pride and bragging rights are the prizes.
So important is this series to each program that, upon his introduction as Huskies head coach in December 2013, one of the first questions posed to Washington head coach Chris Petersen was how he planned to beat Oregon. Forgive the eagerness: By that point, the Ducks had just extended their winning streak in the rivalry to a full decade, the longest period of domination for any one program in its history.
Oregon added two more wins in 2014 and '15 before the emphatic, 70-21 blowout win for the Huskies two years ago at Autzen Stadium. Saturday marks Washington's first trip there since. This year's installment is also the first with both teams ranked in the Top 25 since 2013, and just the third such pairing in the rivalry during the 2000s (the other coming in 2000).
Washington at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A raucous Autzen
Expect the always-energetic Autzen Stadium to crank its intensity up a few notches. Not only is Saturday a pairing of Top 25 opponents, a pivotal Pac-12 North showdown, and a rivalry game to boot, but the sting of the 2016 beatdown looms.
Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal was not on the staff for the 70-21 rout, but he understands both the general animosity that exists in the rivalry, as well as the itch for Oregon to get back on the winning track after two losses.
"The motivation takes care of itself in a positive way," Cristobal said. "It's no secret that Autzen's going to be quite a scene on Saturday, and it provides such an advantage for us. ...Intensity for a rivalry like this is off the charts."
Decibel levels could be difference-making, particularly those directed at quarterback Jake Browning. Browning's finger-point on a touchdown run in 2016 planted a dagger in the Oregon winning streak. He'll hear it from the Oregon faithful -- especially trying to get plays in. Look for Washington to have to work on silent snap counts.
2. Quarterbacking under pressure
Certainly Browning's return to Autzen is a primary storyline, and not just because of the game there two years ago. Browning suffered through a slow start to the 2018 season, but has come on strong in recent weeks. After throwing for three critical touchdowns against Arizona State, and having an almost perfect passing game against BYU, Browning demonstrated a new dimension to his game with 49 rushing yards last week at UCLA.
"I've been able to do some stuff with my feet, especially on third down when they're in man [coverage]," Browning said.
It will be all hands on deck for a Washington offense putting it together gradually, particularly against an Oregon run defense allowing just 2.97 yards per carry. Likewise, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert faces a challenging outlook kick-starting the Ducks' offense against Washington.
The Huskies went into Week 6 leading the nation in scoring defense. Washington's excellent against the run, allowing just 3.86 yards per carry, and stingy vs. the pass. UCLA was the first opponent to score through the air on the Huskies since the first drive of Week 1.
Herbert faces a difficult task of keeping Washington off-balance with a mix of run and pass, while also avoiding a game-turning play from the Washington secondary.
Saturday's contest would be for a clear first place in the Pac-12 North, were it not for Oregon's fourth-quarter collapse Sept. 22 against Stanford. The Ducks squandered a 17-point halftime lead, and a 10-point edge in the final period, en route to losing at halftime.
That's a hard lesson for a young team, but one that should stick with the Ducks against Washington.
"That's something our guys have kept in mind," Cristobal said. "We don't feel we're the same team we were last year; we don't feel we're the same team we were two weeks ago."
Washington had its own issues finishing a week ago, letting a 17-point halftime edge against UCLA get trimmed to a single score on two separate occasions. The Huskies' offense slowed after intermission, but Washington also allowed the Bruins to go on time-consuming drives that yielded points.
The loss to Stanford marked Oregon's first real test of the 2018 season. For more than three quarters, the Ducks appeared up to the challenge. They've had a blowout win over Cal and a bye week to regroup from what could have been a crushing defeat. That bye week could be a huge advantage against an opponent playing its second consecutive road game.
In the same vein, the bye could function like the philosophy behind icing the kicker. Oregon's had a lot of time to marinate on this game. That's time to get healthy and work on problem areas, sure, but it's also time to over analyze; to put on internal pressure. The opening moments and first few possessions will be telling.
The early going will also be critical in that Washington's a team that performs best imposing its will physically. The Huskies can set the tone with a couple of three-and-outs on defense, and parlaying those into lengthy scoring drives. A two-score deficit against Washington feels much more overwhelming than when faced with one of the conference's many hurry-up offenses.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's more physical defensive approach needs its best effort to capitalize on a Washington offensive line that has shown moments of weakness. Whether that's getting aggressive with Justin Hollins or Jalen Jelks rushing the pass, or focusing on shutting down Myles Gaskin, Oregon's defense must limit Washington early.
The spotlight's squarely on Eugene this week. Washington's veteran roster has been in such moments; it's been rarer for the young Ducks.
Prediction: Washington 28, Oregon 27