The Oregon Ducks must elude a Ugandan knife trap of a game when they face the Washington Huskies in a revamped Husky Stadium on October 12.
photo left: Keith Price is smiling again at Husky practices, his spirits buoyed by an up-tempo offense and renewed health. If he returns to his sophomore form as a third-year, senior starter, the Huskies could be a much tougher opponent in 2013. (Jim Bates/Seattle times photo)
It's dangerous for a lot of reasons. Oregon begins the season with five easy games, and the temptation will be great to relax a little and start believing the hype. The press will be busy telling them they are fine without Chip Kelly and they haven't missed a beat. They'll own a gaudy, meaningless early-season ranking, probably in the top three in the country. Washington will have tremendous motivation after nine straight losses to the Ducks, and the crowd will be amped. If UW can get past a retooling Boise State team in their opener this fall, they too could enter this game at 5-0, and the enthusiasm of the success-starved Husky faithful will be feverish.
In sports all streaks end, often in eerie and misbegotten ways, a few inches short of glory. Even the most hallowed record in sports, Joe Dimaggio's 56-game hitting streak, ended sourly. Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner played the Yankee Clipper on the edge of the outfield grass and made a couple of diving stops, each time nipping him at first. In the eighth Dimaggio hit into a double play. The 0-for-3 night cost Joe deeply in the wallet: had he gone to 57, the Heinz company was ready to offer him a big endorsement deal to pitch their steak sauce. (Why they didn't go with a sheepish Dimaggio looking wistfully at the bottle and saying, "not even I can top Heinz 57" is a fact lost to history.)
It goes that way with streaks. Think of the Ducks winning 12 in a row in 2010, but falling ignominously on the soft, chewed-up turf of Phoenix Stadium when Cam Newton got a fumble and an interception overturned by replays. Cliff Harris was in and Michael Dyer was down, but all that mattered was the final score. In 2011 Oregon held the nation's longest home winning streak, but their second bid at a national title game ended when Alejandro's Maldonado's field goal hooked wide left late in the fourth quarter of a bitter 38-35 loss to USC. Just last year Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney was three outs from setting a major league record for errorless games before he took a tough chance on a bad-hop grounder and skipped his throw to first.
For a very long time Washington used to own Northwest football, and every top recruit in the upper four used to hop their way. They pummeled the Ducks annually under Don James, on their way to 153 wins and shares of three National Championships. In all they've won 15 conference titles and seven Rose Bowls, but none recently.
A long period of uninterrupted suffering can make for a very hungry fanbase. If the Huskies perform a Montlake Miracle and upend Oregon, those new goalposts are certain to come down in October. There will a gathering growl if they enter the fourth quarter with a chance to win. The anticipation and buzz in the crowd becomes like a 12th player, an electrical current that stuns and slows, a fog creeping in from Puget Sound. Oregon has to be precise and focused early to avoid that fog, the same fog that overcame USC in 2009 and Stanford and Oregon State last season.
The Webfoots have beaten the Dawgs nine times in a row, and UW hasn't been to a Rose Bowl in 12 years. In fact, when Steve Sarkisian went 7-6 in his second season as head coach in 2010, winning the Holiday Bowl over #18 Nebraska, it was Washington's first winning season in 8 years. In the dismal dozen years since their last berth in Pasadena the Dawgs have had four head coaches and been to 7 minor bowls, including a blowout loss to Baylor in the 2011 Alamo, and last season's 28-26 Holiday Bowl heartbreaker to Boise State, sealed by Keith Price's 13th interception of the season late in fourth quarter.
Sark is 26-25 entering his fifth season at the school, with three identical records of 7-6 following a 5-7 debut in 2009.
There have been highlights: in 2009 the Huskies shocked #3 USC 16-13, and beat them again in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 2010 32-31. Last year they upended conference champion Stanford 17-13, and manhandled #7 OSU 20-17. Tailback Bishop Sankey pounded opponents for 1439 yards and 16 tds in 2012, becoming the fourth straight 1000-yard rusher of the Sark regime; in the last three seasons the lead tailback has surpassed 1400.
The glaring lowlight was the play of Price, who regressed from his sophomore season, his first as a full-time starter in which he threw for 3063 yards, 31 tds, and 11 interceptions. As a junior Price looked dazed and confused and devoid of instincts. Harrassed in the pocket behind a patchwork offensive line that ranked 102nd in the country in sacks, Price held the ball too long or threw into coverage, managing just a 122 quarterback rating on his way to just 19 passing tds and a pug-ugly 13 picks.
This spring the Huskies installed an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, in part to take advantage of their speed and athletic ability and what Price does best. The new format seemed to improve his rhythm, and coaches feel the increased pace (130 snaps a practice session) will improve conditioning and better prepare coordinator Justin Wilcox's defense for the up-tempo attacks of the PAC-12, notably Oregon, Arizona and UCLA.
Everybody's optimistic in spring. But Sark and his crew are dead set on getting off the 7-6 schneid in 2013, and they believe an improved defense and deeper, more experienced offensive line can spike Husky fortunes this season. The Huskies recruited well, finishing with the #10 class in the country according to Rivals, a class heavy on defensive talent, including three defensive tackles and three defensive ends. Sophomore Shaq Thompson is a rock and a playmaker at linebacker, a player the Ducks coveted and pursued all the way to signing day a year ago. He's joined by middle linebacker John Tumi, who had 91 tackles in 2012. Sean Parker, another fierce hitter, anchors the secondary.
Many observers consider Husky tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins the best tight end in college football (observers who haven't spent enough time watching Colt Lyerla bowl over three tacklers on the way to another first down) . Seferian-Jenkins is currently working his way out of the coaches' dawghouse after a DUII arrest this winter, but in a recent PAC-12 teleconference Sarkisian said that S-J is doing all the right things and addressing his mistake with maturity during his suspension. That sounds like two games or so. In the SEC it'd be perhaps a quarter against Tennessee-Martin, but PAC-12 schools tend to take the character lapses a little more seriously, even if the offender is a 6-6, 266 tight end who holds six school records and runs a 4.5 40.
Wide receiver Kasen Williams nabbed 77 passes last season for 877 yards and 6 tds, including 10 for 129 yards and a TD in the upset win over Stanford. The former high school All-American isn't a burner but runs very well after the catch. He's physical and athletic at 6-2, 216, with the mentality and playmaking skills of a high volume receiver. He's dangerous, particularly if Price gets in a better rhythm this year. He had six catches for 95 yards in the bowl game versus Boise State. After this season he's eligible for the NFL draft, and many top college players treat that like a free agent year, motivating themselves for their best season. A big game against Oregon's highly rated secondary tandem of Ifo Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, both top pro prospects, could do a lot for his draft stock.
On paper, Oregon is more talented than Washington. Washington doesn't have many edges in the game, except maybe at defensive line and linebacker. The Huskies believe they are closing the gap everywhere else. In ramping up the tempo at practice and bolstering Nick Price's confidence, Sarkisian is clearly pointing to the Ducks. They've become the standard and the target in the PAC-12, sure to get everyone's best effort.
Oregon football has reached a level where anything less than a conference championship and a trip to the last BCS title game would be a disappointment. On the second Saturday in October, 72,000 hostile Husky fans will be salivating for their own Kenny Wheaton moment, the miracle play that turns back time and ends ten years of suffering, a highlight that can grace their Jumbotron for the next two decades, ushering in a new era of glory for the Purple and Gold.
Sports has an eerie way of crumbling dynasties and crushing hopes. The Blackhawks were a team of destiny until they ran into the Red Wings. It happens all the time. A couple of missed opportunities and a sluggish start, and all the sudden the great triumph you were certain to achieve becomes an unfolding nightmare. Oregon can play for the supreme crunchy burrito in 2013. The roster is loaded with future top NFL picks, including a dazzling quarterback who'll be among the leaders for the Heisman Trophy. Super Mario is more super than Colin Kaepernick and faster than a speeding Johnny Manziel. He's 6-4, runs a 4.4 40 and can make every throw.
But unless he's on target and in synch in the frenzied atmosphere of newly-remodeled Husky Stadium, the cantilevered roof shaking and the coffee jiggling in styrofoam cups on the pressbox table like an earthquake or a pending nuclear meltdown, the Ducks' marvelous run could end just like Dimaggio's or Barney's, just shy of a big payday or the record, a China Syndrome of white-hot ambition melting through the floor in the cooling tower of reality.
You have to respect the integrity of the streak. That means giving the same attention and commitment. This season Oregon's toughest opponent could be complacency, the all-too-human temptation to assume you can get the same results with a little less effort. The 11 other teams in the PAC-12 will be grinding all summer, looking to achieve the most incredible finish to a football game. Winning the Day has to be more than a slogan. If it ever becomes nothing more than lip service, the Dawgs will rise again.
Sarkisian is patiently digging his pit, sharpening sticks, laying out a cover of Douglas Fir boughs. The Ducks have to avoid falling in. They do that with execution and a willingness to work as hard this year as they did in the last four seasons. If three or four key players decide to rest on their reps and content themselves with sorority girls and free tequila, those Heisman and National Championship dreams can easily end with something like a hangover, an ill-advised face tattoo and a bad case of the clap. Believing you can fly isn't enough. You have to watch out for that high-rise hotel on your right, or in the Ducks' case, a revamped stadium and an embattled but rejuvenated senior quarterback.