Oct. 23, 2009
By TIM BOOTH
AP SPORTS WRITER
SEATTLE -- Fifteen years ago this week Oregon's Kenny Wheaton intercepted Washington's Damon Huard and sprinted 97 yards for a clinching touchdown, a moment that is still revered by all Ducks and rekindled a rivalry that was a purple-and-gold pounding for decades.
After Wheaton's play the border battle flipped and has become an almost yearly green-and-yellow party.
"The rivalry hasn't been as heated in my four years because they haven't been as good," Oregon defensive back T.J. Ward said. "But they're looking like a pretty good team and it's looking like the rivalry might heat back up."
The 12th-ranked Ducks come to Washington on Saturday trying to keep on track for a return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the season of Wheaton's memorable moment. Oregon (5-1, 3-0 Pac-10) leads the conference and simply needs to win out to book a trip to the Bowl Championship Series.
Oregon's turnaround from its opening night disaster at Boise State has been impressive. The Ducks were bullied and embarrassed by the Broncos in a 19-8 loss, and that was before LeGarrette Blount stole the headlines with his punch to the jaw of Byron Hout.
Since then, the Ducks have ended the nation's longest win streak (31-24 over Utah), exposed California (42-3) and proved they can win on the road (24-10 at UCLA).
Their defense has allowed just 19 points in their last three victories and Oregon survived at UCLA with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli on the bench with a knee injury. Masoli practiced all week, although coach Chip Kelly said Masoli would be a game time decision.
After a week of rest and hearing how they control their path to the Rose Bowl, the Ducks come north to face a Washington team tired of the beatings Oregon has laid on them the last half-decade.
"When you come here, you learn to hate Oregon," Washington linebacker Donald Butler said.
Oregon's five-game win streak over its border rivals is the longest in the history of a series that dates to 1900, and they weren't even close: 44-10 (2008), 55-34 ('07), 34-14 ('06), 45-21 ('05), 31-6 ('04).
The last two have been particularly embarrassing for the Huskies. Two years ago in Seattle, the Ducks rolled up a school record 465 yards rushing in a 55-34 win. Last year, knowing that Tyrone Willingham's job was going to be determined by the outcome of the season, Washington was routed 44-10 by Oregon in the season opener.
But since turning his attention to Washington (3-4, 2-2), Kelly has made it clear this is not the same Huskies team. Getting his players to absorb the message is important, especially with a showdown with No. 4 Southern California on the horizon next week in Eugene.
"I think some people would be excited if you finished the season 2-9 if you beat Washington and beat Oregon State," Kelly said. "But we would be very disappointed as a program if we were 2-9. It just adds to the game."
While the numbers the Oregon defense posted in its last three victories are impressive (19 points and just 192 yards per game), the Ducks haven't seen a quarterback with the talent of Washington's Jake Locker since at least their opener against Boise State's Kellen Moore.
Locker is leading the conference in total offense (275 yards per game) and has been given a little more freedom to run in the last two weeks.
Perhaps more than rival Washington State, Locker says this is the week he gets the most pleas from fellow students, former players and fans to take down the hated Ducks.
"I don't know what it is. Every time I play them is huge," Washington tight end Kavario Middleton added. "I know I've only been here a year now, but it's huge. Everyone is real excited for this game just for the fact it's Oregon. No other reason. Just because it's Oregon."
Emotionally, Washington is trying to leave behind the stunning last-second loss at Arizona State last Saturday night when the Sun Devils connected on a 50-yard touchdown pass with 5 seconds remaining for a 24-17 win.
"I know it's one that is emotional, not just with the players involved, but with the fans involved. A lot of history in the game, and a rivalry we're going to embrace and one we're going to allow our players and fans enjoy," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "But ultimately the best way of doing that is going out and preparing really well. We need to play really well."