Nov. 4, 2011
NOTE: The 520 bridge will close WESTBOUND at 10 p.m. Saturday and EASTBOUND at 1 a.m. Sunday, so Husky fans should have no trouble using the bridge after the game.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Steve Sarkisian and his staff have done what they set out to do this week. So far.
They have instilled in their Huskies (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) that Saturday's 7:40 p.m. game against sixth-ranked Oregon (7-1, 5-0) at Husky Stadium is merely the next step on Washington's climb back to championship levels.
It will be on ROOT Sports regionally, Fox Sports Network nationally, the Washington IMG College radio network, ESPN Radio nationally -- and here on GoHuskies.com with another live game chat with play-by-play, analysis and exclusive photos from the field.
"We are going to treat this like any other game," quarterback Keith Price says.
Good luck with that.
UW's 1991 national-championship team is coming back for a 20th reunion. Sarkisian invited those players in town already to Friday's walkthrough practice and then to the team's pregame hotel. Coach Don James and his players from that perfect season will be honored during the game with on-field recognition.
The "Dawgfather" will be meeting the team captains at midfield and presiding over the coin toss immediately before the final game in Husky Stadium before the 91-year-old icon begins getting renovated Monday.
It's also the final game in Husky Stadium for Washington's 19 seniors.
"I'm just trying to focus on the game. But I'm not oblivious to the fact it's Senior Night, my last game here," co-captain Jermaine Kearse said inside Husky Stadium's tunnel.
Kearse needs two more touchdown receptions to tie the record of 30 set by another Husky legend expected to attend Saturday night, Mario Bailey.
UW officials are asking fans to be in their seats if possible by 7:15 p.m. At that time, immediately after the Husky Band plays the National Anthem and clears the field, a photographer will set a tripod in the middle of the block W at midfield and begin shooting a series of panoramic photos of you, the fans, in the seating areas.
Those photos will be electronically "stitched" together to form a commemorative, 360-degree photograph online of the final Husky Stadium pregame scene that you can access for free at www.huskystadium.com/fancam beginning at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday. You can "tag" yourself at that website, free of charge, to prove to others you were there for history. There will also be options to purchase the photo for keepsakes of old stadium's goodbye.
For a sample of what the photo will look like go to: gigapixelfancam.com.
And, oh, yeah, it's Oregon. The Huskies are trying to beat the Ducks for the first time in eight tries, further advance their bowl resume and disrupt the race for the first Pac-12 North division title.
It all makes for a game like none other in the storied history of the stadium. It opened as a single, lower bowl with a dirt-and-rocks playing surface on Nov. 27, 1920, against Dartmouth under the name Washington Field.
"All the things going on ... all the stuff that's coming into the game, one of the unique challenges for us is to focus on the task at hand. And that's playing the Oregon Ducks," Sarkisian said before his the farewell to a stadium in which he is 13-5 since arriving at UW in January 2009.
The Huskies, winners of 10 of the their last 12 games during their best run since 2001, feel they are better equipped to have this game decided in the fourth quarter than they have been while the Ducks have raced past them following halftime the last two seasons.
There is evidence the Huskies may be able to score with Oregon, which is first in the Pac-12 in total offense (527 yards) and rushing offense (309 yards) per game, plus second in the Pac-12 to Stanford at 47.5 points per contest. Washington is fourth in the conference at 35.6 points per game and has scored at least 30 in seven of its eight games this season.
A year ago this week in Eugene, Price was a redshirt freshman smiling through his first college start in place of injured Jake Locker.
How much better is Price now than in that 53-16 loss at Oregon, in which the Ducks led 25-16 in the third quarter?
He is fifth in the nation with 23 touchdown passes, five short of Cody Pickett's school record for a season. His completion rate of 66.5 percent and an efficient rating of 162.7 have Price far ahead of those two UW season records.
Oregon also will have much more of Washington's offense to defend Saturday.
The Huskies didn't have tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Michael Hartvigson last season. Those two have combined for 25 receptions and four touchdowns, all by the 6-6 Seferian-Jenkins, this season. And they are clearing rush lanes for Chris Polk outside that weren't there in Eugene last season, when Sarkisian was basically using his pro-style offense without its most integral part: a productive, effective tight end.
Polk is coming off a five-touchdown night last week that beat Arizona 42-31, equaling Corey Dillon (1996) and Hugh McElhenny (1950) for the most TDs in one UW game in the last 82 years. Polk has 3,577 yards rushing in his career. He needs 530 yards to break Kaufman's all-time rushing record at Washington.
And with opponents having to honor the threats Kearse and a deep wide receiver corps present outside, Price is finding Polk in man coverage on linebackers for huge pass plays. Last week Polk became the first Husky to have 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game.
That's something else Oregon didn't have to worry about last season.
Washington also has better special teams - both in kick returns and kick coverage - than it had at Oregon last season. That's the result of Sarkisian emphasizing that in recruiting, planning and practicing after that loss to the Ducks, who dominated field position because of special-teams superiority.
Still, the game will likely come down to how well Washington's defense contains Oregon's lightning-like running backs and quarterbacks.
Ducks coach Chip Kelly says Darron Thomas will start Saturday. But Brian Bennett, who may be the faster running quarterback, may also play.
"Our concerns are a little bit more of 21, 24 and 6," Sarkisian said, referring to the jersey numbers of running backs LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas. "If you blink they are in the end zone. So we've got to make sure we understand where they are at all times, whether it's at running back or in the slot at wide receiver and doing all the things they are doing with those guys.''
James is the only one in the league ahead of Polk this season, at 150.8 yards rushing per game. This will be his second game since an elbow injury last month. Barner averages 93.3 yards per game. Thomas, a freshman, has added 340 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, plus a team-leading 25 catches and six more scores receiving.
Despite the Ducks' wide-open reputation, Sarkisian thinks the game may be won inside the tackles.
"Oregon can give you that deception that, man, they are just going to spread you out and spread you out. And then they run power or inside zone right at you," Sarkisian said. "You'd better be able to anchor in and defend those plays, as well."
Washington has more depth than it did last season against the Ducks, and that could help keep the Huskies from wearing down this time.
"We maybe have some more safeties than we've had in the past ... more corners than we've had in the past. Hopefully that will help," defensive coordinator Nick Holt said.
"Quite honestly, I don't know if we are THAT fast. These guys are really, really fast."
Washington will likely need to force more turnovers. The Huskies forced four to preserve the late lead last week against Arizona, and have forced four in beating Eastern Washington and five in the win over Utah this season.
Oregon has turned the ball over nine times, as many times as they've gotten turnovers for a margin of zero. That is tied for sixth-best in the conference.