The black helmets. The student rallies. The “College GameDay” set going up in Red Square. Yes, Saturday’s Pac-12 North showdown between No. 16 UW (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) and second-ranked Oregon (5-0, 2-0) is the biggest, most-hyped Huskies home game in a dozen years.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Oh, it’s on, all right.
Players were trying out the new, black matte helmets they will be wearing in a game for the first time.
Students were clamoring about the “blackout” game rally Thursday night at Alaska Airlines Arena (doors were to open at 7:15, with the rally to begin at 8; students get free food and a free blackout-game T-shirt). Washington head coaches, including Steve Sarkisian, were expected to appear.
ESPN was building its “College GameDay” program set on the campus’ central “Red Square” in front of Suzzallo Library in advance of Saturday morning’s national pregame show from there. The show’s big, orange bus had a primo parking spot at Husky Stadium Wednesday night into Thursday, on this the program’s first trip to Washington for a game.
Yes, Saturday’s Pac-12 North division showdown between No. 16 UW (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) and second-ranked Oregon (5-0, 2-0) is the biggest, most hyped Huskies home game in at least a dozen years.
"(This) is great. That’s what college football is all about," Sarkisian said following Thursday’s practice at Husky Stadium, attended by members of the Fox Sports 1 television crew that will air the game nationally. "It’s about that pageantry. It’s about the excitement for the student body and the university. We are getting a really good amount of exposure for our university, which I think is a great thing."
This is the first time the Huskies have been ranked this high while hosting a top-10 team since Nov. 17, 2001. That day 16th-ranked UW beat No. 9 Washington State in the Apple Cup.
Some are drawing a comparison between this game and the last time Washington hosted a top-five team: Sept. 19, 2009, when the Huskies beat No. 3 USC 16-13 on Erik Folk's field goal at the end of the coach's third game at UW.
They are two completely different situations. These Dawgs are obviously in a far better place than those.
Those Huskies were just three games removed from a winless season and feeling their way through a new coaching staff and Sarkisian’s completely new system. They beat the Trojans that day by playing conservatively, taking shots at times but otherwise capitalizing on USC’s turnovers and shaky backup quarterback Aaron Corp, who struggled mightily playing for injured Matt Barkley.
Yet Sarkisian said Thursday of that epic, ‘09 upset: “We went in with a good amount of belief — just like we are going in with this weekend.”
Keith Price and Will Shamburger, the team’s only fifth-year seniors and only remaining members of Sarkisian’s first Husky recruiting class in ‘09, still call that win perhaps their most thrilling moment at UW.
Price completed a fourth straight practice with his sore thumb on his passing hand not limiting him from taking all the snaps and making all the throws he usually does on a Thursday.
"He looks really good," Sarkisian said, five days after Price completed 33 of 48 throws for 350 yards and two touchdowns at Stanford despite banging his thumb early in the second half, getting sacked five times and getting hit seven more times. "He’s in a good place, physically. I think he’s in very good place mentally, which is always important for a quarterback.
"I think he is going to go out and play hard and play physical and really give us an opportunity to win. Again (like last week at Stanford), he’ll embody everything we want physically, mentally and emotionally from our entire team. I think we are going to see that in 17."
Beating Oregon to end a nine-game losing streak to the Ducks would keep the Huskies’ resurgence rolling and UW in the running for the Pac-12 North title. That alone is why it would so trump Washington’s 2009 win over USC.
"One of the key components of that game, if you remember, was the football and us creating turnovers, turnovers in the red zone. And then us taking care of the football," Sarkisian said of the ‘09 win over USC.
Washington’s defense forced two USC fumbles and an interception — all inside UW’s 35-yard line — while Jake Locker and the Huskies’ offense did not turn the ball over that day.
"I think that will hold true Saturday; I think the team that can really win the turnover battle is going to have a good opportunity to win the game," Sarkisian said of Saturday’s 106th meeting of Dawgs and Ducks.
There is another huge difference — one of many — between this weekend and that drizzly September afternoon in 2009: Those Huskies were trying to shorten games and hoped to hang with a ranked opponent into the fourth quarter for a chance to steal a win.
These Dawgs are taking games to foes with a high-speed, no-huddle offense that is averaging 85 plays per game – eight more per game than Oregon so far this season. The Huskies are No. 5 in the country in yards per game. They aren’t trying to stay close to anyone. They are trying to run whoever it may be out of the stadium.
"For sure," Sarkisian said. "We played that way for quite a while, you know, where it was ‘Be efficient, yet give ourselves in the fourth quarter the opportunity to win.’
"I think we are a much more aggressive football team now. … We play in attack mode on offense and on defense. I think it’s evident in our caliber of play right now and the quality of players that we have, and then the schemes that we’ve implemented."
The running will max out Saturday. Oregon has set the standard on fast for the last few years, and Sarkisian half-joked this week that 200 plays combined might be a possibility on Saturday.
As for ESPN’s grand “College GameDay,” the show will air from 6-9 a.m. from the center of campus. Sarkisian won’t be on the set live, because of the 1 p.m. kickoff.
Asked if he had offered the network any advice on which Seattle-ite to choose for the show’s usual “celebrity guest picker” of games, Sarkisian joked: “I said they could pick me to come on there. I know who I’d pick.”
INSIDE THE DAWGS: With freshman Cameron Van Winkle, UW’s kickoff man for the first five games, still ailing with a sore back Sarkisian says punter and field-goal kicker Travis Coons is “likely” to kickoff against Oregon. … UW undergraduate and graduate students who attend Friday night’s volleyball match between the sixth-ranked Huskies and Arizona at 8 p.m. inside Alaska Airlines Arena will receive wrist bands after the match. Those bands will entitle students to VIP early access to the UW students’ breakfast line and then prime, front viewing of the College GameDay set before dawn on Saturday. The first 250 “Dawg Pack” students at the volleyball match will receive sunglasses and the first 50 will get Black Out “Dawg Pack” T-shirts. … The forecast for game time at Husky Stadium: a 30-percent chance of showers, highs in the mid-50s and not much wind.