For the first time in over a decade, Oregon enters their annual tilt with the Huskies as underdogs, skidding towards disaster, and facing an opponent riding high on emotion.
It all feels so new. And not in a good way.
Oregon's season is on the brink of...something. If they get a healthy Vernon Adams back in the lineup, and he can zip the ball around like he did before he broke his finger, Oregon will be just fine. A healthy Adams should equal a win.
If they falter, and the streak ends? at 3-4, with games against Cal, ASU, Stanford and USC coming up, even making a bowl game becomes difficult.
Oregon-Washington has lacked a certain juice, to say the least, in recent years. It's one thing for a team to pile on wins in a series, but Oregon has been destroying Washington in ways not seen in those parts. The Ducks are, essentially, doing to the Huskies what they did to teams for years under Don James. Bludgeoning teams to a point of exhaustion, making mockeries of scoreboards in the process.
Bit this year is different. Despite losing three first-round picks in last year's NFL draft, Washington enters Saturday night with the number-one defense in the Pac-12, giving up just 15 points per game. In total defense, they rank 17th nationally, and are fresh off a potentially program shifting 17-12 win at USC -- one that will be remembered as the night Steve Sarkisian's era at USC ended.
While their defense is getting the headlines, coach Chris Peterson may be having the biggest effect, in that he has completely turned around the mentality and belief in Seattle. Known throughout his career as an offensive-wizard, Peterson brought with him from Boise State a belief that they will win; they will win now; and they will restore the glory days of Washington.
And, as we're seeing first-hand with Oregon, attitude can trump almost anything, if it's set in the correct direction.
With that, here's three things to watch Saturday night in Husky Stadium.
1. Early momentum. It's not inconceivable to see this game getting out of hand -- on either side. While Oregon has certainly had their will tested through the first half of the season, they've suffered through that without their starting quarterback. And when Adams was healthy -- opening night -- we saw what this offense could be. He's a dynamic thrower, and brings juts enough with his legs to keep defenses honest. If Adams is back, and that finger healed enough to give him some zip on the ball, Oregon cans still score with anyone. Throw in Royce Freeman, who is full throttle right now, and Oregon's offense could be on the verge of a bust out game. If that happens -- and shades of 11-straight defeats starts getting darker in the minds of Washington players -- Oregon could see them wilt.
On the other side of the coin, with the Ducks -- vulnerable and wavering -- the wheels completely come off the season. If the offense cannot get on track, and the young secondary still struggles, the atmosphere, the momentum, all of it could come crashing down on Oregon's season.
Neither scenario would surprise.
2. Deep ball, corner pocket. For all intents-and-purposes, this game is Oregon's season. Win, and the ship could be righted. Lose, and watch all hell break loose. All signs point towards Adams' return -- coach Mark Helfrich has said they will stick with one QB, and practice reports say Adams looks good -- and with his (potential) return comes an element to Oregon's game that has been missing all season: the deep ball.
With speedsters like Devon Allen, Bralon Addison, Taj Griffin, and the potential return of Darren Carrington, Oregon could, finally, have the ability to space the field. Remember: Royce Freeman has done what he's done this season despite the defense having zero respect for the passing game. If Oregon can stretch the field vertically, their most dangerous threat, Freeman, could see even more room to run.
3. Pressure the youngin'. For all of the accolades Jake Browning came in with -- and will surely garner over the next 3-4 years -- the Washington quarterback, a true freshman, is still just 18 years of age. He held up fairly well opening night at Boise State, in one of the most difficult environments in all of football, but the best way for Oregon to help its young secondary out is to put Browning on his back.
All. Game. Long.
If young quarterbacks have a common theme, it's that, after a while of constant pressure, they will start delivering balls too quick, or off-target, or simply fold for a sack. 12 months ago, Browning was chewing up high school competition; now, he could be staring up at DeForest Buckner, a potential top-10 pick in the NFL draft.
Much like Oregon's passing game -- they don't need to connect on a lot of deep balls; they just need the threat to be there -- the Ducks don't need to sack Browning 10 times to be effective. Putting constant pressure, knocking him around, forcing him out of the pocket -- these are the keys to rattling his cage.
Washington's offense won't blow anyone away. But, until Oregon's offense returns to form, it's going to be up to the defense to make things happen. Browning could be a good place to start.
The last time I was this nervous about a game against the Huskies, Marcus Mariota found Josh Huff for a long touchdown pass in 2013, and Oregon cruised to a big road victory.
Mariota, unfortunately, won't be there. Neither will Huff.
Washington has the momentum, the confidence, and the ability to end the streak -- and this is the first time we've been able to accurately say that.
But they're still Washington, and this is still Oregon. The season is saved, if only for a day, and the Ducks get out with a 35-28 win.