Chris Petersen’s inaugural press conference as Washington’s head football coach was nearly over when the question finally came.
“Coach, are you going to beat Oregon?”
“Beat Oregon,” Petersen repeated, chuckling. “Beat Oregon. Do we have to start that already?”
Then, no. Now, yes.
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The Ducks’ winning streak in this rivalry — it is still a rivalry, right? — dates back 10 years now, with Oregon winning each meeting between the schools by at least 17 points since UW’s last victory on Nov. 1, 2003.
But Petersen — and four members of his assistant coaching staff — have beaten Oregon more recently. Twice, actually. And they’ll aim to make it 3-0 this week with a 5 p.m. Saturday game at Autzen Stadium against an Oregon team ranked 9th in the country.
Highlighting Petersen’s 8-2 record against Pac-12 teams during his eight-year tenure as head coach at Boise State were victories over Oregon in 2008 and 2009 — first in Eugene, 37-32, and then in Boise, 19-8.
The latter was more impressive, and certainly more memorable. It was Chip Kelly’s debut as Oregon’s coach, and it wound up the worst offensive performance of what turned out to be a wildly successful college coaching career: Boise State limited the Ducks and their up-tempo offense, led then by quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount, to just 31 rushing yards and six first downs that night before a national TV audience on ESPN.
(And Huskies fans will surely recall with delight the postgame scene, in which a frustrated Blount delivered a punch to the face of Broncos defensive lineman Byron Hout, for which he earned a suspension that lasted nearly the entire season.)
In the years since, nobody has done to Oregon what Boise State did in 2009. The Ducks’ record since that game is 62-9 — including a 10-3 finish and Rose Bowl appearance that same season — and they’ve achieved that mark with a brand of hyperspeed offense that few teams outside of Stanford have been able to contain.
The Ducks went on to score 37 or more points in nine games in 2009, and the fewest they’ve scored since that disastrous night in Boise was 14 in an overtime loss to Stanford in 2012.
Petersen didn’t have much to say when asked about the 2009 game this week, remembering only that “guys played really, really hard and effective.”
To be sure, these are different circumstances. Kelly is gone from Oregon, though his replacement, second-year coach Mark Helfrich, was the Ducks’ offensive coordinator in 2009, and Oregon’s offense looks largely the same — except the Ducks have a far better quarterback (Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota) and a more established system. And Petersen, who had Boise State rolling in the late-2000s — and, by the way, was an Oregon assistant from 1995-2000 — is still trying to lay the foundation for the program he wants Washington to be.
But the Huskies do have a fast, talented defense anchored by likely NFL draft picks, same as Boise State in 2009. And Huskies defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, BSU’s defensive line coach from 2006-09, sees familiar concepts when he studies Oregon’s game film. The Ducks’ per-game average of 522.5 total yards ranks 13th nationally, and their average of 7.65 yards per play ranks third.
“Philosophy-wise, they’re the same,” Kwiatkowski said. “They’re fast, zone read. Got maybe a little bit more gap schemes as far as power. But a lot of it’s the same. They’ll formation you a little bit, but the whole thing with them is their tempo. They’re going to go fast, they’re going to get lined up and they’re going to go. So we’ve got to match it.”
That is infinitely easier said than done. But the Huskies do at least have a few coaches who know what it looks like.
So, what does it look like?
“No. 1, you’ve got to get them off schedule a little bit,” said Huskies defensive line coach and special-teams coordinator Jeff Choate, who coached Boise State’s special teams and linebackers at Boise State in 2009. “If they get chunk plays on first down, that’s when they get their tempo really rolling, so I think that’s a huge piece, is try to get them a little bit behind the chains and be able to play in second-and-long situations.
“A lot of their run game is lateral, so if you can not allow them to get to the edge clean, then you’re going to have a chance to get some of those negative plays that we talked about, and those next-down situations. … We had a veteran team in both ’08 and ’09 when we played them, and I think that was one of the things that really helped us was we didn’t give up explosive plays. We made them earn it the whole game in both those situations. And so I think that’s really critical as well.”
On some level, Kwiatkowski said, it must be accepted that Oregon is going to gash a defense here and there.
“You just go into it knowing they’re going to get theirs, and you just keep attacking,” he said. “I think it starts up front with the front seven leveraging, doing a great job of leveraging blocks and getting off blocks, and then the perimeter doing a good job keeping everything in front and inside and not giving up home runs.”
The Huskies (5-1, 1-1 Pac-12) have allowed many of those to the Ducks throughout the last decade. Oregon has outscored the Huskies 436-182 in those 10 victories, and the Ducks opened as a 19-point favorite this week.
To Petersen, that all amounts to noise, and not much else.
“To me, this needs to be about us,” Petersen said. “We’ve got (to play) a really good team, one of the better teams in the country, if not one of the best in the country, for sure. So what are we going to do? We know what they’re going to do. We know how good and how hard they’re going to play. What can we do?”
The hope from Huskies fans is that they do the same thing Petersen’s team did to Oregon in Boise.