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University of Washington Huskies Football

Huskies embracing ‘underdog mentality’ ahead of Pac-12 championship clash with Oregon

Washington players celebrate after the Huskies defeated Oregon 36-33 in a Pac-12 Conference game on Oct. 14 at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Getty Images)
By Percy Allen Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Are the Washington Huskies being disrespected?

No. 3 Washington takes a 19-game winning streak, the second-longest active FBS streak that includes a pair of wins over the Ducks, into a much-anticipated rematch Friday against No. 5 Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game.

Seven weeks ago, UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. engineered a winning touchdown drive in the final 2 minutes of a thrilling 36-33 win that was decided after Ducks kicker Camden Lewis missed a 43-yard field goal as time expired, which ignited a storm-the-field celebration at Husky Stadium.

Last season, the Huskies booted a field goal in the final minute to beat the Ducks 37-34 at Autzen Stadium.

And yet when Washington (12-0, 9-0 Pac-12) meets Oregon (11-1, 8-1) at 5 p.m. at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, UW is a 9.5-point underdog.

Earlier this week, Oregon coach Dan Lanning said: “This one doesn’t require a lot of extra motivation,” but you can be sure the Huskies will play the proverbial disrespect card when they visit Sin City.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” UW running back Dillon Johnson said. “But you know we had motivation anyway. Nobody believes in us and we don’t need anybody to (believe in us). We just need the people in the locker room to believe that we’re going to come out and dominate this game.”

By many statistical measures, the margins between the Northwest rivals are razor thin.

Kalen DeBoer is 23-2 since taking over two years ago at Washington while Lanning arrived in Eugene at the same time and has compiled a 21-4 record.

Each team is led on the field by a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback – Bo Nix (3,906 passing yards and 37 touchdowns) at Oregon and Penix (3,899 passing yards, 32 TDs) are first and second, respectively, in the nation in passing yards.

UW’s dynamic offensive attack features receiver Rome Odunze (1,349 receiving yards, 13 TDs), receiver Ja’lynn Polk (943 receiving yards, eight TDs) and running back Dillon Johnson (1,102 yards from scrimmage, 12 TDs).

Meanwhile, Oregon’s equally explosive offense is powered by receiver Troy Franklin (1,349 receiving yards, 14 TDs), receiver Tez Johnson (942 receiving yards, nine TDs) and running back Bucky Irving (1,043 rushing yards, 12 TDs).

Since their Oct. 14 clash, both teams won six straight games, so why did the oddsmakers make the Huskies prohibitive underdogs?

Well, Oregon’s point differential in the past six games is an average of 26 points and the Ducks finished the season ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense while allowing 15.9 points per game.

Meanwhile, Washington has played close games against Pac-12 competition, winning games by an average of 6.3 points. UW has won eight straight by 10 points or fewer and no team has done that since at least 2007.

Following last week’s win 31-7 win over Oregon State, Nix noted the difficulties of playing a team twice in a season.

“Even though it was a very close game, they pulled out the win in the end and that’s all that really matters in a game like that, is who makes the extra play to win the game,” Nix told ESPN during a postgame interview. “It’s always tough to play a team twice. We know they’re in a really good position. They had a great season. They went undefeated and it’s going to be a really good battle on Friday.”

When asked the challenges of playing a team twice in a season, Penix said: “I don’t know. I haven’t (done) it yet. I guess we’ll see.”

In 2018, Washington beat Utah 10-3 in the Pac-12 championship game two months after toppling the Utes 21-7 in its conference opener.

“I wasn’t a big part of the game plan, but I remember that game,” senior tight end Jack Westover said. “You knew you were getting a hungry team that was motivated to beat you when saw them again.

“I’ve kind of felt that same feeling a little bit this week. They want to get back at us. It’s not only a rivalry game, it’s a championship game. … There’s a lot to play for, but the most important thing is to remember it’s just a game and to try not to put too much pressure on yourself.”

That’s good advice, but Westover admits it’s difficult to ignore the stakes have never been higher for the Huskies.

Not only is the conference championship on the line, but the winner will likely receive a spot in the four-team College Football Playoffs when the pairings are revealed 9 a.m. Sunday on ESPN.

“We see this as a quarterfinal game because that’s really what it is,” Westover said. “It’s a quarterfinal game. It’s win or go home.

“That’s kind of how we’re seeing it and that’s how I think both teams are approaching it.”

Ostensibly, the Heisman Trophy race will be greatly impacted by a third showdown between Penix and Nix, who are finalists for the award.

It can be argued there’s never been a bigger football game in the history of the 108-year-old conference, which heads into an uncertain future due to the departure of 10 teams, including UW and Oregon, to other conferences.

“Everybody wants to see this,” Johnson said. “I mean, everybody wanted to see it the first time so trust me, they want to see you the second time. We’re just we’re glad that we’re the underdogs and we got that underdog mentality. We’re coming in to get the (win).”

It remains to be seen if Friday’s showdown between the Pac-12 powerhouses will match or exceed their recent battles?

“Yeah, for sure,” Johnson said. “But you know, we’re coming in to try to dominate. We’re not trying to keep it close. We’re trying to come in and dominate and get the win.”