Mason Foster (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
Washington’s Homecoming weekend welcomes back alumni with memories of football games past, whether proudly celebrating dominating wins or grieving over devastating losses, but the Oregon-Washington rivalry takes those emotions and multiplies them by at least a factor of 10. And it's not just the alums that share the feelings generated by a rousing interstate clash; the players feel it too.
“I think over the last couple of years we've had a couple good games with them and I think it's become a really big rivalry for us,” Washington quarterback Jake Locker said Monday. “There's a lot of excitement from a lot of people about this weekend's game and a lot of people wanting us to come out victorious in this one.”
Anticipating what has become unofficially known as the “Uncivil War”, Locker admits he’s heard a lot of people around campus desperately pleading for him to lead the Dawgs to a win against Oregon. In response to people who tell him they really, really want to beat the Ducks, Locker always responds, “I do too!”
Locker shares a unique perspective with a handful of Washington players who grew up in-state. Raised in Ferndale, Locker knows first-hand what the rivalry is all about. The Huskies also have a slew of players from outside the northwest, some of whom were also recruited by Oregon. Outside linebacker Mason Foster, originally from Seaside, Calif., has a close friend, safety Javes Lewis, who plays for the Ducks. The two friends talk often and are eager to keep track of who has the better performance Saturday.
“I’m excited to see him and to play him,” Foster said of Lewis. “He’s been making plays all year so we’re going to see who makes the most plays.”
As for Lewis’ latest messages, Foster promises it’s all good-natured. “He’s just getting ready. He’s been talking about the bye week they just had. He’s focused, he’s ready. He’s a great athlete so he’s going to be ready.”
The Ducks are coming off a bye week, riding the momentum of a five-game winning streak by an average score of 37-16. Conversely, the Huskies have the lingering memory of a few very close, surprising wins at home and the confidence that their preparation can pay off. And that’s what makes this year’s game against the Ducks so crucial, and by extension so surly; not only does it certainly appears on paper, message boards and sports radio to be a more significant rivalry game to Washington fans than the Apple Cup a few weeks down the road, but now there's also something more at stake than just bragging rights.
A Washington win could put a bit of a spoiler in Oregon's post-season plans, just like the Ducks derailed Washington's perfect season in 2000.
“Yeah, right now it is,” tight end Kavario Middleton said when asked if this is the bigger game. “Just because of where we’re sitting in the Pac 10. They’re 11th in the country and we’re on the rise so it’s going to be a big game.”
Oregon is undefeated in Pac-10 play, but a win could help give the Huskies their last realistic shot at bowl game eligibility. For first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, that’s what makes college football so much fun. He loves to soak up the energy the fans bring to big games like this, and realizes what’s at stake as he prepares the team for Saturday.
"This game means a lot in our conference this year,” Sarkisian said. “Oregon is on top of the conference and we are trying to get back in the race, so this is a big game for us.''
Much emotion can go into facing a bitter opponent on the field, but the Huskies are now used to the grind of continuously refocusing and preparing for their next foe, their mantra with them at all times.
“We expect to win,” Foster said. “It’ll be a great game. They're a great team and they’ve proven it. They’ve won a lot of tough games and we’ve been in a lot of tough games so I’m excited to play. Either way we just want to have fun. It’s Homecoming, so it doesn’t get better than that.”