As with any good football coach, Steve Sarkisian on game week narrows the focus to see-ballcarrier, hit-ballcarrier, ignoring the bigger picture — at least when he's not reviewing medical reports on Stanford players.
But since the bigger picture is why the University of Washington dropped $280 million on remodeling Husky Stadium, we'll gladly look upon the far horizon while he averts his eyes.
Oregon (5-0) at Washington Saturday is:
Actually, I just wanted to try out a little hysteria before the "ESPN Game Day" pre-game show sucks all of it up during the show's first appearance on the Washington campus.
Sarkisian tried his best this week to shoo the distractions from the Huskies' doorstep, even though he made the biggest mess himself with his provocative comments about Stanford players faking injuries to slow down Washington's offense.
"Saturday’s ballgame," he said about the upcoming game, "is about trying to keep us with only one loss in conference play. We know Oregon’s a good football team. If we want to remain in the hunt in the Pac-12 North we need to win Saturday. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about some 17-year-old (recruit) in Southern California."
Begging your pardon, coach, but it is about teenage boys in Southern California. It's about 70-year-old rich men in stadium suites. It's about newly wealthy, 30-something software engineers and web designers on Capitol Hill wondering whether it's time to re-engage with the old school after having been mostly disconnected for 10 to 15 years. It's about middle-aged marketers in Bellevue looking for the next hot thing.
They are looking for a wildly successful college football team to embrace, because to do so is, for whatever reasons, considered cool in many quarters. Nothing more defines wild success for college sports than beating the nation's second-ranked team in a new facility on national TV at their own game. And after nine consecutive beatings in a fashion that would make Mike Tyson cringe — including 52-21 last year in Eugene — it's about vanquishing the bully that took your money, tried to date your sister and said bad things about your mama.
For a Washington program only five years removed from an 0-12 season, the game represents the sharpest turning point in Sarkisian's tenure. Win, and the Huskies are a top-10 team with a robust future. Lose, and they're a nice little boy band that's been seen dozens of times.
A loss isn't the end of the world. But would be a continuation of the humdrum for a constituency that likes to fancy itself special.
Sarkisian tried his best to keep the river of adrenaline from overflowing.
"One game’s not going to change the last nine years," he said. "We’re not naive to the fact that our fans, this university, want to win this game. But we’re also understanding that those rah-rah speeches on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday aren’t going to help us play Saturday.
"We’re going to come out of the tunnel, we’ll be fired up and all that stuff and they’re going to be too. But our preparation is way more important than getting caught up in we need to avenge the nine previous seasons. That’s great for the blogs and for the fans; it’s what rivalry games are all about. That’s what makes college football so unique and so cool."
He's right, in that he can worry only over that which he has control. But what he and his university backers have done is set the stage nearly to the point where that is how the rivalry will be decided.
For years, Oregon has used the Nike-provided wealth of benefactor Phil Knight to create an athletic colossus in Eugene second to none, and turned upside down the traditional landscape of Northwest college sports. Where Washington was once astride the forest, now Oregon prevails to the point where it is a magnet nationally for kids who covet ultra swag.
The Huskies have been playing catch-up, hiring a hot young coach from USC's run of glory, paying well his assistants, then pulling together, from its own resources as well the rich-guy crowd, a splendid remake of its 1920s concrete gazebo on the lake.
As a final step, Sarkisian abandoned parts of his pro-style offense brought from USC and adopted what the Ducks do — go fast, faster and I-didn't-see-the-speed-sign-officer. The result is a matchup Saturday of two of the nation's top five offenses (Oregon No. 2 at 630 yards a game, Washington No. 5 at 557).
But Washington hasn't yet recruited to its new facilities, and the offense is a newcomer to warp speed; the Ducks have been hanging with the Klingons, Vulcans and Romulans for years. It's still a big advantage to Oregon, partly why they are 14-point favorites.
Naturally, Sarkisian thinks there's a chance in the din of the ever-louder home boatyard.
"I think we have the depth in place to substitute and rotate players earlier in the ball game and not have such a significant drop-off," he said. "I think we’re a better conditioned football team than we’ve ever been; we perform well in the second half. Thirdly, I think we’ll be a lot more comfortable in that environment and the speed (the Ducks) operate at because of the speed that we operate at at our offensive end.
“All of that being said, it’s still a very tall task. They’re a very good football team.”
The new theater beholds an old storyline. The drama will be whether a twist develops in the end. If it doesn’t, the boy band stays a lounge act.
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