That’s really what it gets down to, isn’t it? Oregon State and Washington State will have a say in who dominates the Northwest from time to time. But it’s Oregon and Washington opening the pocketbooks to buy a camping spot at the top of the Pac, with aspirations for national titles.
The Huskies believe they hired the perfect cure for Duck fever in Chris Petersen. It certainly seemed effective last October. But that was against a program on its death bed, and Oregon’s hire of Willie Taggart has pumped renewed life into Eugene.
Over time, it’s possible that the Taggart/Petersen rivalry will develop into a standoff. It’s also possible that the Northwest isn’t big enough for both of them. It’s difficult to see either Oregon or Washington accepting a significant losing streak against the other. So if Petersen or Taggart routinely beats the other, somebody will be packing.
For now, the target is on Petersen’s back. A loss to a first-year Oregon coach rebuilding after a 4-8 season would be a disaster for the denizens of the Northwest’s Traffic Jam Capital.
It’s hard to say if that is a possibility. Jake Browning starting his third year as Washington’s quarterback seems to give Washington an edge. As a sophomore last year, he was seventh in the BCS division in passing efficiency. But Oregon sophomore Justin Herbert may have a higher ceiling. Herbert’s freshman year performance (19 TD’s, 4 INT’s) was significantly better than Browning’s (16 TD’s, 10 INT’s). And Herbert did it behind a mostly freshman offensive line.
Neither team should lack offensive firepower this year. The biggest question is how fast the Ducks can turn around a dismal defense.
The contest in 2018 has more intrigue. Browning will likely be playing on Sundays. Oregon will have a third-year starting quarterback behind an experienced offensive line. And if the Ducks still have the 128th ranked defense in the country, there will be no long-term issues in any Taggart/Petersen debate.
Petersen and his staff have proven an ability to get top performances out of their athletes. Taggart’s staff have yet to prove themselves at Oregon, but their resumes speak for themselves. To count on under-performance from either staff would be foolhardy.
So over time, it will probably come down to a matter of recruiting. Whoever gets the best athletes will win.
At Boise State, Petersen established a reputation as a coach who could do more with less. The Huskies had to hope that by moving to a Power-5 conference, Petersen’s caliber of recruiting would automatically improve. So far, this has not happened. Petersen’s first four recruiting classes have had an average national ranking of 31.5. With the right coaching, this may be good enough to win the Pac-12 in a given year, but it’s not going to win any Natties.
In Taggart’s first two months on the job, he quickly put together a dream staff of assistants, all reputed recruiters. And he kicked Petersen’s butt on the recruiting trail. Rivals pegged the Ducks’ 2017 recruiting class at # 18 and the Huskies’ at # 23. This was a big win for Taggart, considering that Washington was coming off its first legitimate national playoff appearance, while Taggart had yet to coach a single game for the downed Ducks.
The 2018 recruiting season is particularly critical, especially for Petersen. The year after a run at the national championships should pay huge dividends on the recruiting trail. Currently, Rivals has the Ducks at # 9, and the Huskies back at # 28, close to where Petersen’s classes have averaged. Of course signing day is still half a year away, and Oregon’s edge is based upon a greater number of commits. Washington has the edge on average recruit ranking, 3.75 to 3.54.
If Petersen succeeds in revving up his recruiting a few notches, his program should continue to evolve. But if it turns out that he and his staff are just not talented enough at recruiting to continually produce at top-ten level, Taggart will probably have his number.
Beyond the ability of the coaches to recruit, there is also the matter of the cultural differences between the two programs. This will inevitably influence recruiting, because the differences are huge. Washington thinks of itself as old entitled blue blood that is recovering from recent misfortune. Oregon sees itself as new wealth that is constantly re-inventing itself to try to stay ahead of the times.
Last October I had the displeasure of accompanying Charles Fischer (Mr. FishDuck himself) to Autzen Stadium for the Oregon-Washington game. Nothing against Charles, who was a brilliant host, but the experience gave me the opportunity to see first-hand what Washington is about.
Charles complained incessantly about what he called the constant four-note taunting by the Washington band. Actually, it was six notes, but we can’t all have our degrees in accounting, can we?
The six notes in question are the first six notes of the Husky fight song. The syllables that go with the notes are: (1) Bow, (2) down, (3) to, (4-6) Washington. Charles may have been wrong about the note count, but he was right about the taunt. Musically, it’s actually a quite brilliant use of a minor key to produce a nasty, condescending musical phrase. With words to match.
But in telling others to bow down to them, the Huskies are unique (not in a nice way). Oregon goes with ‘Mighty Oregon.’ The Beavers take their hats off to themselves. Washington State urges its athletes to ‘Fight, fight, fight for Wazoo.’ And the Trojans ‘Fight on for ol’ SC.’ ‘On, Wisconsin,’ etc. Only the Huskies tell everybody to bow down and kiss their royal behinds.
This isn’t just politically incorrect. It’s flat out un-American. I’m not a historian, but I seem to remember studying an 18th century war that Americans fought for the right to not bow down to those who lorded it over us. The following century, another war was fought to determine that one race of people did not have to bow down to another. Telling people to “Bow down” just isn’t something Americans do.
And it’s certainly not what we are trying to teach our children.
Stanford went from being the Indians to being the Cardinal (the color, not the bird, which might take offense). Oregon went from “Fellows gather round and cheer her” to “Let us gather round and cheer her.” And Utah went from “Utah man” to “Utah fan.” All to be respectful and inclusive.
But back to the Huskies, who seem to be proclaiming themselves to be either royals or slave masters. Maybe both. With their six-note taunt, they do it ad nauseum – to the point that it makes you long for an endless streaming of the USC Band playing ‘Tribute to Troy.’
It takes a certain measure of arrogance to tell people to bow down to you, and this is probably not good strategy for recruiting. But the Huskies have been doing this since ‘Bow Down’ was adopted as their fight song. That was 102 years ago, so it’s fairly ingrained.
Keeping in character, Washington’s Jake Browning was flagged for taunting when he scored the Huskies’ first touchdown less than two minutes into the 2016 Oregon/Washington game. Petersen penalized Browning with an assignment to do 500 push-ups. Good, good for Petersen. Very good.
But then the entire Huskies team, in an endorsement of Browning’s arrogance, happily and voluntarily did the 500 push-ups with him. And Petersen seemed to be all right with that. Bad, bad for Petersen. Very bad.
Team-building is one thing. Team-building around unsportsmanlike conduct is, well, probably appropriate only if your fight song disrespects your opponents by telling them to bow down to you.
At some point, this haughty culture is bound to have an impact on recruiting. In this era of political correctness, I can imagine more than one mother saying, “Son, this is America, and it’s the 21st century. You don’t have to bow down to anybody, and it’s just wrong for you to have anything to do with telling them to bow down to you.”
Oregon is not immune to the disease of excess and misdirected pride. It’s one of the seven deadly sins. What happened to Washington in the years following its 1991 “national championship” is a warning to all.
Nothing does more for a program — recruiting or otherwise – than winning with class. And it makes more sense to channel your inner Marcus Mariota (or Justin Herbert) than your inner Jake Browning.
My money’s on Oregon and Taggart.
Top photo by John Sperry