With no pressure in game at Oregon, Huskies believe they should play better football

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EUGENE, Ore. — In searching for answers to what ails the Washington Huskies football team this season, coach Steve Sarkisian has several times mentioned he thinks his team is “pressing” and sometimes playing “a little too tense.”

If it’s the pressure of dealing with expectations that has led to that, well, it shouldn’t be a problem Saturday.

The Huskies will kick it off against Oregon at 12:30 p.m. as the biggest underdogs they have been since the end of the Tyrone Willingham era in 2008, oddsmakers listing the Ducks as 35 ½-point favorites.

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The line was set at 28 ½ before the news broke Monday that UW quarterback Jake Locker would miss the game and be replaced by redshirt freshman Keith Price, who will make his first start.

So … the absence of Locker, a reeling Washington team that was shut out last week 41-0 at home against Stanford, and a hot Oregon squad that is ranked No. 1 in the country have all combined to turn this into a game that almost all observers view as an inevitable rout for the Ducks.

Rather than fight that perception, UW players have instead embraced it.

“We have nothing to worry about,” said UW defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu. “We have nothing to lose, and they do. They are No. 1 and they have a national championship to lose, so there is no pressure on us and more on them, I guess.”

Ta’amu compared it to the end of the 2009 season, when UW beat Washington State and California by a combined 72-10 after it had lost four in a row to fall out of bowl contention — victories that helped set the high expectations for this season.

“Everyone should just play like last year when we played Cal, Wazzu,” Ta’amu said. “We ended with a bang because no one was worried about the press or how much pressure was on our team. So if we just go out there and do our jobs and have fun, we’ll do all right.”

Even with a vastly improved effort, though, UW could still fall well short of the Ducks, who are averaging 572.9 yards and 54.9 points, each amount far ahead of anyone else in the Pac-10.

Washington’s defense, meanwhile, has allowed 85 points the past two games — and 300 or more yards by halftime in each game — and ranks ninth in the Pac-10 in points allowed (34.3) and yards allowed (429.8).

The Huskies spent the week practicing against the rapid pace of the Oregon offense, with Sarkisian running the scout team offense Tuesday and Wednesday to ensure that the proper pace was set.

That Oregon will move the ball at will and score a lot of points, though, seems almost a given, placing the onus on the Huskies’ offense to try to keep pace.

Price’s insertion at quarterback, though, adds that much more uncertainty to an offense that has been confounding in its ineffectiveness. Washington has scored just 14 points in its past two games, none in the past six quarters.

If the game goes as expected, it will mark the most dramatic chapter yet in the reversal of fortunes of the programs. The Huskies dominated the series from the mid-1970s to the mid-’90s, a period during which they also stood as one of the ruling-class teams in the Pac-10. Then Oregon won four of five in the series from 1994 through 1998 to announce its rise. Then, for a few years, the rivalry ranked among the most intense in the country as the teams traded barbs and victories — UW won three of four from 1999 to 2003.

But as UW’s star has fallen, Oregon’s has risen, and the Ducks have won the past six meetings, each by more than 20 points, and by an average score of 42-17.

Washington players insisted, though, they were keeping the faith.

“I personally like being the underdog,” said linebacker Cort Dennison. “And I know a lot of the kids on our team do. We are obviously facing a really good team in Oregon. But we’ve got a bunch of fighters who I know are sick about what happened Saturday (against Stanford), as well they should be. You can’t go into a game negative and expecting to lose, because then you will lose. You have to always have that ‘expect to win’ mentality and that fighter’s mentality.”

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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