SEATTLE — All that good will Justin Wilcox built up at Oregon, from his days as a ballboy on the sidelines to being a four-year letterman for the Ducks as a defensive back, it’s gone.
Actually it was probably gone a while ago, maybe around the time he was twice able to help lead Boise State to upset victories over his alma mater. And if it didn’t disappear then, it certainly did when Wilcox accepted the defensive coordinator job at rival Washington this past offseason.
He’s still the kid from Junction City, Ore., who went on to wear the green and yellow of the Ducks. But now he’s trying to become a roadblock to Oregon’s march through the Pac-12.
“I went to school there, I’m proud to be from there,” Wilcox said this week. “But my allegiance is with the Huskies and this team.”
Coming off an upset of then-No. 8 Stanford where Wilcox’s defense was the reason for the victory, the No. 23 Huskies travel to Eugene on Saturday to face the second-ranked Ducks, with Washington trying to snap an eight-game losing streak to its rival to the south.
Washington’s last win over the Ducks came in 2003. Since then, Oregon has outscored the Huskies 339-137 and averaged 261 yards per game rushing. There is no greater contrast in the Pac-12, going from trying to prepare for the power of Stanford to the speed of Oregon.
“Literally the ref is trying to put the ball down and the center is trying to snap it. It happens that fast,” Wilcox said.
But if there is one advantage Washington could have, it’s Wilcox and his past track record against the Ducks.
The first time Wilcox was calling the defense against his former school came in 2008 when Boise State traveled to Eugene and became the last non-conference team to beat the Ducks in Autzen Stadium. But that 37-32 win is better remembered for the four turnovers Boise State forced and a controversial hit that knocked quarterback Jeremiah Masoli out of the game.
A year later, in Boise, is when Wilcox should have become known nationally, only to be overshadowed by a moment after the Broncos’ 19-8 victory. It was Chip Kelly’s first game as Oregon’s head coach and the Ducks offense was completely flummoxed.
Oregon had six total first downs, rushed for just 31 net yards and failed to reach double-digits in points for the only time since 2007. The 152 total yards Oregon managed that night against Wilcox’s defense is the second-lowest total by the Ducks offense since 1996.
Of course, what Wilcox and the Broncos did in shutting down the Ducks was completely forgotten in the seconds after the game when Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount punched a Boise State player.
But that past experience at least gives Wilcox a base to work from when trying to game plan against an offensive system that is difficult to simulate in preparation.
Asked this week if Oregon is faster now than when he faced them at Boise State, Wilcox joked, “Warp and Mach, what’s faster? They’re both fast. They are a really fast team.
“I think there are a lot of similar plays. … They run similar schemes, sometimes they run more gap schemes than zone schemes depending on who they have but there is still a lot of similarities in the plays,” Wilcox said.
Even though the Huskies are young defensively, they believe they might finally have the depth to keep their defenders fresher in trying to stay with the Ducks’ offensive pace.
Each of the last three seasons, the Huskies have hung around at halftime, only to watch Oregon pull away in the third quarter.
“I would like to think that through our recruiting we have some pretty good depth in place to where we can minimize them trying to pull away there late third, early fourth quarter,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.
The chance for Wilcox to go home comes after a startling performance against Stanford.
A year after giving up 446 yards rushing to the Cardinal, the Huskies changed their schemes, putting extra defenders near the line of scrimmage and forcing Stanford to try to beat them with the pass. The result was a 17-13 Washington victory.
Washington’s players may have bought into the changes Wilcox was asking them to make even before the upset. But the performance against the Cardinal only reinforced their beliefs in what he’s teaching.
“Last week proved to us what he is putting in place, it works,” Washington safety Justin Glenn said. “We have to trust in that and do our jobs.”