EUGENE - Although the stakes this season aren't as high as in recent years, the century-old rivalry between Oregon and Washington remains.

Washington coach Rick Neuheisel remembers two years ago when the Ducks handed the Huskies their lone loss of the season. Sixth-ranked Washington couldn't quite overcome a 23-3 deficit and lost 23-16 at Autzen Stadium.

"It turned out there were two pretty good football teams playing that day," Neuheisel said. "I think they ended up 10-2 and beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl. We went on to win the Rose Bowl."

After a season's hiatus, the showdown isn't nearly as charged this year. Washington (5-5, 2-4 Pacific-10 Conference) is fighting to stave off its first losing season since 1976. No. 23-ranked Oregon (7-3, 3-3) has lost three of its last four.

"We're not quite at that caliber this year in terms of the programs, but I guarantee it will be a hard-fought game," Neuheisel said about Saturday in Eugene.

The rivalry, which dates back to 1900, was stirred back in 1997, when Oregon upset the No. 6 Huskies 31-28 in Seattle. Before that, many fans remember "The Pick" in 1994.

Oregon, with a five-game losing streak to the Huskies, had a 24-20 lead but Washington was driving toward the goal line. Redshirt freshman cornerback Kenny Wheaton saved the game for the Ducks when he picked off a Damon Huard pass and ran it back 97 yards for a score.

The victory helped send Oregon to the Rose Bowl and the play is featured before home games on Autzen's video scoreboard.

Overall, the Huskies lead the series 56-33-5, but Oregon won the first one 43-0 in Eugene at the turn of the century. The Ducks have won five of the last seven.

Defensive end Seth McEwen said all the history doesn't matter, it's what happens in the heat of the game. That's where the rivalry gets intense.

And he should know: McEwen is one of five current players who started against the Huskies two years ago.

"This isn't just some hype people make up and talk about, this is the real deal down on the field," McEwen said.

The Ducks, who lost 32-21 last weekend to league leader Washington State, are looking to improve their bowl outlook now that a third-straight Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl invitation are impossibilities.

"We know now that every win ensures a better bowl game, a better opportunity, a better opponent," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said.

Quarterback Jason Fife just wants the Ducks to get back to winning.

"The pressure we as players put on ourselves is far more than the coaches could put on us, or even the pressure from outside in the community," he said. "We want to win our games and it doesn't matter if it's by a huge margin or a small one. And that's only going to be more amplified this week against the Huskies."

Oregon, however, got pretty banged up against the Cougars. Star tailback Onterrio Smith sprained his right big toe while free safety Keith Lewis strained his shoulder. Both sat out of practice earlier this week but are probable for the game.

The defense needs all the help it can get. Oregon allowed 467 total yards to Washington State, and this weekend faces one of the league's best quarterbacks in Cody Pickett. He has already set a single season school record with 3,502 yards, and needs 136 passing yards to break Ryan Leaf's 1997 Pac-10 record.

Pickett threw for 262 yards in last weekend's 41-29 victory over Oregon State. But it was Washington's defense - with five interceptions, including two for touchdowns - that made the difference.

Neuheisel said his team could use hand signals for plays at noisy Autzen, which should host one of the largest football crowds in state history. The stadium was expanded by 12,000 seats this season.

And there's a good chance it will be raining.

Along with the rivalry, it all adds up to a classic football Saturday for McEwen.

"This game right here is what college football is all about," he said. "We're playing in the cold season and it's going to be a knock 'em down, drag 'em out kind of thing. That's what we play football for."

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