One of the attendants called it the “Husky Express,” this 1 p.m. Thursday flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to San Jose, and the decorations inside the aircraft made clear the rooting interests of many of its passengers.
Purple-and-gold pom-poms were perched on the headrest of every seat. Purple, University of Washington wrist bands were tossed on each seat, too, along with an Alaska Airlines envelope containing two tickets – free tickets – to Friday’s Pacific-12 Conference championship game between the Washington Huskies and Colorado Buffaloes at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
And perhaps most importantly: Each passenger received a complementary alcoholic beverage.
Given the typically sparse attendance at these neutral-site title games, and therefore the weak secondary ticket market, it’s hard to say which has greater monetary value: the tickets or the booze.
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The atmosphere, then, might not suit the magnitude of the matchup. It should be a good one. The Huskies, No. 4 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, have a chance to bolster their case for inclusion in the national playoff with a victory. Colorado, ranked No. 8, is angling for a Rose Bowl appearance and its first Pac-12 title.
The Huskies have not faced an opponent currently ranked higher than the Buffaloes, who beat Utah, 27-22, last Saturday to clinch the Pac-12 South division title. And when the Huskies take the field for Friday’s 6 p.m. game, they will see a team that looks a lot like, well, themselves. At least defensively.
Through 12 games, Colorado and Washington are tied for eighth nationally in yards per play allowed. Washington ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense at 17.8 points per game; Colorado is right behind at 13th, allowing 18.8.
And, as UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith noted, opposing quarterbacks complete fewer than 50 percent of their passes against the Buffaloes.
“That’s some good defense, in this conference, to have that going on,” Smith said. “And you can see how many points they’re giving up. They’re a good group. They’re sound, they’re tough, they’re physical, and there’s a reason why they’re in this championship game.”
Both teams employ talented, confident defensive backs capable of defending receivers in isolated, one-on-one coverage. Both are stout against the run, too.
“They remind me a lot of our defense,” UW senior offensive lineman Jake Eldrenkamp said. “Their defensive line is very similar – similar-type bodies, similar-type guys. Really similar scheme. So it’s something we’ve been facing since fall camp and are pretty familiar with, but it’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
Smith said he expects Colorado’s cornerbacks, seniors Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon, to challenge Washington’s receivers. The Huskies typically welcome one-on-one coverage on the outside against John Ross and Dante Pettis, because their speed usually allows them to win those matchups and catch long passes.
But Colorado isn’t Rutgers or Cal.
“They’re going to challenge him,” Smith said, asked specifically about Ross.
“They’re not scared to come up and press and put them on some islands that way. You can just see their swagger on contested balls. They’re right there with guys trying to separate. There’s not a lot of guys running free. They just play with a lot of confidence.”
At No. 4, Washington is currently ahead of Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State in the CFP rankings. A victory over Colorado – and the accompanying Pac-12 championship – might be enough to keep the Huskies in the top four come Sunday.
UW coach Chris Petersen said this week that he’s “pretty confident” a victory Friday would clinch a playoff spot for the Huskies. But they probably would feel better about it if the win was a convincing one. And that won’t be easy.
“We take care of business, everywhere I’ve been, those people usually do the right thing,” Petersen said of the playoff selection committee. “Our whole focus is on Colorado. We’ve got a big hurdle there, and if we can get over that hurdle … yeah.”