I have wrestled with the prospect of this game all week, and to be honest, I’ve dreaded writing this piece because I knew it would force me to make up my mind. You see, last week, I underestimated the Huskies, and they proved me wrong. All year, I have tried to limit my optimism over the new Wilcox-coached defense, and now after five games they are the 2nd best unit in the conference.
But this isn’t #8 Stanford, or any other team in the Pac-12, it is the University of Oregon Ducks. The Ducks that have beat the Huskies for a decade straight. The Ducks with the offense that can’t be slowed down (unless you’re the SEC). The Ducks with the defense that is touted as its best in years. The Ducks with the stadium that supposedly challenges Husky Stadium for noise level and subsequent home-field advantage.
The conventional wisdom, of course, points to an Oregon victory. If the Huskies were expected to win, they would be ranked #1, above #2 Oregon. But it seems that this year it’s suddenly foolish to doubt this Husky team, and it seems so poetically correct for the former-Duck, Justin Wilcox, to be the one that brings Washington back to the top of this rivalry. But even if his defense manages to control the Oregon attack, can Keith Price and the offense manage to do their best 2011 impression and put up 30+ points? Will the offensive line manage to even give Price the chance to try?
You can see that I’m still deeply conflicted about this game, even as I write this.
Well, you know what, I’m done taking the cautious route this year. Last week, I sat at this computer and projected the Huskies to lose badly, and by the time I was headed to the game, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something special was going to happen. This week, I’m not going to ignore the hunch that this Washington team is ready to do something huge. I’m picking the Huskies.
If I’m wrong, well so what. I’ll own it, and I’ll move on with a little bit more caution. Oregon fans, feel free to mock me in the comments for picking against your team, and if you guys win, feel free to lambaste me a second time. If the Huskies lose, I’ll deserve that.
But here are some reasons why I think things may just turn out a little different on Saturday:
Opponents to Watch
All year long, it has been common for me to feature a pass rusher in the opponents to watch section, and it’s easy to see why: the Husky tackles have been a big question all year long. In this case, we have Dion Jordan, perhaps the best defensive end the Huskies have seen since Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery of LSU. I will admit, the Huskies have only given up 2.75 sacks a game, which is perfectly respectable, but against a future-pro like Jordan, whose freakish 6’7″ length can give any tackle trouble, it is worth watching how often Keith Price is getting chased around the backfield.
September 22, 2012; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks defensive end Dion Jordan (96) during the game against the Arizona Wildcats at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-US PRESSWIRE
Might seem like an odd choice, since everyone already tends to be watching a team’s starting running back, but in this case, coaches have been paying so much attention to stopping De’Anthony Thomas that they have often allowed Barner, a terrific player in his own right, to put up huge numbers. Believe me, Chip Kelly is just fine with Thomas only tallying 30 or 40 total yards if it means Barner racking up over 200 total yards and four total touchdowns, like he did against Washington State. To win this game, Wilcox and his defense will somehow have to scheme for Thomas and Barner, as well as quarterback Marcus Mariota, of course. So many weapons.
Elements to Victory
Establish the Run
Last week, we witnessed Bishop Sankey put together his first feature-back performance. He carried 20 times against a team as gritty as Stanford, grinding out key yards, taking big hits, and getting right back up to carry again. His huge 61-yard touchdown run to end the 3rd quarter probably made the eventual victory possible in the first place. He must repeat that kind of performance if the Huskies are to win this game. If the Huskies fail to establish a run, and instead, say, open the game with a couple of incomplete passes and a quick three and out, the amazingly fast, no-huddle Oregon offense will have a chance to run the Washington defense ragged, and that cannot happen. Just to hammer this point home forward, look back to LSU. It was plain to see that once Sark abandoned the ineffective run-game, the LSU pass rushers chased Price all around the backfield while he threw incomplete pass after incomplete pass. If Sankey fails, Washington fails.
Allow Zero Big Plays
Perhaps the most dramatic difference, so far this year, between Nick Holt’s defense and the suddenly formidable Wilcox unit is the fact that the 2012 Huskies have given up four run plays of over 20 yards, and only one of over 30, on pace for 12 and 4, respectably, over a full season. Last year, the Huskies allowed 27 run plays over 20 yards, and 15 over 30. Think back to the Alamo Bowl, if you can handle the memory. Terrence Galloway, the Baylor running back, would routinely take the ball straight up the middle and rumble all the way into the end zone untouched. Stepfan Taylor, a back that is, in my estimation, much more talented than Galloway, never ran for more than 7 yards last week. Against an Oregon team that lives for huge plays on the ground, it will be so, so key for the Huskies to play with the discipline to stop De’Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner, or even seriously athletic Marcus Mariota from breaking off any huge, backbreaking gains.
Sept 27, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies running back Bishop Sankey (25) celebrates a 17-13 upset victory over the Stanford Cardinal at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE
Test the Redshirt Freshman Quarterback
Mariota has played very well in his first year as a starter, but Washington State showed that when truly pressured, he is not immune to poor decision making. Overall, he finished that game with 169 yards on 32 passing attempts, with a touchdown to go along with two interceptions. If the Huskies can somehow manage to shut down the multi-faceted running attack of the Ducks, forcing Mariota to throw over 30 times again, it is reasonable to believe that a defensive backfield that is far more athletic than anything Oregon has faced thus far can make a few game changing plays. This offense is exceptional, but as long as Mariota is still unproven, they are somewhat vulnerable.
Number I Expect to Encounter
2: Interceptions thrown by Marcus Mariota. As I said above, this guy has not faced a defense even close to as potent as Washington’s. Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tennessee Tech, followed by Arizona, the lone respectable defense here, and Washington State. Sure, both Arizona and Washington State got lit up, but they both played Oregon close until halftime before folding, and neither team has played close to the level of Washington’s performance against Stanford. Mariota hasn’t quite struggled lately, but he has thrown three picks in his last two games, and with the likes of Desmond Trufant, Sean Parker, and Shaq Thompson running around the defensive backfield, I believe this will be a tough game for the redshirt freshman.
125: Rushing yards I believe Bishop Sankey will amass. I know that I said it is still too early to crown Bishop Sankey as some sort of established star, and it is. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he can take the next step in that process with another good game against a solid defense. If he did it against Stanford behind that ragged offensive line, why can’t he do it against Oregon behind that same, slightly less ragged, offensive line?
3: Sacks the Huskies will give up. They average 2.75 a game, Oregon has a pretty strong pass rush, but the Husky offensive line should be gelling and improving week by week, so I’m going to predict low this week rather than guessing 6 or 7 just because of a big name guy like Dion Jordan.
September 15, 2012; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) throws the ball against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-US PRESSWIRE
Like I said, I’m picking the Huskies. For that to happen, several things will have to go perfectly right.
Defensively, for one, Danny Shelton and the defensive line will need to control the point of attack like they did against Stanford to allow the linebackers and safeties to get behind the line of scrimmage to blow up plays. At the same time, the defensive backs will have to show great discipline and all eleven men will need to fight through blocks and chase down the ball carrier to keep Oregon from making huge plays. I am confident in the defense most of all, as Wilcox is the sort of defensive mastermind that can crack an offense and derive a plan that can cover all the bases. Whether or not his players execute that plan isn’t necessarily in his control, but this team will be prepared.
Offensively, it is, as is often the case, on the offensive line. If Keith Price is harassed the way he was against Stanford, it isn’t likely that a victory will be possible. It would be expecting too much of the defense for 17 points to be enough to win this one again. Price needs to have time to put up one of his 2011-era games. I’m talking 270+ yards, 3 or more touchdowns. Bishop Sankey needs to run well, like we talked about before, to keep the Oregon defense from focusing all of its attention on Price, and once again, the job of opening up holes for Sankey to run through falls to the offensive line.
Finally, the single biggest factor that worries me about picking this upset is the hostile setting: Autzen Stadium. Keith Price, the leader of this team, looked absolutely ratted in Baton Rouge, and if that happens again in Eugene, this game will not be pretty. They need to be ready to embrace the villain role on the road, and they need to be ready for the noise and the stress.
So, as I said, I’m picking the Huskies to win a close game, and if they do in fact win, it will be the single biggest victory of Sarkisian’s career, and I will look like a serious badass for picking the win. Thing is, if Washington gets blown out, I will be mocked. Fingers crossed.
Washington 31, Oregon 28