It seems there’s more momentum supporting the prediction of an upset in this game than there has been for quite a few years in this rivalry.
And for good reason. This looks like Washington’s best team since at least 2001, and probably since UW’s Rose Bowl season in 2000. The Huskies have a veteran quarterback who plays like it (Keith Price), an All-American candidate at running back (Bishop Sankey), strong receivers who stretch the field and block well (Kasen Williams, Kevin Smith), and quicker guys who take short passes and turn them into first downs (Jaydon Mickens, John Ross). And defensively, this is the fastest, most complete, most athletic squad the Huskies have had since the late 1990s.
We wrote earlier this week about whether the Huskies’ recent success has better equipped them to defeat the Ducks, winners of nine consecutive games in this series. The answer to that question has been made obvious by UW’s play through five games: yes, they are. But will that determine the difference between winning and losing, or will it simply mean a closer margin of victory for Oregon, which has won each of its last nine games against UW by 17 points or more?
It all starts with whether the Huskies can slow Oregon’s offense. Nobody has this season, though it’s worth noting the Ducks haven’t played a team that currently holds a winning record. It’s also worth noting that with or without Colt Lyerla or De’Anthony Thomas, the Ducks have yet to score fewer than 55 points in a game.
The key against Oregon is team defensive speed – particularly how well the front seven can move sideline to sideline – and eye-discipline on the Ducks’ famous zone-read game. According to this story in Sportspress Northwest today, Oregon averages more than 10 yards per carry when it runs the zone read, those numbers bolstered by the strength and elusiveness of quarterback Marcus Mariota. So containing him – and whoever suits up for the Ducks at running back, because Thomas might not – will be the first priority.
Another key will be – and this will stun you, surely – special teams. Oregon has played its share of close-ish games in the first half the past few seasons, only to use a punt return or a kickoff return or a blocked punt to create the separation it needed to launch itself to a blowout victory. And the Huskies proved last week that their ability to cover kickoffs is a very real concern. Travis Coons will likely handle the team’s kickoff duties this week, and Steve Sarkisian has a bunch of defensive starters on the kick coverage team. It’s been a major area of emphasis all week. Oregon is also third in the nation in punt-return average, so it will be interesting to see how the Huskies handle that department, too.
But I think the outcome will ultimately come down to which defense forces the most turnovers. For all the talk of these teams’ offensive tempo, it could possibly go unnoticed that both teams rank among the nation’s best in scoring defense. Don’t be surprised if the team that wins the turnover battle ends up winning the game.
Ultimately, it does feel like there are a lot of things pointing toward a UW victory – Thomas’ potential absence due to injury among them. But I’m not ready to predict an end to Oregon’s winning streak just yet.
The pick: Oregon 41, Washington 35.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple