Oregon (3-3, 1-2 in Pac-12) at Washington (3-2, 1-1 in Pac-12)
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium
Radio: 1000 AM/97.7 FM
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The line: UW by 3
So, is this the year?
Washington hasn’t beaten Oregon since 2003, though if you’re a Huskies fan reading this blog, you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. Ever since Casey Paus helped lead the Huskies to a 42-10 victory that year at Husky Stadium, the Ducks have won 11 consecutive games against the Huskies, each of them decided by 17 points or more. Those games have been marked by gashing runs -- by Jonathan Stewart or LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner, to name three -- lopsided point totals and complete and utter Oregon dominance.
But there’s reason to think this season might be different. And not just because the Huskies surprised USC with a 17-12 upset last week.
Oregon’s offense is still scary. No doubt. Royce Freeman, UW defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake insists, is the best running back in the country (LSU’s Leonard Fournette might object to such a proclamation, but Freeman’s numbers at least put him in the conversation). Oregon still scores a lot. Still runs the ball really well. Still runs up-tempo offense. And the Ducks rank 16th nationally in yards per play at 6.71.
But the Ducks have serious issues at quarterback, where an injury to Vernon Adams has exposed the flaws in backups Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie. Their passing game has taken a major step back with the departure of Marcus Mariota, which shouldn’t be all that surprising considering Mariota was the best player in school history and won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide. And their defense ... well, it hasn’t been very good. They gave up 62 points in an embarrassing home loss to Utah, allowed 45 last week (in double-overtime) in a home loss to Washington State, and gave up 42 points in their season opener against Eastern Washington.
As a result, Oregon ranks 93rd nationally in yards per play allowed, and 116th in scoring defense -- ahead of only two other Power Five programs (Texas Tech and Kansas, and does Kansas really count?).
With the Ducks seemingly reeling, and the Huskies all of a sudden looking a little more lively after that win at USC, UW enters this game as a betting favorite. Not sure if anyone would have believed that before the season started. It’s the first time the Huskies have been favored going into a game against Oregon since ... yep, 2003, when the Huskies entered as a 1-point favorite.
What will UW have to do to snap the streak? The Huskies can start by running the ball, which they did effectively with Myles Gaskin against USC. UW offensive line coach Chris Strausser said this is the healthiest his group has been since the start of the season, so it should be assumed that the Huskies will actually be able to put their five best linemen on the field, which should help. It will still be a challenge -- Oregon’s front seven is still very talented, led by defensive end DeForest Buckner -- but Oregon ranks 75th against the run in yards-per-carry allowed, so you would think the Huskies should be able to get something done there. And when the Huskies do take some deep shots downfield, Jake Browning needs to be able to take advantage and put the ball on target, unlike a few throws from last week that he’d surely like to have back. This week, those attempts will come against an inexperienced secondary that allows 7.0 yards per pass attempt.
This game, again, will likely hinge on Washington’s defense. The Huskies did well to limit USC to just 12 points, though the Trojans actually ran the ball pretty well before curiously abandoning that strategy in favor of an ineffective passing game. Don’t think Oregon is going to go that route, even if Adams is able to play (and the feeling in Eugene this week seems to be that his finger will be healthy enough to allow him to give it a go, even if Oregon coach Mark Helfrich won’t publicly name a starting quarterback). Slowing Freeman is a monstrous task. He’s big, fast and strong, and he showed all of that in a 45-20 Oregon rout of Washington last season. I would expect him to get the ball consistently until the Huskies prove they can stop him, and then get the ball some more. That’s where UW will most miss middle linebacker Azeem Victor, who must serve a one-half suspension after being ejected from the USC game for targeting. Scott Lawyer, Ben Burr-Kirven and Sean Constantine will have their hands full for two quarters.
I’m not as down on Oregon as some are. I still think the Ducks’ offense is borderline elite, and Freeman himself is certainly one of the top backs in the nation. How well the Huskies contain him will have a lot to do with the final score, even if Adams does play.
But the streak has to end some time, and enough has changed in the last few weeks -- and Washington’s defense has been so solid -- that I think Saturday might be the day.
The pick: Washington 31, Oregon 27.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple