University of Washington

Oregon poses biggest test yet for UW Huskies’ young defense

It started with a question about Asa Turner, the latest freshman to move into a starting role on Washington’s defense. It ended with defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake talking about husky puppies.

No. 25 UW has had three true freshman — Turner, Trent McDuffie and Cameron Williams — start games in the secondary this season. Redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon has been a starter at cornerback, too. The Huskies have spent the season reloading after losing nine starters, including both cornerbacks and safeties, from last year’s Pac-12 leading defense.

And with that process, Lake said, comes growing pains.

“These guys are like brand new little husky puppies to me,” Lake said of his defensive backs. “You see them, you know, catching attention and, ‘Oh wow, my tail wags’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I can do this.’ All of the sudden, they fall off the couch and they’re like, ‘What just happened?’ They’re just like little dogs. They’re little puppies and they’re just growing.”

The next step in that growing process will also be the biggest challenge. On Saturday afternoon, No. 12 Oregon will arrive at Husky Stadium. The Ducks have the No. 2 scoring offense in the Pac-12 and the No. 30 scoring offense in the country. They’re averaging 36 points and 461.0 offensive yards per game.

They’re led, of course, by quarterback Justin Herbert. So far this season, he’s completed 134-of-194 passes for 1,602 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception.

Herbert will be without his top target as tight end Jason Breeland suffered a season-ending injury last week. Breeland was leading the team with 26 receptions for 405 yards and six touchdowns. But the Ducks will still have receivers Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson III, who have combined for 559 yards and seven touchdowns on 51 receptions. On the ground, running back CJ Verdell has rushed for 457 yards and two touchdowns on 78 attempts, an average of 5.7 yards per carry.

“This is what we live for, I feel like,” said senior safety Myles Bryant. “It gives us a big stage to go out there and perform on. As long as we prepare, as long as we take the steps that we need to, I feel like we’ll be in good shape.”

Last week, Oregon rolled past Colorado 45-3. The Ducks racked up 527 yards of total offense as Herbert completed 18-of-32 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns. Verdell rushed for 171 yards on 14 carries. In last year’s 30-27 victory over UW in overtime, Oregon finished with 379 total yards. Herbert threw for 202 yards and two touchdowns.

The day after the Ducks topped Colorado, the Huskies tuned up with a 51-27 victory over Arizona. Save for allowing two touchdowns in the second quarter, it was one of UW’s best defensive performances of the season. The Huskies forced four turnovers, finishing with three fumble recoveries — one for a touchdown — and an interception.

“I’m definitely proud of the way we kept their quarterback (Khalil Tate) somewhat contained,” Lake said. “He still made plays on us. He’s a heck of a player. Their running back is a heck of a player. They have an awkward style of offense that’s really hard to defend. I was really pleased with all three levels of our defense, just the way they played. We still made mistakes. We got a bunch of guys that haven’t played a lot of football, and we’re getting better every week.”

The Wildcats entered the game averaging 37.2 points and 221 rushing yards per game, which ranked second in the Pac-12. UW held them to 151 yards on the ground and 360 yards total.

The victory ended Arizona’s four-game winning streak. Oregon also enters on a run, having won five straight since falling to Auburn in its season opener. To put an end to that stretch, the Huskies will need a similar — if not better — defensive performance against the Ducks’ pistol offense.

“The good thing is we’ve seen pistol already this year,” Lake said. “We’ve seen it. (Oregon has) a different style that we’ll prepare for. Our offense will run it now and again. It’s not like it was years ago where it was like this brand new thing. We’ve actually seen it before.

“It’s a very unique offense and they are obviously very good at it. They are good at running the football and when you get everybody up there ready to stop the run, they got this No. 1 quarterback sitting back there ready to dice you up.”

Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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