Washington (5-1, 1-1 in Pac-12) at No. 9 Oregon (5-1, 2-1)
5 p.m. Saturday, Autzen Stadium
The line: Oregon by 20
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: 1000 AM/97.7 FM
So, is this the year?
Washington's last victory over Oregon, 42-10 at Husky Stadium in 2003, was 11 years ago. To Huskies fans, it probably feels like twice that.
And the way the Ducks have dominated this series in the interim, winning 10 consecutive meetings by 17 points or more, it's probably difficult to feel like the Huskies are really that much closer to toppling the Oregon empire. Even last season, playing at home with by far their best team of the Steve Sarkisian era, the Huskies came up short in a 45-24 loss, as the Ducks pulled away by outscoring Washington 14-0 in the fourth quarter.
We wrote earlier this week about coach Chris Petersen's success against Oregon in two previous meetings against the Ducks at Boise State, particularly the 2009 game in which BSU limited Oregon to just eight points, six first downs and 34 yards rushing.
Of course, the Huskies are unlikely to replicate that performance against Marcus Mariota and the Ducks' high-scoring offense, but UW does have more talent and speed in its defensive front seven than it has probably since the Don James era. Pound-for-pound, they probably match up better with Oregon's offensive line and skill-position players than any Huskies defense in the last decade.
"No. 1, you’ve got to get them off schedule a little bit,” said Huskies defensive line coach and special-teams coordinator Jeff Choate, who coached Boise State’s special teams and linebackers at Boise State in 2009. “If they get chunk plays on first down, that’s when they get their tempo really rolling, so I think that’s a huge piece, is try to get them a little bit behind the chains and be able to play in second-and-long situations."
Offensively, though, it's probably not a stretch to say the Huskies need quarterback Cyler Miles to play the best game of his young career, and need to continue taking care of the ball, something they've done better than pretty much every team in the country through six games.
That's a good segue into what I think are the three keys to a possible Huskies victory in this one:
1. Win the turnover battle by at least two-- If you peruse UW's rankings in the national statistics, you probably don't see a lot that would indicate this is a 5-1 team. But the turnover margin sticks out in a big way. The Huskies have forced 15 turnovers this season while committing just one -- that plus-14 margin is tops in the country -- and Miles has yet to throw an interception. UW is one of two teams in the country that haven't thrown an interception this season. The other? Yep, it's Oregon. Mariota has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and thrown 17 touchdowns, but he's yet to complete one to the other team. That might have to change for the Huskies to have a chance on Saturday, though they've been better at recovering forced fumbles (10 of them) than they have been picking off passes (5 of those). Regardless, the Huskies need to continue taking care of the ball, and earn a few extra possessions via takeaways. Wouldn't hurt if Shaq Thompson found a way to score again, either
2. Win special teams-- In most games, the hope is that John Rossdoesn't get many opportunities to return kickoffs, because that means the opponent has to score a bunch of times. Well, that's the reality when playing against Oregon. So if the Ducks do put a few scores on the board, the Huskies need Ross to do some damage on the ensuing kick returns to help put UW's offense in good field position. That applies to Dante Pettis and punt returns, too -- as well as covering punts, because the Ducks have traditionally been very solid in the return game.
3. Win first down-- There is always plenty of emphasis placed on winning third downs on both sides of the ball, but first down is just as important against a team like Oregon -- both offensively and defensively. As Choate said in the quote above, limiting the Ducks' running game to a yard or two on first down will help the Huskies stop them on second and third downs. And offensively, the Huskies need to do a better job of not only establishing the run, but establishing it in a way that actually helps make second and third-downs more manageable. The easiest way to avoid third-and-long -- which is not where the shaky UW offense wants to be on the road against a good team in a loud stadium -- is to pick up four or five yards on first down, giving the Huskies more options to convert on second and third downs instead of being in a spot where everyone knows they have to throw. And putting Mariota in third-and-long situations defensively will allow UW's pass rush to have a crack or two against an Oregon offensive line that is getting healthier -- left tackle Jake Fisher's return is huge -- but still isn't quite what it looked to be preseason.
So, can the Huskies end the streak? Not this year. But here's a guess the final margin is closer than 17 points. Progress is progress.
The pick: Oregon 31, Washington 17.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple