In its past five games, 20 quarters and 333 plays, Oregon’s defense has allowed one touchdown.
In that context, Cal running back Christopher Brown Jr.’s 22-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter of a 17-7 Oregon win on Oct. 5 seems less like an outlier and more like a statistical mistake.
Nevada managed two field goals. Montana: one. Stanford: two. Colorado: one.
Granted, Nevada, Montana, Stanford and Colorado are not Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and Ohio State.
But then again, at this point, neither is Washington.
So how can anyone realistically hope to score on Oregon? And what does the UW offense need to do to score — and win — inside Husky Stadium at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday?
“If they don’t run the ball, they won’t win this game,” said Brock Huard, former UW quarterback and current Fox college football analyst. “I know that’s simple 101, about as cliché as it gets, because every d-coordinator we talk to, the first thing he says is, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to stop the run.’ But in this matchup, when you play teams like this that are built at all three levels with the speed they are and as twitchy as they play, if you can’t run the ball then you’re not going to pass. You’re not going to protect very well. You become one-dimensional.
“So this is Salvon Ahmed. This is Sean McGrew. This is that offensive line, and we’ll see whether or not (center Nick Harris and right guard Jaxson Kirkland) are back. But if they can’t run the ball against this crew, then they really won’t win this game.”
Indeed, in its only defeat of the season, Oregon allowed 206 rushing yards and 4.8 yards per carry to No. 12 Auburn in a 27-21 loss Aug. 31. In a 30-27 overtime loss last fall, Washington piled up 194 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry and two rush TDs against the Ducks inside Autzen Stadium. And in last weekend’s 51-27 road win over Arizona, the Huskies produced 207 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and juniors Ahmed and McGrew each contributed at least 95 yards on the ground.
Washington has rushed for at least 4 yards per carry in all seven games this season.
To do so again, the Huskies may need to get creative.
“I think where Auburn did have some success is their mix of run game and that jet-sweep action, their outside run game. This isn’t just slug it out and run between the tackles,” Huard said. “This is going to take the full arsenal of the run game and I think some creativity in that way, be it if there’s some wildcat that can come back into the (playbook), if there is some of that jet sweep, if you can get some stretch zone and some of the play action off of it.”
It won’t be easy. Despite the slow start against Auburn, Oregon ranks ninth nationally in tackles for loss per game (8.3) and 23rd in both rushing defense (107.5 yards per game) and opponent yards per carry (3.12). That’s better than any defense UW has seen so far this season.
Still, it’ll be easier than the alternative.
The Ducks, after all, tout perhaps the most dominant pass defense in the country. Entering Saturday’s game, first-year Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos’ group ranks second nationally in opponent pass efficiency rating (85.39), second in interceptions (12), second in opponent yards per attempt (4.8), eighth in passing defense (160.2 yards per game), 12th in opponent completion percentage (52.2) and 12th in sacks per game (3.5).
On Wednesday, while assessing the Oregon defense, second-year UW offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan said that “it really starts with their back end. These guys play everything tight. No easy throws. They’ll be in your face. They’ll play physical press coverage, and not need a bunch of guys in coverage.”
So, what does UW need to do to combat that coverage? It would help to involve physically gifted tight ends Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton, for one.
And when a wide receiver like freshman Puka Nacua earns an inch of space on the outside, Jacob Eason needs to let it loose.
“We say trust your eyes, trust your guys,” Hamdan said. “You’ve got to trust them and give those guys a chance. I think charting those (explosive passing plays), we were four of five or five of six in that game (against Arizona). And you look at the week before and maybe not capitalizing on those 1-on-1 situations, a lot of times that’s the difference in the game.”
You know what else can spell the difference between a touchdown and another empty possession?
Third-down efficiency, and red-zone conversions.
If Oregon’s defense seems somewhat vulnerable in one area, it’s on third down. The Ducks allow conversions on 35.29 percent of their third-down situations, which ranks 48th nationally (and remarkably, still second in the Pac-12).
Washington, on the other hand, leaves something (or more than something) to be desired in the same situations. The Huskies have converted 37.21 percent of their third-down attempts through seven games, which ranks 88th nationally and 11th in the Pac-12.
Simply said: if they can’t move the chains, they won’t disarm the Ducks.
“This game’s going to come down to third downs for both (Oregon quarterback Justin) Herbert and Eason, and who can be the most refined, the most accurate and really decipher on third down both protection and coverage — where your outlets are and let those guys catch and run,” Huard said.
“In fact, Auburn beat Oregon because of the third-and-10 out route on the final drive that (Auburn quarterback) Bo Nix put on the money.”
Added Hamdan: “You’ve got to have a plan for those guys on the edges. They’ve certainly got some guys in pass-rush and third-down situations. I think we have to create manageable third downs. We can’t just have the quarterback sitting back there.”
If you create manageable third downs, you avoid obvious passing situations. If you avoid obvious passing situations, you keep Eason upright in the pocket. If you keep Eason upright in the pocket, you have a chance to make a play.
And if/when they make plays, the Huskies need to finish drives. Oregon’s red-zone defense is also the best in the country, allowing touchdowns on just 14.29 percent of trips inside the 20. Huard said that “as a complete unit, I would contend that this is the best (defense) in the conference right now.”
So, to recap, all Washington needs to do is run the ball, create manageable third downs, protect Eason, involve the tight ends, take opportunistic shots outside and finish in the red zone.
Got it? Good.
“I think they play really well together,” Eason said of the Oregon defense. “They’re a fast, physical group — from their d-line to their linebackers to their DBs. They all play fast and hard and together. So they rally to the ball well. Their DBs play tight coverage.
“So I think it will be a great matchup. We’ve been preparing all week and we’re looking forward to Saturday, so we’re excited.”