To have a shot at upsetting No. 2 Oregon, Washington can’t waste the talents of senior place-kicker Travis Coons on field goals.
The Huskies need to save his right leg for all the kickoffs they hope have Saturday at Husky Stadium (1 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
A three-points-at-a-time approach won’t beat the Ducks. So if there is, say, a fourth-and-3 play at the Oregon 15-yard line in the second quarter, the Huskies should go for it. They have to go for it.
That’s what Oregon would do. That’s how the Ducks built this Northwest dynasty: with aggression … and without regret.
And that’s Washington’s best chance to reclaim respect in this one-sided rivalry — to beat the Ducks at their own game.
The widespread thought this week is that this UW team — 4-1 and ranked 16th in the nation after a controversial loss at No. 5 Stanford last week — is better equipped to handle Oregon’s offensive onslaught than any Husky team in the past decade.
I agree. Add up all the talent on the resurgent UW offense with all the speed and experience on the UW defense, and this is the best Husky team in more than a decade.
But I will add this: This might be the best Oregon team ever.
No need for an in-depth analysis of UW’s issues on special teams and its head-scratching problems with penalties. If the Huskies have the same coverage breakdowns they had last week at Stanford, and if they have 10 more penalties this week, they have no chance Saturday.
Yes, UW coach Steve Sarkisian admitted that the impetus to go with a full-time shift to a no-huddle, up-tempo offense was, at least in part, the success Oregon’s had with that pace. Some around UW might take offense to that. Sarkisian doesn’t, and shouldn’t.
Fast-forward football is the norm around college football these days, and the Huskies are simply embracing what’s working. And it has indeed worked wonders for Washington so far.
But, no, the Huskies don’t need to score 60 points to win on Saturday. They’re capable of winning a 35-34 game in large part because of the improvements under second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
The Huskies lead the Pac-12 in total defense at 287.8 yards per game (Oregon is second at 331.2), and UW’s 3.94-yards-per-play allowed is third-best in the nation.
Further, in five games, UW has given up just 10 “explosion” plays of 20 yards or more — tied with Oregon and Michigan State for the fewest in the nation.
The Oregon offense, meanwhile, leads in the nation with 48 explosion plays. The Huskies have created 34 such plays.
Mark it down: That statistic will be as crucial as turnovers on Saturday.
How Wilcox opts to defend Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will be intriguing to watch unfold. The Huskies, no doubt, will try to make Mariota one-dimensional. He’s completing just 56.7 percent of his passes, while averaging 12.1 yards per carry. He’s dangerous in every way possible, and it seems likely that UW will try to “spy” him with a Shaq Thompson, a Cory Littleton or a Travis Feeney at times. Keeping Mariota in “the cage” will be key, but it won’t be easy.
Oregon has won 17 in a row on the road, the longest streak in the nation. The combined record of the Ducks’ first five opponents is 11-14, and the Ducks beat up on probably the two least-talented teams in the Pac-12, California and Colorado.
So there are still some unknowns with how Oregon would react in a close game. Mariota hasn’t taken a single snap this season in the fourth quarter, and the Ducks haven’t played a defense with the depth and speed that UW presents.
The goal for the UW defense should be to make Mark Helfrich and new UO offensive coordinator Scott Frost wrestle with those tough decisions on fourth down. All evidence suggests the Ducks will continue to go for it — because that’s what they do. Oregon’s three made field goals are the fewest in the Pac-12. The Ducks’ 41 touchdowns are the most in the country.
Washington has closed the gap considerably, and their defense has a chance to slam the door shut on nine years of misery Saturday.
For now, though, the edge goes to the team with the longer track record of speed and aggression.
The pick: Oregon 38, Washington 34.
Around the Pac-12:
—- Oregon State at Washington State: Why not? Let’s go for the minor upset here. The only thing consistent about Sean Mannion and the Oregon State offense is their inconsistency. It won’t necessarily be pretty, but Cougs pull it off. The pick: Washington State 35, Oregon State 31.
—- Colorado at Arizona State: The Sun Devils finished 2-2 in their toughest stretch of the season, beating (cough, cough) Wisconsin and USC and falling to Stanford and, then, Notre Dame, 37-34, last week. This matchup with the Buffaloes is, on paper, ASU’s easiest test the rest of the season, before UW comes to Tempe next week. The pick: Arizona State 42, Colorado 21.
—- Stanford at Utah: This is a perhaps a trendy upset special, but I like Stanford big here. No limping around Salt Lake for the Cardinal. The pick: Stanford 48, Utah 28.
—- California at UCLA: Cal has lost nine in a row to FBS opponents, and UCLA has been great under Jim Mora. The Bruins’ defense has six interceptions against Utah last week, and here comes Cal with its pass-happy offense. It could get ugly at the Rose Bowl. The pick: UCLA 52, Cal 17.