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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

October 30, 2011 at 8:27 PM

What sort of shot do the Huskies have Saturday night?

For the second time since mid-October, I just got done seeing a high-profile team that Washington will play this week. UW fans have to be hoping for different karma than the last instance I’m referring to, which was Stanford.

Oregon was clearly off its game Saturday against Washington State, helped in some measure by a salty effort from WSU. The Ducks had plugged quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James back into the lineup after injuries, and neither looked particularly sharp.

It seemed contagious. Thomas’ first pass was dropped by Josh Huff, and his second was bobbled by Lavasier Tuinei and intercepted by WSU’s Deone Bucannon.

Typical of the Ducks’ offensive inconsistency was a deep pass over the middle Thomas intended for tight end David Paulson from the WSU 41. The ball sailed well over Paulson’s head. Had Oregon connected there, it would have been 22-3 late in the second quarter, and the Ducks might have been headed for one of their 60-point explosions. Instead, three plays later, Thomas had another pass tipped, Damante Horton intercepted and ran 76 yards for a score to make it 15-10, and it stayed interesting most of the way.

My general sense was that Oregon seemed a little less untouchable than a year ago, though I throw out this caveat: Sometimes the worst thing you can do is see a team play once. The Ducks sacked the Cougars only three times, and the pressure on Marshall Lobbestael wasn’t consistent — although I suppose you can make the case Oregon coaches weren’t unleashing their greatest fury with tougher opponents in Washington and Stanford coming up. (That’s debatable.)

Certainly the Cougars moved the ball all over the place, and the Huskies have greater capability in the red zone than WSU, both with an elite running back and more of a tight end threat. Washington will have to be encouraged by looking at film of what WSU did offensively, putting up 30 first downs. Still, the Ducks lead the Pac-12 in pass-defense efficiency, having allowed only nine touchdown passes and a league-low 54.7 percent completions. (That number could flatter the Ducks a bit; they haven’t yet faced Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley, and among their victims are Cal’s Zach Maynard, Colorado’s Tyler Hansen and WSU without its starter, Jeff Tuel.)

Oregon’s run defense is allowing 157.6 yards a game — ninth in the league. Have to believe Washington will test that.

On offense, the great unknown is whether Thomas and James get completely in sync this week. I wouldn’t make too much of the fact Bryan Bennett replaced Thomas in the second half against WSU (and coach Chip Kelly wouldn’t say anything definitive about that situation). Thomas is the guy, the one who started the national-championship game last season — though Bennett is somebody who runs the offense with great confidence and speed.

Oregon freshman De’Anthony Thomas looks like the next great one in this league. His speed, quickness and deception are off the charts. Given that he caught a swing pass for a 45-yard touchdown and returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score, you can make the case he was really the difference in the game Saturday.

And of course, with Oregon, there are fleet feet all over the field, more than anybody else in the Pac-12.

Although the styles of Stanford and Oregon couldn’t be more dissimilar, the task for Washington will be, in form, somewhat the same — to try to hang in on defense and trust that the offense can keep up. Stanford and Oregon are 1-2 in the league in scoring offense, the Ducks at 47.5 a game.

My take? With Washington’s ability to score and all the attendant hoopla set for Saturday night, I think it’s a game.

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