As odd as it would have sounded in the preseason, the 31-7 road win over Cal was a pretty big deal for Washington. If the Huskies had lost that game, Coach Pete and his team would be heading down to Eugene having lost two straight Pac-12 North contests after underwhelming through a very weak non-conference slate. Instead, Washington is 5-1 with a single one-score loss to Stanford.
The Huskies still lack a high-profile victory, and Cal was really only the second complete win of the season (the other coming over a weak Illinois squad), but the entire team has shown steady improvement throughout each week. Washington is moving in the right direction on both sides of the ball.
Of course, a win over Cal doesn't mean UW should be favored to beat Oregon at Autzen. It just means that the team is positioned well to give it a damn good shot.
No one expects the Huskies to win (no one outside of the fanbase), and they're not in such a precarious position in the standings that a loss would be back-breaking. While the hostile environment obviously benefits Oregon, it also plays into the concept that it'll be Coach Pete's team up against a wall. No pressure or expectations from 70,000 fans desperately waiting for a decade-long streak to be snapped. None of the extra baggage of this rivalry. Just four quarters in a very tough place.
The Cal win, coming both on the road and at home for many of Washington's NorCal recruits, should remind the team what they're capable of away from Husky Stadium. The still-recent loss to Stanford, booing at halftime against Georgia State, and near-loss to Eastern should keep even a hint of entitlement or over-confidence away.
Meanwhile, Oregon is still a fantastic football team featuring the best quarterback in the country. A close call in Pullman and a one-score loss to the Wildcats has left the Ducks looking very mortal, but a convincing defeat of UCLA may have righted the ship.
In assigning blame for the loss, everyone has pointed to a weakened defense and an offensive line ravaged by injury. It's likely not a coincidence that stud left tackle Jake Fisher returned from injury in time for the UCLA win.
In holding Cal's Bear Raid to 7 points, Washington's defense (with help from Goff's little hands) showed it could focus on a major strength, the volume passing game, and give up yards without surrendering points. A major improvement over the Eastern game.
To defeat Oregon, they will need to prove they can limit Mariota, a freakishly efficient machine of a man that has still not thrown a pick this season, while also accounting for Oregon's healthy helping of inside and outside zone reads.
We've seen Washington's defense take big steps forward, but that's a step that few defenses have ever taken.
Good news. He's almost gone!
Marcus Mariota (Jr., 6-4, 219) has lived up to the massive hype despite the sieve-like status of his O-line during the WSU and Arizona games. He has completed 69% of his passes (108 of 155) for 1621 passing yards. His 10.5 yards per attempt is tops in the conference, and his 17:0 TD to INT ratio is sterling.
Mariota is still a serious running threat, carrying the ball 49 times for 290 yards (5.92ypa) and 5 rushing scores. The increase in sacks have definitively kept that total artificially low.
Washington's pass rush should be able to collapse the pocket at times, but unfortunately Mariota is wonderful at making heartbreaking plays outside of the pocket. It will take an extraordinary amount of discipline to harass Mariota without simply flushing him out for scramble-drill long balls and 15-yard scrambles.
First of all, take everything I say here with a big fat grain of salt. This unit is very banged up, and with Oregon employing the now-typical cone-of-silence approach to injury reporting, it's a little unclear to me who will be playing.
From what I've read, it sounds like Jake Fisher (arguably the team's best active lineman) was supposed to start at right tackle this season, until LT Tyler Johnstone tore his ACL. That led to Fisher switching to LT, and Jr. Andre Yruretagoyena stepping up to start on the right side. Then he got hurt, which meant Tyrell Crosby, a true freshman, took his place. Next Fisher went down for awhile, which led to Matt Pierson getting his first career start protecting Mariota's blind side against WSU.
It's at least safe to assume that Fisher (Sr., 6-6, 300) will get the start at left tackle as long as he didn't aggravate his injury. He's a future NFL player, and his return gives the Ducks a far, far better chance of limiting Kikaha's impact as a pass rusher.
Hamani Stevens (Sr., 6-3, 307) will start at LG, where he's been all season. Hroniss Grasu (Sr., 6-3, 297), a 1st team All-Pac-12 performer last year, continues to start at Center. Cameron Hunt will be the RG (So., 6-4, 290), and either Crosby (Fr., 6-5, 310) or Pierson (Jr., 6-6, 285) will hold things down at RT.
With Fisher, Stevens, and Grasu all starting, the left three fifths of this unit is rock solid. The right side is far more questionable. Hunt was inserted into the starting lineup to replace a struggling Jake Pisarcik, while neither Crosby nor Pierson were meant to start this year.
In obvious passing situations, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kikaha line up over the RT in an effort to prey on Crosby/Pierson. Against Cal, Shelton also spent some time line up on the right edge. While they'll likely need Shelton to match up with a veteran like Grasu, it could be brutally effective to occasionally change things up to overwhelm the inexperienced right side of the O-line.
Edit: Silly me. Turns out Cameron Hunt was the starter last season. He took over for Pisarcik after recovering from injury. This means RT is the only real question mark, assuming the other four starters are reasonably healthy.
True freshman Royce Freeman (6-0, 229) has claimed the starting job. He's a bruiser at nearly 230 pounds, but he still possesses plus speed. His season line, 85 carries for 467 yards and 7 scores is very solid, even if it lacks the per-carry flair of some past Oregon starters.
His least efficient games have also been Oregon's worst. He carried the ball 20 times against WSU, a season high, but for only 75 yards, for a season-low 3.75 ypa. He followed that up with 19 carries for 85 yards (4.47ypa) in the loss to Arizona. He was held out of the end zone in both contests.
Running for 85 yards on 19 carries is not horrible, but it's mediocre for a featured runner in Oregon's offense. A lot of the blame likely falls on the injured offensive line. With Fisher back in the lineup, Freeman had a season-high 121 yards and two scores at UCLA. That's how a player with his talent should perform when Oregon's zone-blocking is opening characteristically large holes.
Thomas Tyner (6-0, 215) is second on the chart. He's another big back that can still move, but he has only managed 4.4 yards per carry on 63 attempts and has only scored a single rushing touchdown.
Look for Byron Marshall (5-10, 205) to enter the game largely as a pass-catching back. He has gained just over 200 yards on the ground, but his 29 catches (first on the team!) for 340 yards and 2 scores have made him a valuable asset, especially considering Freeman and Tyner have caught relatively few passes.
Marshall has actually carried the ball rarely enough lately that his presence in the backfield should be a bit of a pass tell, unless he's been lining up as a WR or in two-back sets.
Mariota's favorite target in '14 has been redshirt freshman Devon Allen (6-0, 185). He is 2nd on the team with 21 catches, but first with 412 yards and 6 touchdowns. Keanon Lowe (Sr, 5-9, 186) has chipped in 17 catches and 266 yards with 4 TDs, and sophomore Dwayne Stanford has 12 catches for 209 and 1 TD.
Tight end Pharaoh Brown (Jr, 6-6, 250) has also been involved, with 15 receptions, 215 yards, and 3 scores. He had his biggest night of the season this past Saturday, racking up 84 yards and a score in the win over UCLA.
Washington beat Cal by playing two safeties deep to limit big plays while depending on pressure from a four-man rush and sound tackling in the intermediate range to keep from being chewed up by short passes or the run game. While I imagine we'll see a pretty similar approach against Oregon, the prospect of executing on all three of those fronts (take away vertical game, 100% sound tackling, stout run defense) against the Ducks is much more daunting.
Play two safeties deep and take away the vertical passing game, and the Ducks will gladly focus on the zone run game and dink-and-dunk passes to the boundaries, knowing that they are still only a broken tackle away from an explosive play.
Load up the box as a response to the run game or short/intermediate passes, and watch Mariota toss a bomb over the top to Devon Allen or make Washington pay via the Freeman wheel route.
To win, Washington will need Shelton and Kikaha to show up huge both in pressuring and containing Mariota without letting over aggressiveness burn them via the read option or delayed draws. At every level, all eleven men will need to show near flawless tackling fundamentals. Individuals need to wrap up, and groups need to remember to gang tackle.
Oh, and the young defensive backs around Marcus Peters will need to avoid some of the busted coverages (usually zone coverages) that have still plagued them these past two weeks. They may have just been 10 yard gains against Cal, but Oregon know how to cash in on those types of mistakes.
Basically, the defense will need to play lights out in almost every way while hoping the Ducks make a few mistakes. That's the way it goes against a Heisman-candidate quarterback and a roster chocked full of explosive skill-players.