Last Tuesday I found myself gushing a bit about the efficiency and overall talent level of the USC offense. Then that very group managed to convert on 1 out of 13 third down opportunities and Kessler's near statistical perfection was pretty well shattered by a zero-touchdown, two-interception night.
Now Coach Pete is to host Oregon on Montlake, and for the first time in many years, the Huskies are slight betting favorites. The Ducks are reeling from a home loss to none other than our scrappy allies east of the mountains (strictly in the enemy-of-my-enemy sense of the word). They are unranked, holding a 3-3 overall record and a losing 1-2 record in conference play.
Somehow, in this exceedingly complicated team sport, it's reasonable to say that Washington's hopes of victory on Saturday rest on containing one man: Royce Freeman.
Despite a fantastic overall defensive performance, the effort to stymy Kessler clearly outshined attempts to shut down running backs Tre Madden and Ronald Jones. Together the two backs racked up just under 200 yards rushing on right around 7.5 yards per carry.
The Trojan run game had a particularly easy time slicing through the front seven in the time after Azeem Victor's ejection. Victor is the heart of the defense, especially against the run. Removing a guy that has recorded double-digit tackles against every FBS opponent this season (including 10 against USC pre-ejection) will do that for an opposing running back corps.
Of course, the Huskies still won, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that if Sark had chosen to stick with the run game down the stretch, it would have been a far more difficult 4th quarter. Enter Royce Freeman, the key to Oregon's offensive attack now that Mariota is gone and his replacement has still not been settled.
At the peak of their success, the Ducks ran the ball better than they did anything else. A super talented Heisman-winner at QB distracted from this, but it was the run game that allowed actual system QBs like Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas to thrive. Now that much that was exceptional about the Ducks seems to have fled, that run game remains. The Huskies must control it.
Vernon Adams (Sr., 5-11, 201) OR Jeff Lockie (Jr., 6-2, 205) OR Tayor Alie (So., 6-0, 185).
Mariota's tenure at Oregon came to an end last season, only for what appeared to be a new nightmare for Husky fans to begin: Vernon Adams Jr., who months earlier had shredded and nearly knocked off the Huskies as the QB for Eastern Washington, was to be Mariota's replacement.
It has not gone as planned. Adams has missed the last several weeks with a broken finger, and it's unclear if he will return in time to face the Huskies.
I'm beginning to think Adams may start based on the fact that he was seen throwing well in warmups before the Washington State game. If he could throw functionally this past Saturday, it seems reasonable that he can reclaim his starting spot a week later.
Still, don't expect Coach Helfrich to tip his hand. If Adams plays next week, we likely won't know before kickoff. Husky fans should probably hope to see Lockie, but Adams has not been a world-beater in his limited time, either.
Lockie has completed 54 of 84 passes (64%) for 544 yards and 5 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. Vernon Adams has completed 43 of 71 (60%) for 581 yards, with 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions.
Neither player is a major threat on designed runs or long scrambles, but both are fairly mobile.
LT Tyler Johnstone (Sr., 6-6, 295), LG Matt Pierson (Sr., 6-6, 285), C Matt Hegarty (Sr., 6-4, 294), RG Cameron Hunt (Jr., 6-4, 290), RT Tyrell Crosby (So., 6-5, 310).
Given the team's overall struggles, you might assume that Oregon has had continuity issues on the offensive line. Not so. Over six games, the only change to the starting lineup was Cameron Hunt missing the Georgia State game.
This unit has had five steady starters, four of which are upperclassmen, yet this seems to be the weakest Oregon offensive line in some time.
That being said, it's hard to pin down exactly how good or bad these guys are. They went from blocking for Marcus Mariota to Adams/Lockie, so it's understandable that the pass blocking would suddenly look rougher. On the flip side, the run game has been very strong, but I suspect Freeman's talent masks deficiencies in his line's run blocking.
Royce Freeman (So., 5-11, 230), Kani Benoit (So., 6-0, 210), Taj Griffin (Fr., 5-10, 175).
Freeman will demand the lion's share of the carries, and he will be difficult to tackle every single time. So far, he has rushed for 859 yards and 9 touchdowns on 123 carries.
Griffin seems to be the first back off the bench in practice, and in limited opportunities he's averaging an impressive nine yards per carry. He is more likely to bust the sort of long touchdown runs we are used to seeing from the Ducks.
It's a testament to Oregon's constant stream of quality running backs that they could lose both Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall and still have a nice pair of playmakers.
As good as Freeman has been, his blocking has occasionally let him down in short yardage situations. This bodes well for a Husky defense that has stuffed a few short-yardage attempts.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
WRs Dwayne Stanford (Jr., 6-5, 205), Charles Nelson (So., 5-8, 170), WR Bralon Addison (Jr., 5-10, 190), TE Evan Baylis (Jr., 6-6, 250).
The abundance of talent here is being wasted to a certain degree by poor QB play. Lockie is a limited downfield passer and the presence of Freeman has led Oregon to limit passing volume and overwhelmingly lean on the run game.
Addison leads all players with 26 catches for 287 yards and 3 touchdowns. Nelson and Stanford have both been fairly productive as secondary options.
I expect this group to be more productive if Adams starts (and is actually healthy).
With so much media and fan focus on stopping Freeman, especially in the absence of Victor, it will be fascinating to see Washington's approach. Do they sell out against the run and trust defensive backs in single coverage? Do they take a more balanced approach, trusting that Freeman can be contained without stacking defenders in the box?
If the Huskies do crowd the line of scrimmage in the first quarter, I'll be watching for Oregon to gamble and try a few deep balls down the field. I have a lot of confidence in Sidney Jones, Kevin King, Budda Baker, and the rest of the defensive backfield to avoid an energy-killing early touchdown.
Even more than usual, tackling will be a deciding factor. Freeman will sometimes break good tackles, and he'll almost always shrug off poor arm tackles. The Huskies will need to gang tackle and the staff will need to rotate tons of bodies along the front seven, something they're already accustomed to doing. They'll also need to be ready for the complete change of pace that Griffin's speed will bring.
Azeem Victor has tremendous value on the field, but it's worth mentioning that the circumstances of his suspension allow the staff tons of time to plan for his absence, and allow his teammates on defense (Bierria!) to rally around the idea that they must hold down the fort until he returns after halftime. I'd rather have Victor, but I hope those factors at least mitigate the consequences of the loss.
Qualls has been tremendous at nose tackle, and he'll need additional help from Greg Gaines and Vita Vea. Occasionally the Huskies have shown a defensive front that features both Qualls and Gaines on the interior. I hope that we see that often on Saturday, with Vea rotating in as needed.
For the first time in my time as a fan, I honestly believe that the Washington defense is better than the Oregon offense. Here's hoping they go out on Saturday and validate that belief.