Ya know, sometimes I can’t figure out who I dislike more: Oregon Ducks fans, or Portland Timbers fans. (That coming from someone who barely follows soccer — sweet Lord Baby Jesus are Timbers fans... ya know what, I’m gonna not continue that sentence, because it’d end up with inappropriate bad words in it, like “crud.”)
Anyways, here’s what to look for:
Personnel and What to Expect
The basic stuff is that they’re 51st in the country in scoring defense, giving up on average 24.4 points per game. They’re allowing a 35% 3rd down conversion success rate (46th), of their opponents’ 17 red zone attempts, they’ve been scored on 15 times (90th), with nine touchdowns and six field goals (of which, seven TDs came through the air), are forcing 6.4 tackles for loss per game (52nd), and forced 10 turnovers on the year — 80% of which have been interceptions — good for 31st in the country.
So there’s some stats — do with that information what you please.
The two primary defensive fronts they show most often is a 3-4 complemented by 2-4-5 when going towards nickel, plus the occasional dime look which was seen against Bowling Green.
Starting up front, their defensive line has been probably the most drastically improved part of their game since two years ago. The 6’6” Jalen Jelks has been insanely productive the last couple seasons as an edge rusher and is projected to go off the board early in the 2019 draft, while Justin Hollins — technically an OLB, but still primarily used for the pass rush — had a sack in each of Oregon’s first four games. Complementing them is injured DE Austin Fauliu, who returns to play for this Saturday. And, anchoring it together, is sophomore NT Jordon Scott, who is massive (only 6’1” but 330 lbs) and started last year as a true freshman. Looking at each individual on the line, they’re really good, period.
That being said, they’re not flawless. They looked like they were losing the battle for the line of scrimmage for much of the time against Bowling Green — although, as Washington fans know from last week, that could simply be a case of overlooking their opponent the week before.
Behind them are the linebacking unit which was baptized by fire in 2016 and is now seeing the payoff for that. Specifically, juniors Troy Dye and La’Mar Winston, both playing as true freshmen in Helfrich’s last year, have turned into pillars of this team. Between them and the aforementioned Justin Hollins, they were responsible for 33.5 tackles for loss last year. Hold on while I check... Yeah, that’s a lot.
Beside those three is Kaulana Apelu, who has one of those “was an undersized walk-on who worked their way up to starter” stories that means everyone who doesn’t root for him is an asshat. While he seems to always be in the right place and has fantastic instincts, the undersized part comes back to bite him, often, when more physical running backs come his way. Apelu can usually be depended on to make the tackle, but will frequently be dragged a few yards before all is over. Then, behind him is Isaac Slade-Matautia, who has the strength that Apelu lacks, but is inexperienced enough (as a redshirt freshman) to not necessarily be as instinctually sound.
While the linebacking unit is, as a whole, very dependable, they can dip in reliability at times — whether that’s from lack of focus or something else, who knows. They usually control the field, but then will have moments, like Brandon McIlwain’s 30 yard touchdown run right up the middle against Cal, where they seem to collectively revert to terrible arm-tackling in the middle and turn what should be a three yard gain into a 10 yard one. This happened in the film I watched against Cal and Bowling Green, while — surprisingly given the Cardinal’s historical reputation — they looked fundamentally much better against Stanford, despite losing in the end. That seems to me to say that the Ducks’ defense seems to get up for “more important” games while preparing worse for lesser opponents. Unfortunately for Husky fans, that means they’ll almost certainly look better for Washington.
The last unit, which is still figuring out its potential, is the secondary. It’s easy to see why they can be fantastic on one play and then a dud on the next; by far the majority of the unit is sophomores — many of which are true as they never redshirted — being backed up by freshmen.
As a redshirt freshman, safety Brady Breeze had the interception on what was essentially Jake Browning’s arm-punt last year and fellow safety Nick Pickett continues after earning significant playing time as a true freshman last year. On the corners, Deommodore Lenoir and Thomas Graham are two true sophomores who were thrown into the action last year after being highly-touted, high four star recruits, both of whom were considered in the top 100 in the country by 247Sports.
The only frequently-contributing upperclassman is senior safety Ugo Amadi. The former honorable mention All-Pac-12 player and last week’s Pac-12 DPOW (after registering a boatload of tackles and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown against Cal) converted from corner last season and is probably the biggest combination of versatile and dependable in the defensive backfield; he can hit hard and well, can break up passes, is good at spotting the ball, is coordinated, I could go on.
The biggest problem with the secondary seems to be with the corners Lenoir and Graham. While they can make plenty of spectacular plays, they’re also plenty liable for many of the busted or big plays.
Overall, this defense is productive at disrupting plays (or havoc) per Bill Connelly, whether via PBUs, TFLs, or forced fumbles. DC Jim Leavitt’s philosophy tends to revolve around preventing offenses from being able to play efficiently, even if that means giving up an explosive play or two.
In general, we’re probably gonna see a pretty classic Chris Petersen pass-to-set-up-the-run-but-still-keep-it-balanced gameplan on Saturday. With the improvement of Washington’s wide receivers plus the inconsistency of Oregon’s cornerback play, that particular area of the field could potentially be a nightmare for Oregon, especially with the mismatch Ty Jones presents, who has five inches over both cornerbacks; the secondary naturally had huge trouble versus the JJ Arcega-Whiteside jumpball over and over against Stanford (who doesn’t, though, really?) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones have a few JJAW-lite passes to haul in.
On the other hand, the Ducks’ pass rush is gonna be rough if Washington’s offensive line doesn’t have everything down. Jelks and Hollins are one of the best combinations the Dawgs will face all year, and Oregon has more sacks than any team the Huskies have faced yet — although they have less tackles for loss than Utah, Auburn, and ASU, to whom they give up more points per game.
It’s also going to be interesting to see if the Ducks’ tackling is at their peak or if they’re too in the habit of poor form; most of their linebackers can be disruptive forces, but with their on-again, off-again habit of bad arm-tackles, a slippery running back like Myles Gaskin could have a fun time.
The line has the potential to be scary for Washington fans, the corners have the potential to be scary for Oregon fans, and the rest is close. We’ll see.
As always, any opposing fans feel free to give your insights but by goodness if any fighting breaks out in the comments I’ll be very disappointed in both sides.
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.