The last two games against Oregon had to feel great as a Husky fan. Not simply because they won the games after losing the previous 12, but the defensive dominance by the Huskies was a welcome change. Oregon had spent more than decade running through, around, and over the Dawgs with little resistance. Not so much in 2016 and 2017.
In 2016, the very same Justin Herbert the Huskies will face this Saturday, was starting his very first game for the Ducks. In 2017, injury forced him to sit and Braxton Burmeister could not do enough with his arm to keep the Oregon offense moving, and they scored just 3 points.
Those Duck teams were having messier seasons, and experiencing more turmoil than they’re used to. But the 2018 Ducks, especially on offense, are at full strength with a healthy and experienced QB. Playing at home coming off a bye week, there’s no excuse for them this time.
Oregon this season has primarily been running out of the pistol formation, which is a change from the way they traditionally have lined up the QB and RB. Normally, Oregon ran the zone read with a QB in shotgun, and a RB standing directly to his right or left. Now with the pistol, the QB is still in shotgun but the running back lines up directly behind him. The main advantage is that the defense is not given any key on what direction the play might go. It also puts the QB in an advantageous position to both run and throw. And let me tell ya, Oregon’s QB can do both.
Infusing the pistol offense was a clear part of Mario Cristobal’s plan when he was hired as head coach. One of his first hires was RB Coach Jim Mastro, who was at WSU the 6 years prior. Mastro is known for working with Chris Ault at Nevada where they popularized the pistol and ran it to devastating effect with Colin Kaepernick. They have paired this with a big offensive line that prioritizes size and strength. True to the roots of the pistol offense, Oregon is a run heavy team with about a 60/40 run-to-pass ratio.
Through the Air
Despite the proclivity of the pistol offense to produce strong rushing attacks, Oregon is arguably stronger through the air, lead by junior QB Justin Herbert. He’s got excellent ball placement, a super strong arm, size, and athleticism to escape the pocket and make teams pay with his legs. He had an up-and-down first 3 games, completing less than 60% of his passes with 4 total picks, all against a pillow soft schedule of Bowling Green (bad), Portland State (FCS), and San Jose State (probably the worst FBS team overall). But, he’s been very consistent in his last two against Cal and Stanford completing 75% of his passes for 571 yards and just 1 pick. Herbert does not get sacked too much either, with a sack rate ranking 38th in the country.
At WR, Dillon Mitchell exploded onto the scene this year and his 27 catches are more than double the next leading pass catcher, Johnny Johnson III who has 10. Despite just 10 grabs, he does have 4 TDs. However, after Dillon Mitchell, it is a mixed bag of who gets the ball between Johnson, Jaylon Redd (9 catches, 3 TDs), TE Jacob Breeland (18.7 yards per catch, 2 TDs), and finally RB CJ Verdell gets plenty of opportunities in the pass game and has 9 catches. Redd is the 5-8 “Chico” receiver who brings quickness and play making to the pass game, while Jacob Breeland is a solid all around TE. However, an issue with this group has been drops, though they’ve improved since early in the season. Mitchell is the one player on the roster with a greater than 70% catch rate and also more than 9 catches.
Add all this up and you’re left with a QB averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt and a passing attack ranking 9th in efficiency, and 15th in explosiveness.
On the Ground
Mario Cristobal wanted to change the perception of the Oregon O-line when he became head coach. They didn’t have a bad reputation necessarily, but he wanted size and to resemble the SEC lines he coached at Alabama. Between recruiting and grad transfers, he began the transformation up front. RG Dallas Warmack comes from Alabama for his final two years of eligibility as a strong, road grading run blocker. Then at LT, Oregon signed one of the nation’s best high school players in 6-6 345 pound mammoth Penei Sewell, who has been very good as a true freshman starter. Add this to multi year starters Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux, and Jake Hansen and you have a pretty formidable OL.
Despite this, Oregon’s running game isn’t quite at the level they want to be at. In terms of raw yardage they are leading the conference at 216 yards a game, but raw numbers with no context ain’t what we do here at the Dawg Pound. Looking at advanced stats, they are an average 66th at explosiveness and just 39th in efficiency. Where they do stand out is stuff rate, ranking 21st in the country - probably due to the strength of the OL. They always seem to be able to give running backs room to at least not lose yardage. There is no doubt a steep learning curve with the pistol is hurting, too: understanding new blocking schemes and getting used to new footwork lining up behind the QB are just a couple details that require an adjustment period.
The main ball carries are both true freshman, CJ Verdell and Travis Dye (brother of Oregon LB Troy Dye). Tony Brooks-James began the season but has seen his carries decline in favor of Verdell and Dye. Verdell is especially dangerous averaging over 6 YPC on his 68 rushes so far. They don’t have anyone close to the level of Royce Freeman but have a more than solid rotation of running backs.
Washington’s inability to get a pass rush going and make plays behind the line of scrimmage could really hurt them in this game. I already commented on Oregon’s sack rate, which gets even stronger when you look at just passing downs, where they almost never get sacked. Not to mention their 52% third down conversion rate, one of the best in the country, make it hard to get the offense off the field.
The defense has still played very well overall, generally keeping opponents out of the end zone. What they’ve been excellent at, matches up well with Oregon’s strengths - explosiveness. If Washington can stop Oregon’s explosive plays, that will go a long way in deciding this game. Washington probably won’t try to get after Herbert and instead will do what they do best: make offenses dink and dunk all the way up the field and hope they either can’t convert a 3rd down, or turn the ball over.
While Oregon’s strength of schedule has improved after their 3 over matched opponents to start the season, Washington will be by far the best and most complete team they have played. At times against both Cal and Stanford their offense sputtered when they couldn’t find Dillon Mitchell or keep the run game moving. Either way, this is Washington’s biggest challenge so far.
Hey look, a poll!
How many points does Colorado score on Saturday?
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