For those out there who were looking forward to the wit, charm, and top notch analysis that Gabey always puts into her defensive previews....apologies. However, I will respect the no intros rule so on we go.
Oregon Defense Statistics
Opponent Points per game: 25.6 points (57th)
Opponent Yards per game: 409.9 yards (83rd)
Opponent Passing Yards per attempt: 6.7 yards (31st)
Opponent Rushing Yards per attempt: 3.5 yards (23rd)
Defensive Success Rate: 42.6% (91st)
I’m sure that Oregon fans have more complaints about the offense and specifically the QB situation than the defense this season but they haven’t exactly been a dominant defensive unit. Colorado hadn’t scored more than 14 points against any FBS opponent this season save Arizona. They had that many at halftime and also managed a pair of touchdowns late albeit in garbage time. Stanford scored 31 points on them. Arizona managed then a season high 19 points. They held Ohio State to just 28 points but gave up 600+ yards in the process. There are definitely cracks in the armor.
Oregon Key Players
There is still though a ton of talent available to the Ducks on the defensive side of the ball. The headliner is of course EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux who many are predicting will be the #1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Thibodeaux missed time earlier this season due to injury but is back and fully healthy. Coming into this season the hype was a little bit greater than the production but that is starting to change. His pressure rate per Pro Football Focus has increased from 11.7% as a true freshman to 14.6% last year to 18.0% this year. That starts to put him in the range of recent top pass rushers such as the Bosa brothers or Myles Garrett.
Thibodeaux isn’t the only player capable of giving an offensive line fits. The Ducks also have players ranked 5th, 6th, and 11th in the Pac-12 in pass rush grade by PFF (Thibodeaux is 1st) although having Kayvon takes up a lot of attention likely helps the others. That starts with the defensive lineman duo of Brandon Dorlus and Popo Aumavae. The two have combined for 44 QB pressures this season wreaking havoc on the inside although they have been prone to the occasional missed tackle. Dorlus only played 10 snaps against Colorado but I don’t see any indication that he suffered an injury so he may just have been slightly nicked up or given some rest since it turned into a laugher fairly quickly.
The inside linebacker spot was supposed to be a supreme strength of this team with 5-star redshirt freshmen Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell teaming up. Unfortunately for Oregon, Justin Flowe for the second year in a row suffered an early season-ending injury and only played 65 defensive snaps. There hasn’t been a clear plug and play solution behind him as replacement Nate Heaukulani ranks 35th out of 37 qualifying Pac-12 LBs in PFF defensive grade and has a 28.1% missed tackle rate. Sewell however has lived up to his end of the bargain with 42 solo tackles and an absurd 38.8% pressure rate with 3 sacks on about 9 blitzes per game. Given UW’s problems identifying blitzing linebackers late I could see Sewell causing a lot of problems when he rushes the passer. Jeffrey Bassa was moved from safety to linebacker to help out as well but has also struggled with a 100% completion percentage against in coverage and a 19% missed tackle rate.
Coming into the year CB Mykael Wright was a known quantity as one of the top corners in the conference and he has been exactly as advertised. It won’t be a shock if Wright ends up on the 1st team all-conference squad opposite Trent McDuffie if he has a strong back end of the season. Illinois transfer Bennett Williams looked like a revelation playing in the slot and had 3 interceptions in 4 games before suffering a season-ending injury against Arizona. Jamal Hill has struggled in his place as opponents have thrown for better than 8.0 YPA targeting him with just 1 PBU in 25 attempts. DJ James at the outside spot opposite Wright has been solid as a boom or bust guy. Opposing QBs have averaged 15 yards per completion against James but have completed fewer than 50% of passes and James has 2 picks. He might be vulnerable to a double move or two on the outside.
We finally get to the safety spot where Verone McKinley III has been a big play machine as he leads the conference with 4 interceptions. Reliability in space has been what has held him back from being one of the elite safeties in the conference though as he’s got a 21.4% missed tackle rate on the season. Steve Stephens IV has been starting next to him but suffered an injury early against Colorado and is questionable for Saturday. We may see more of Jordan Happle who himself missed the last game with a hand injury or Bryan Addison if Stephens isn’t able to play.
Oregon Defensive Tendencies
Washington fans who have been begging for Bob Gregory to put an extra guy in the box will be jealous when they look across the field on Saturday. So far on the year Oregon has averaged 6.95 men in the box as they generally keep only one safety deep at the snap. Stephens and Happle have been close to 50/50 when they’ve been available between the box and free safety while McKinley III lines up about 80/20 deep. You can be certain though that the Ducks won’t be afraid to play the run aggressively unless the Huskies run from spread formations for a change.
Despite the numbers they commit to the box this isn’t a team that gets blitz happy. Arizona and UCLA both consistently brought extra guys in recent weeks against UW but that definitely isn’t the Duck M.O. It shouldn’t be a surprise given their collection of pass rush talent but much more frequently Oregon believes they can get pressure with 4 guys or even 3 and they’re mostly right about that. Per Sports Info Solutions Oregon rushes 4 on 62.1% of opposing dropbacks and bring 5+ on just 16.9%.
Given their prevalence for playing a box safety/safety at linebacker it shouldn’t be surprising that Oregon’s most common defensive look is a Cover 3 shell as they go with that look on 32.2% of opposing pass plays. Outside corners Mykael Wright and DJ James will hold deep responsibilities to the sidelines while Verone McKinley III has the ability to be a true centerfielder and threaten any deep to intermediate passes up the seam. Unsurprisingly when they go man it’s primarily in a cover 1 shell where McKinley still gets to roam as the single high safety in the middle of the field.
When the Ducks go with either a Cover 3 or Cover 1 (52% of the time) opposing teams are completing 68% of their passes but for just 7.1 yards per attempt with 5 TDs and 5 INTs. Overall on the season opponents have completed just 11 passes that have travelled at least 20 yards downfield and only one that has gone for a TD against the Ducks so the big plays have come from underneath throws and subsequent poor tackling (and that one TD was on a no huddle by Ohio State where Oregon was very much not ready at the snap). Oregon’s pass rush has generally been successful enough to guarantee opponents can’t beat them over the top on long-developing routes.
We only need to look to Week 2 against Michigan to see what happened the last time Washington went up against one of the truly elite pass rushers in college football. Even with a fully healthy Jaxson Kirkland available, Aidan Hutchison managed 6 pressures with 3 sacks. Kirkland’s availability for Saturday is still a question mark and Troy Fautanu has really struggled in pass protection in his absence giving up 4 pressures and a sack over 2 games against less than stellar pass rushes. The offensive line has to live up to their preseason hype in this one in order to give UW a chance to consistently move the ball.
John Donovan seemed content to not let Dylan Morris make any plays downfield against Stanford until it became absolutely necessary near the end of the game. Morris was just 2/4 on passes that went more than 10 yards downfield for 31 yards including the game-winning 20-yard TD with less than a minute left. We may see a lot of the same with quick throws to the perimeter out to Bynum, Odunze, and McMillan to try to soften up the middle of the defense and keep the pass rush away from Morris.
The Dawgs got the running game back on track against Stanford but there’s a reason that Stanford was the worst rush defense in the conference coming into that game. Oregon is a completely different story. They were 37th in EPA per rush (compared to 115th) going into this game. If the Huskies are going to win this game they’re going to have to find ways to move the ball against Oregon through the air.
We haven’t seen nearly as much Cade Otton this season as we did last year but this seems like a great week to get him involved in the passing game either in the slot or up the seam where the Ducks have been a little more vulnerable. Terrell Bynum also is going to need to step up when matched with DJ James in the slot after a complete no-show against Stanford.