Ranked rivals in the Pac-12 Conference square off in Eugene on Saturday night, as No. 23 Washington comes calling on No. 2 Oregon.
Washington is facing its third top-10 team in a stretch of four games, as coach Steve Sarkisian's squad lost at No. 3 LSU (41-3) on Sept. 8 and just last week, upset No. 8 Stanford (17-13) to improve to 3-1 on the season. Things won't get much easier for the Huskies after this contest, as they will play host to No. 13 USC next week, play at Arizona on Oct. 20 and entertain No. 14 Oregon State a week later.
Oregon has continued to excel in the face of all comers, jumping out to a 5-0 start with wins over Arkansas State (57-34), Fresno State (42-25), Tennessee Tech (63-14), Arizona (49-0) and Washington State (51-26). The Ducks, who are currently 2-0 in Pac-12 play and 11-5 against ranked foes under current head coach Chip Kelly, still have bouts with Arizona State, USC, California, Stanford and bitter rival Oregon State to come. Under Kelly, Oregon is an amazing 27-2 in conference play.
Washington owns a 58-41-5 lead in the all-time series with Oregon, but the Ducks have won 13 of the last 17 meetings. Last year's clash in Seattle went to Oregon, 34-17.
Washington had lost five straight to teams ranked in the top-10 prior to besting Stanford last week. In that game, RB Bishop Sankey ran for 144 yards and a TD, helping the Huskies take it to a Cardinal defense which came into the contest having allowed a total of 124 rushing yards in its first three games combined. QB Keith Price, who has thrown 40 career touchdown passes and needs just 14 more to become the school's all-time leader in that department, threw for 177 yards, with one TD, the scoring strike going to WR Kasen Williams who had the best game of his career with 10 grabs for 129 yards.
The Huskies knew they needed to perform better on defense this year as they surrendered a school-record 467 points in 2011. Under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, the revamped unit has done just that, with the exceptions of the 41 points surrendered to LSU earlier this season. Case in point, last year Stanford ran for a whopping 446 yards against UW, but generated just 65 yards on the ground and only 235 total this time around.
For the season, Washington is averaging 23.2 ppg while allowing 19.8 ppg, and the team is yielding as many yards (315 ypg) as it generates (313.2 ypg). The team's top offensive performers are Sankey (329 yards, four TDs), Price (75- of-127, 737 yards, five TDs, two interceptions) and Williams (25 receptions, 292 yards, three TDs), while on defense LB Thomas Tutogi leads the way with 29 tackles. Tutogi paced all defenders in last week's game with 10 stops, which included his first sack of the campaign.
Sarkisian was clearly proud of the effort his team put forth last week against the eighth-ranked team in the country.
"That's a good win for our program. I thought all along that this was a unique group that we had. A resilient group, a very serious, tough-minded group. We knew coming in that this was going to be this type of game."
He went on to talk about the importance of kicking off conference play on a positive note, "I was talking to the team last night, the ultimate goal for tonight was to lay down in bed and be 1-0 in Pac-12 play. I just wanted to be 1-0 and start off on the right foot. And how we did it and the final score didn't matter to me, it was more of playing the way we were capable of playing, playing disciplined football."
While perhaps lacking the household names of years past, the 2012 Oregon offense has been every bit as potent as its predecessors, averaging a whopping 52.4 ppg in churning out 550.6 total ypg. Led by RB Kenjon Barner (96 carries, 605 yards, nine TDs), the Ducks are running the football for 303. ypg, and 21 of the their 33 offensive TDs have come on the ground. When coach Kelly decides to throw the ball, QB Marcus Mariota has shown maturity well beyond his freshman status, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,103 yards (220.6 ypg) with 11 TDs and only four interceptions. A total of five players have double-digit receptions, with WR De'Anthony Thomas heading the group with 19 grabs for 193 yards and three scores.
Barner was a man possessed in last week's rout of Washington State, rushing for 195 yards and three TDs, while adding three catches for 37 yards and another score. With the run game racking up an even 300 yards against the Cougars, Mariota didn't need to do much, resulting in a 21-of-32 passing effort which resulted in 169 yards, one TD and two picks.
Over on the defensive side, the Ducks are permitting just 19.8 ppg, with their effort against the run yielding a mere 3.3 ypc, only 110.6 ypg, and just three TDs. They have been somewhat lax in the pass game (250.6 ypg, eight TDs), but that comes primarily as a result of opponents needing to throw the ball in an attempt to come back from huge deficits. LB Michael Clay has collected a club- best 33 tackles to this point, and he has two of the team's 16 sacks. The unit has also come up with a dozen turnovers, eight of which have been interceptions.
Washington State had all kinds of trouble running the football last week against a swarming Oregon defense, finishing with minus-eight yards rushing. With his offense relegated to one-dimensional status, WSU head coach Mike Leach relied heavily on the pass, and that wound up working to an extent, the Cougars producing 410 yards and two TDs through the air. Facing 64 pass attempts, the Ducks did their best to get after the quarterback, posting seven sacks and coming up with two turnovers. Clay led the UO stand with eight total tackles.
Kelly's job this week is to keep distractions to a minimum and get his team to focus on Washington, which he identified as a very good football team.
"All you have to do is turn the tape on, and our guys know who plays hard and who doesn't, and Washington plays really really hard, so it's going to be a heckuva game."