For much of the year the Duck defense has given up chunks of yards between the 20s, and this week they face an offense with the firepower to exploit that weakness. The Huskies are much tougher in the red zone than Arizona, California or Colorado, the gamut of also-rans the Ducks have pummeled on their way to 7-1. UW has a 1,000-yard rusher in Chris Polk, and a quarterback who’s shocked the conference with his first-year effectiveness.
For the season, the Dawgs are converting 91% of their red zone chances. Their variety of weapons really helps them at the goal line, being able to drive Polk inside, or trust Price throwing to his capable wideouts and big tight end, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins.
photo right: Can the Ducks hang on to their share of first place against Washington? A lot depends on wrapping up Chris Polk, who thrives on yards after contact (nfldraftmonsters.com photo).
Sefarian-Jenkins is a particular worry. A true freshman, he’s 6-6 258, runs a 4.6 40, and leads the team in average per catch at 16.0. The Huskies like to use him on seam and wheel routes, and that’s a potential mismatch against the Oregon defense. Eddie Pleasant has never looked comfortable as a cover safety, and Nick Aliotti continues to insist on dropping Brandon Hanna or Dion Jordan into coverage against certain formations. That won’t work if they have to cover Sefarian-Jenkins, a look Steve Sarkisian and the Sundodgers will try to force at some point in the game.
Tailback Chris Polk is the PAC-12 rushing leader this year with 1016 yards already, and the Ducks have had some trouble with lesser backs all season. Last year in Autzen they held him to 77 yards. He’s especially dangerous for two reasons. One, he has terrific strength and balance and breaks a lot of tackles, and two, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier uses him well as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught four passes for 100 yards and a touchdown last week against Arizona. It’s another challenging matchup for linebackers Michael Clay and Josh Kaddu, and a risk the Ducks take when they bring pressure.
The Huskies like to take shots downfield and stretch the field vertically, to all their receivers, including Polk, who caught a 43-yarder against Arizona. They have six different receivers with a long catch of 38 yards or more, including Kasen Williams, a dangerous and highly-touted freshman just starting to work his way into the rotation.
Oregon may have Rob Beard back and healthy for kickoffs, and that could be a good thing against the Dawgs. Kickoff returner Kevin Smith averages 30.22 a return and he’s explosive, with 150 yards of returns versus the Wildcats. One seam, one missed tackle, and he’s gone. The Ducks can’t afford any breakdowns that would give the Husky crowd an emotional lift, and Beard drives the ball deeper than the diminutive Alejandro “Candy” Maldonado, who’s been steady and reliable as the place kicker this year. On the other sideline, senior field goal kick Eric Folk is one of the best of the country, 8-10 on field goals this year, a perfect 36-36 on extra points, with a long field goal of 53 yards.
Defensively, UW is not good, ranking 102nd in the country as they allow 33.4 points a game. They gave up 51 to Nebraska and 65 to Stanford, both on the road. A vocal home crowd should bolster the defense, but nothing can disguise the fact that the secondary has given up 2,379 yards and 14 touchdowns. Statistically, they actually defend the run better than the Ducks. Darron Thomas has to get things going in the passing game, or the Huskies could have hope in their last game in the old Husky Stadium. Senior linebacker Cort Dennison (6-1, 234) leads the unit with 71 tackles.