Through five games this season, the Oregon Ducks have looked fantastic on both sides of the ball, never scoring less than 55 points, while never giving up more than 16. However, coach Mark Helfrich’s squad has only had to face teams such as California, Colorado, Tennessee and Virginia – rebuilding programs.
On Saturday, the Ducks hit the road to face Washington, a program that has won 58 of the 105 meetings between these two longtime rivals.
For their part, the Huskies looked great in losing narrowly to mighty Stanford, 31-28, a week ago – but it was still a loss. Washington’s recent history against Oregon is loaded with losses as well.
U-Dub may hold the 58-42-5 advantage in this series, but the Ducks have won nine straight since 2004 and are looking for No. 10 with the College GameDay crew on hand on Saturday.
Will Oregon be able to pull it off in a rowdy road environment?
As generally the case in a Pac-12 game, the onus is on the quarterback: Can Marcus Mariota continue to play utterly flawless football? Boasting a passer rating of 176.33, Mariota has tallied 1,358 yards, 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has also rushed for 338 yards on a mere 28 attempts (12.07 average) and seven more scores – and he has been watching most of the fourth quarters this season from the bench.
He will be without a major weapon in Colt Lyerla, however. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end choose to leave the school altogether following a suspension for the Colorado game. In his stead, freshman Johnny Mundt has stepped up, taking some of the receiving heat off of Josh Huff and Bralon Addison.
All of that being said, Helfrich may be looking to gash Washington in the running game. Stanford managed to accumulate 179 yards on the ground, but quarterback Kevin Hogan was only able to pass for 105 against a solid Huskies defense. Will leading rusher Byron Marshall and burner De’Anthony Thomas find their lanes against senior linebacker Princeton Fuimaono and his improving unit? Fellow ‘backers Shaq Thompson and John Timu can also rack up the tackles, but will they be able to catch Oregon’s speedy weapons?
What about Hau’oli Kikaha and Josh Shirley? The two junior defensive linemen have combined for 6.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss through five games.
They will be tasked with corralling Mariota and Co., and if they are not up to it, quarterback Keith Price will be asked to pace the team to a shootout win. Price, running back Bishop Sankey and the rest of Washington’s ever-improving offense nearly pulled it off against Stanford after having blown away Boise State, Illinois and others this year.
Will a home game against the national championship contenders finally be the stage Price needs to prove he is an NFL-caliber dual-threat star?
It may not be so easy with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrance Mitchell and Dior Mathis patrolling the defensive backfield. All three juniors are hell-bent on proving that some folks actually know how to play defense in Eugene, and all may make life extremely difficult for receivers Kevin Smith, Kasen Williams and Jaydon Mickens.
Then there is Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The junior tight end was suspended to open the season due to an offseason DUI arrest, but he is one of the premiere players in the country at his position. The success of whomever Helfrich assigns to Seferian-Jenkins could play a major role in who wins the football game.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian could wind up feeding superstar tailback Sankey 40 times, or Mariota could wind up just going nuts for Oregon and sending the Huskies faithful home disappointed.
We really have no idea what is going to happen on Saturday – but perhaps you do. The time is finally here. Forget the numbers, forget the debate: It’s time to Settle It.
[Top Photo: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports, Bottom Photo: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports]