Heated rivals jockey for Pac-12 North positioning in Seattle
Arguably the most acrimonious rivalry in the West now has the added dimension of shaping the Pac-12 Conference championship race.
Border rivals Oregon and Washington meet for the 112th time ever on Saturday at Husky Stadium, and despite a distinguished history of hatred, it's a surprisingly rare instance of both being in the hunt for a conference crown. The Ducks embark on Saturday's road trip undefeated in the Pac-12 through three games for the first time since 2013, already with a two-game lead in the loss column over each of its North counterparts.
However, as Washington proved with its run to Levi's Stadium last year after October losses to Oregon and Cal, it's a long road to Santa Clara. C'est la vie in #Pac12AfterDark Country. And even though this one kicks off under the — well, not sunny. The forecast calls for rain, and this is Seattle, after all. But at least, before nightfall, the weighty implications point to your prototypical wild Pac-12 contest.
Oregon at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -3
When Oregon Has the Ball
Operating behind one of the most veteran offensive lines in all of college football, Eugene native and highly touted quarterback Justin Herbert has thrived. Herbert's thrown 17 touchdown passes against just one interception and is completing better than 71 percent of his attempts. It's not necessarily flashy, but Herbert has the second-most touchdown passes of any quarterback in the conference. Only Washington State's Anthony Gordon, operating out of the pass-heavy air raid, has more.
What's more, the efficiency of the Ducks attack behind Herbert perfectly complements Oregon's overwhelming defensive style. UO is tied with Wisconsin at No. 4 in the nation for turnover margin at plus-nine, or 1.5 per game. Oregon avoids self-inflicted mistakes — usually. When it hasn't, the results were costly. The Ducks failed to convert points in either of two deep red-zone trips Week 1 against Auburn; that's the difference between 6-0 and firm control of their College Football Playoff destiny, and having zero margin for error down the stretch.
In that same vein, while turnovers haven't been of issue, Oregon has not made the most of its possessions. The Ducks have one of the worst red-zone offenses in the Pac-12 as a result of inconsistent kicking, and the rushing game has been somewhat behind expectations. CJ Verdell's coming off a breakthrough performance against Colorado, and Cyrus Habibi-Likio is solidifying himself as an automatic short-yardage and goal-line ball carrier.
Washington's defense remains a strength, and the Huskies are coming off one of the most masterful performances of the season a week ago at Arizona. The innovative Jimmy Lake showed once again why he's a hot commodity, devising a strategy that negated both Khalil Tate's big arm and mobility. The Huskies frequently blitzed with the cornerbacks to get into the Arizona backfield fast and swarm before the ball could get out.
Herbert's a much different style of quarterback, so Lake and co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski's game plan this week makes for an intriguing chess match. Oregon being without tight end Jacob Breeland may free up Huskies linebackers to focus more on attacking the run game than worrying about the intermediate pass.
When Washington Has the Ball
No offense anywhere in college football this season has been quite as Jekyll and Hyde as Washington's. Huskies fans waited for the debut of prodigal son Jacob Eason with bated breath, and his big arm wowed in a Week 1 romp over FCS opponent Eastern Washington. In losses to Pac-12 North counterparts Cal and Stanford, however, he completed 60 and 44 percent of his passes with one touchdown against two interceptions.
Overall, Eason's been solid. He has 13 scores against just three picks, but that those three interceptions came in losses is no coincidence. The Huskies were held below 20 points both times. At Arizona, both Jekyll and Hyde showed up: The Huskies went without an offensive touchdown in the first half, but then rolled up 38 points after intermission. Eason was dealing, finding new targets like Puka Nacua and Jack Westover.
Now here comes an Oregon defense that has held each of its last five opponents below 10 points; that's a program record dating back to 1958.
The Ducks have also given up just one touchdown over the past 63 possessions. Despite coming out of last week's blowout against Colorado following a collision with Jevon Holland, star linebacker Troy Dye should be back to anchor the Ducks defense against the run. Washington boasts a multifaceted look that continued rolling last week, even with Richard Newton sidelined. Sean McGrew put up 106 yards on Arizona, with Salvon Ahmed adding 95.
The Huskies' offensive line is one of the few that can match Oregon's, though the absence of veteran center Nick Harris could be an issue against the Ducks' defensive front. Tackle Jordon Scott is one of the toughest 0-technique players in the country.
Between the historic hatred and the physically imposing brand of football on which both teams rely, Saturday's Oregon-Washington showdown will probably be the closest thing college football gets to a pro-wrestling barbed wire match.
Expect a slugfest with each side waiting on the other to flinch. One mistake could be the difference in this one, which should come down to the final possession like last year.
Prediction: Oregon 21, Washington 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.