Can the No. 5-ranked Washington Huskies end their 12-year losing streak against the Oregon Ducks? Here are five things to watch as UW prepares for its 4:30 p.m. game at Autzen Stadium.
1. Prukop or Herbert?
All indications out of Eugene this week are that true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert will make his first career start in place of fifth-year senior Dakota Prukop.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich hasn’t named a starter publicly, but has said that the Ducks have “clarity” about the quarterback situation internally. And reporters covering Oregon have noted this week that Ducks players have implied during interviews that Herbert will be the starter.
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Herbert, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound Eugene native, saw his first action last week at Washington State, leading the Ducks to an 85-yard touchdown drive on their final series. He capped it with a 4-yard touchdown run.
Prukop seems to be the smarter play against the Huskies’ stout defense. The fifth-year senior graduate transfer from Montana State has completed 66.2 percent of his passes through five games with eight touchdowns and two interceptions, and he is also a capable runner.
The Huskies are surely preparing for either player.
“Their situation doesn’t change us,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “Certainly the styles that we play and the schemes we see changes every week. Who knows who plays on either side of the ball? So you’ve just got to go defend systems and be ready to adjust and adapt.”
2. Royce Freeman, Royce Freeman, Royce Freeman.
The UW coaching staff can’t say enough nice things about Oregon’s star tailback, and for good reason. Freeman is as complete of a running back as there is in college football, combining his considerable size (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) with excellent vision, strength and speed.
He ranks 14th nationally with an average of 8.27 yards per carry, and his physical style will force the Huskies to tackle well, something they’ve been able to do pretty consistently so far this season.
The Huskies held Stanford star Christian McCaffrey to 49 yards rushing on 12 carries last week. Stopping Freeman will likely be a bigger challenge.
“This is a guy that’ll play 10 years in the National Football League,” UW defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “They right now lead the Pac-12 in rushing, and it’s because of him. We have to stop Royce Freeman.”
3. Watch out for Oregon’s special teams.
Charles Nelson, Oregon’s junior receiver, is also one of the Pac-12’s most dangerous kickoff and punt returners. He’s a big reason why the Ducks rank second in the league in both kickoff return average and punt return average.
Nelson returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown at WSU last week, and has four return touchdowns in his career — two on kickoffs, two on punts.
UW’s defense matches up well against the Ducks’ offense. The Huskies’ offense matches up even better against Oregon’s defense. So the Huskies can’t afford to let Oregon change the game by taking a kickoff or punt to the house.
4. How many sacks for the Huskies?
After they sacked Stanford’s quarterbacks eight times last week, the Huskies took the national lead with 21 sacks this season.
Oregon’s offensive line features four redshirt freshmen, though the Ducks have done a decent job protecting the quarterback, allowing 10 sacks in five games. But they did give up eight tackles for loss last week at WSU.
The key for Washington will be to continue what it has been doing — get pressure with only three or four rushers, don’t worry about blitzing, and let the Huskies’ defensive backs do their jobs against Oregon’s athletic receivers — especially Nelson and Darren Carrington.
“He’s one of the best guys we’ll face all year long,” Lake said of Carrington. “He made plays on us last year, he’s made plays on everybody this year. He’s big, he’s athletic, he attacks the ball in the air.
“This is the fastest team that we’ve faced in terms of all their skill positions, that we’ve faced in 2016 so far.”
5. Injury report
The Huskies don’t have any new injuries that have been made public. The Ducks have lost several key players since the start of the season.
Left tackle Tyrell Crosby is out for the season. Receiver Devon Allen is out for the season. Linebacker Johnny Ragin, the team’s leading tackler, left the WSU game with an apparent leg injury and reportedly will not return this season.
The Eugene Register-Guard reported that true freshman linebacker Troy Dye, one of the Ducks’ most promising defensive players, is expected to return after missing last week’s game at WSU for an undisclosed reason.
WASHINGTON (5-0, 2-0 PAC-12) VS. OREGON (2-3, 0-2)
4:30 p.m., Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon.
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
The series: Washington leads, 58-45-5.
The pick: Washington, 38-24.
3 — Jake Browning, QB (6-2, 209, so.): 17 TDs, two INTs in five games.
8 — Dante Pettis, WR (6-1, 188, jr.): 15 catches, 211 yards, four TDs.
11 — Elijah Qualls, DL (6-1, 321, jr.): Will be essential against Oregon’s running game.
36 — Azeem Victor, LB (6-3, 230, jr.): Team-high 42 tackles.
1 — Arrion Springs, DB (5-11, 205, jr.): 24 tackles, seven pass breakups.
2 — Tyree Robinson, DB (6-4, 205, jr.): 27 tackles, three pass breakups.
7 — Darren Carrington, WR (6-2, 205, jr.): Team-best 304 yards, three TDs.
20 — Tony Brooks-James, RB (5-9, 185, so.): 271 yards, six TDs.
Christian Caple: email@example.com