After an abysmal 0-12 season in 2008, the Huskies enter this fall with a brand new, bright, young coaching staff, and with it, a reinvigorated fan base. New coach Steve Sarkisian, who left USC's offensive coordinator post for the Huskies head job this summer, appears to be breathing new life into a program that has fallen by the wayside during the past decade. He was able to bring defensive coordinator Nick Holt with him from USC and hired Doug Nussmeier away from Fresno State to be his new offensive coordinator. Combine all of that with UW's 18 returning starters, including quarterback Jake "Hurt" Locker and linebacker E.J. Savannah, both of whom missed significant time last year, and Husky fans have reason enough for optimism.
However, that optimism deserves some qualification.
There's no way around it: The Huskies were absolutely atrocious last year. Not only did they break a school record with 14 straight losses, they were also the only winless Football Bowl Subdivision team in the country. We already outlined how bad Washington State was last year. Well, that team beat the Huskies. They were that bad.
But when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up. An Apple Cup win in late November would probably be enough to call the season an improvement, and maybe even a success. And with some solid pieces in place, Huskies fans finally have a program to be excited about. Well, maybe not excited about, but at least interested in.
Oregon Offense vs. Washington Defense:
Ten of Washington's 18 returning starters are on the defensive side of the ball. And I'm not convinced that's necessarily a good thing for the Dawgs. UW's defense ranked 112th out of a 120 FBS teams in 2008, giving up a whopping 451 yards per game and 38.6 points per game (ranked 117th nationally). That's bad, but the numbers get significantly worse when you factor in Oregon's rushing dominance last year. The Ducks finished the season ranked No. 2 in the country in rushing offense and No. 7 in total offense. Put simply, that's one of the worst rushing defenses stacking up against one of the best rushing offenses. And it showed. Despite it being Oregon's season opener, the Ducks tacked on 256 yards in a 44-10 route of the Huskies in Eugene last year.
Of course, new DC Holt will have a standout linebacker in Savannah, who was brought back after being all but dismissed from the program by Willingham in 2008. And he's likely the missing piece Washington needs to get back to defensive respectability. Savannah led the team in tackles in 2007, and should add much-needed help to stopping the run where the Huskies obviously need all the help they can get.
But as bad as the Dawgs were at stopping the ground game, they were actually somewhat decent at stopping the pass. Washington finished the season ranked 62nd nationally in passing defense, holding its opponents to 211 yards a game. Of course, that doesn't help much in a conference that's become known for its rushing attacks of late.
Overall, it helps Washington to have seven warm-up games before taking on the Ducks. But given the Ducks' offensive line concerns, the seven game warm-up could help Oregon as much, if not more. Bottom line for the Dawgs against the Ducks, and I'm borrowing Dan Patrick's old Sportscenter catchphrase: You can't stop 'em. You can only hope to contain 'em. That's likely Washington's defensive strategy in a nutshell.
Washington Offense vs. Oregon Defense:
The Huskies offense will improve in 2009. And although that's not saying much for a team who finished 118th nationally in total offense with 13.3 points per game, I think we'll see them improve significantly. Jake Locker, who sat out eight games in 2008 with an injury, is a man among boys, a poor man's Tim Tebow even, and has the ability to change a game with his size and athletic ability. And with a new coach who oversaw USC's offensive attack the past three seasons, there's a good chance Locker will be put in a better position to make plays.
We know Locker can run the ball, but this year he'll actually have targets. Junior wide receiver D’Andre Goodwin returns after leading the Huskies with 60 catches for 692 yards in 2008. Speedster sophomore Jermaine Kearse, who finished 2008 with 20 catches for 301 yards his freshman year, had a solid spring and should be one of Locker's big play targets this year. And at tight end, sophomore Kavario Middleton was one of Washington's top recruits a year ago, so there's a lot of potential here.
The Ducks' defense could actually have some trouble with the Dawgs. Oregon finished last in the Pac-10 in passing defense, and the Huskies will likely have a solid air attack. Given Oregon DC Nick Aliotti's bend-don't-break strategy, it's likely UW won't earn as a much of an advantage as you might think based on the numbers. After all, their offense isn't exactly top-notch, even with these improvements.
Overall, I think Washington sees a bit of success against the Ducks offensively. But it won't be enough to offset the drubbing the Ducks will put on the Dawgs' defense.
Washington has reason to be optimistic about the future and could pump some much-needed momentum into the rebuilding process if they can give the interstate rival Ducks a run for their money. The game's in Seattle, and that's always a concern, but the odds of the Huskies winning this one aren't good. In fact, they're terrible. Don't be surprised if Washington puts up some good offensive numbers, but be very surprised if Oregon doesn't rack up 500+ yards of total offense and 40+ points. I'm willing to go as far to say that those numbers are inevitable.
Oregon 49, Washington 24