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Exploiting the Huskies Defense

Expecting another cakewalk Saturday? I'm not.

The Huskies should show up with a lot of emotion. They're back home by the lake - where they've played pretty well - after a stinging loss at Tempe. The Dawgs still have plenty to play for. It's an opportunity to get even at 4-4 heading into a bye week. It's an opportunity to keep a season afloat. It's yet another opportunity to make a statement about the resurrection of a program that had fallen to unbelievable lows.

Jared's post yesterday detailed what the Ducks need to do on defense. It's entirely possible that Oregon's defense will hold the Huskies well below their season averages. On the other hand, I think it's more likely that Oregon's offense will have to put up some points to lock up this road win. And I don't expect those points to come as easily as they did last year. Here's why:

Let's not kid ourselves, many of the UW defensive stats are not good. The Huskies are 9th among Pac-10 teams for scoring, at 27.9 per game. They're 9th in rushing defense at 162 a game, 8th in pass defense at 262 per game, 8th in opponents 3rd down conversion percentage. Now stop laughing for a minute and consider this... Washington is giving up 11 fewer points per game than they did last year. They're giving up 80 fewer rushing yards and 50 fewer passing yards.

Three Huskies linebackers - Donald Butler, Mason Foster and E.J. Savannah - are in the top 15 for tackles. That's about where the good news ends for Washington.

Much has been said about Washington's red zone prowess.

Washington does lead the conference with opponents converting only 35% of their trips into the red zone into touchdowns. Holding opponents to field goals more times than not has kept the Huskies close in their most of their games. There is something to be said for that. Problem is, no Pac-10 team allows more red zone visits (34 in seven games = nearly 5 visits per game) than the Huskies. Only WSU is even close to UW in that respect.

One Husky fan here on ATQ this week suggested the Dawgs might stack the box against Oregon and stuff the run in the red zone. Let 'em. In the red zone this season, the Huskies have given up TD runs of 4, 6, 7, 1, 9, 1, 12, 1 and 1. They've also given up six offensive TDs from outside 30 yards. It's not like Oregon is going to get shut out against Washington if they don't cross the 20.

From a talent and scheme perspective, this year's match-up of Oregon's O versus Washington's D is not so different from last season when Oregon won 44-10. Oregon comes in with questions at QB. Washington's defense is suspect. Oregon's offense has speed, everywhere. Washington has a few talented individuals on D, but overall that unit is not speedy or physical. All the coaching in the world doesn't change the fact that when your defense is a step slow, plays out of position, doesn't shed blocks and blows coverages, you give up a lot of big plays. Remember - six TDs of more than 30 yards this year, including pass plays covering 67, 50, 45, 39 and 32 yards.

Oregon leads the conference with 203 rushing yards per game and is last in passing yards. So the Huskies will load up against LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, right? Not necessarily. Oregon will dictate otherwise by putting at least three receivers on the field, plus Ed Dickson at tight end. That could force UW to play a lot of nickle. The Huskies did that at times last year in Eugene and the Ducks not only ran at will, they also ran screen plays that resulted in big plays when UW defenders failed to make one-on-one plays in open space. Earlier this season, against LSU's spread, the Huskies we're fairly stout when they could sit in a 4-3 formation. When LSU dictated the Huskies utilize a 3-4 or nickle coverage, the boys from down south were fairly dominant. Expect the Ducks to follow LSU's lead.

I don't condone the exploitation of dawgs, but...

With more speed and talent, Oregon doesn't have to do a lot more than run its offense and avoid turnovers. Patience is key. Crisp execution is key. Zone-read option against a 6-man front. Effective. Play-action with misdirection and quick bubble screens. Effective. Why? Because no matter what alignment they're in, a defense cannot cheat against Oregon's offensive scheme. Opposing defenders have to defend the entire field against the Ducks. Because Oregon is a run-first team, all seven or eight DBs and LBs have to watch the action in the backfield. They cannot simply follow the offensive flow or overplay the weak side or strong side of Oregon's formation. Do so, or try to cheat as the QB is making his option read, and the ball will be going the other way. That's why so often we see an opponent's defense flat-footed, out of position and out-manned at the point of attack. Chip Kelly's offense allows the entire width of the field as a possible point of attack. When the Kelly spread is rockin', it is exploitation of a defense's weak points at its finest.

Recall the Terrence Scott screen pass TD last year. Let the d-line bust up field, a quick pass to Scott on the outside. Another WR cuts down the CB who is covering Scott, now there's a speedster on the edge with the ball and two blockers (a TE and a pulling lineman) against two remaining defenders. Three on's just not fair! The lineman makes his block, Scott cuts back against the other defender, who ran himself out of position, and it's a sprint to the end zone.

The Huskies are improved. However, it takes a special defense to disrupt Oregon's offense. Or, it takes the Ducks shooting themselves in the foot over and over. We haven't seen the latter since the second half of the Purdue game. Whatever defensive game plan UW tries to throw at Kelly, Helfrich and Greatwood, Oregon's offensive gurus will have a response becoming of two weeks of preparation. Count on it.

Emotions will be high on the Huskies sideline, and it's worth recognizing that the Dawgs have gained the most valuable skill of all this season: they believe they can win. That alone gives them a legit shot to win any game in Seattle. Expect a tight contest for at least a half, then expect Oregon's talent, speed, offensive scheme and adjustments to win out over emotion in the end.