Oregon’s secondary must make plays against Washington on Saturday

The Ducks' shaky pass defense will look to build on the strong performance against Cal two weeks ago

It was tempting to pick Oregon’s pass offense against Washington’s pass defense or Oregon’s run defense against Washington’s run offense because that features the strength of both teams. But I figured that no matter what, Oregon will score through the air and Washington will counter with touchdowns on the ground.

That left Oregon’s extremely shaky — yet improving — pass defense against Washington’s questionable passing offense as the key matchup. Whomever wins this matchup might win the game for their respective team.

The Ducks enter Saturday with questions in the secondary.

Their pass defense ranks 89th in the country, giving up 238.2 yards per game. However, that stat is slightly skewed considering teams must throw the ball to keep pace with Oregon’s offense.

A better indication of the Ducks pass defense is their 132.06 opponent quarterback rating, 69th in the country. Combine that with their eight interceptions (12th in the nation) and you get a pass defense has makes quarterbacks pay for their mistakes but doesn’t scare opponents from throwing the ball.

Cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir have struggled on the season. Athletically and physically gifted, both players have been caught with their eyes in the backfield, getting beat on deep balls and being unable to stay attached to their respective receivers. But, they’ve also shown flashes of improvement and shutdown capabilities, making the sophomores wildcards in the passing game.

The emergence of freshman Jevon Holland has helped secure the backend of the defense and allow fellow safety Ugochukwu Amadi to play in the slot as a nickel corner or up in the box. Combined, Holland and Amadi have six interceptions, giving them the most by a safety duo in the nation.

They’ll be tasked with stopping Washington’s four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning, the program’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns.

Browning was sensational in his first two years at the helm but after an underwhelming 2017 season, he’s struggled a bit to begin 2018. He’s thrown for 1,508 yards and nine scores, but also has five interceptions already. He only has one game in which he’s thrown for over 300 yards and only two games in which he’s thrown more than one touchdown pass.

But, Browning appears to have turned a corner his past two games. Two weeks ago, he completed 23-of-25 passes for 277 yards against BYU and threw for 265 yards and rushed for 49 yards and a score in last week’s win over UCLA.

"They have a quarterback that has started every game since he's been there, one who knows how to run that offense through and through,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said.

Wide receiver was a huge question mark entering the season for the Huskies, but the emergence of Aaron Fuller has this unit performing well when given the chance. Fuller leads the team with 35 catches for 574 yards, more than doubling the next closest Husky in either category.

"He's explosive — he's a fast guy, he can high-point the ball and he can get up there to high-point the ball." Cristobal said of Fuller. "Even though the word was the receivers weren't proven, what we found out just watching this past week is that their receivers can really stretch the field."

Ty Jones is the big-play threat, leading the team with four scores and averaging 19.1 yards per catch. Running back Myles Gaskin is also a threat out of the backfield, catching 11 passes on the season.

To slow down Washington’s attack, Oregon secondary is going to need help from defensive lineman Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins. Both players are pass-rushing stars (combined 6.5 sacks) and they must bypass the Washington offensive line and get to Browning and make him uncomfortable. When under duress, Browning has shown he makes bad decisions with the ball and the Ducks must seize those opportunities.

If Oregon can’t get to Browning and he has all day to throw, Fuller and Jones should be able to separate themselves from the Ducks and provide reliable targets all game long.

This matchup will be like a chess match as defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will attempt to disguise coverages and blitz schemes, trying to dictate Browning in where he should throw the ball. If Leavitt and co can win this matchup, look for the Ducks to pull off the upset.