Offensive lineman Shane Lemieux has started every game for the Ducks for two consecutive seasons. He’s seen the highs and lows, yet he is still bothered by one game in particular from his redshirt freshman season in 2016.
Washington, ranked No. 5 in the country at the time, blew out Oregon 70-21 in Autzen Stadium. For Lemieux and the more experienced players, that loss still haunts them.
“A lot of the newer guys on the team really don’t understand that,” Lemieux said. “I think this week, we’ve been really trying to get the younger guys to understand what happened that game and how that can never happen again.”
Tony Brooks-James was also there that day as a sophomore and caught Herbert’s first career touchdown pass. As the team’s senior running back, he recognizes why beating Washington is important, not only for the team, but for the Oregon fanbase as well.
“The fans get into it, and we get into it,” Brooks-James said.
A Pac-12 team doesn’t get many opportunities to play two top-10 teams at home in a single season, but that is exactly what No. 17. Oregon (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) will do when the No. 7 Washington (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) suits up at Auzen on Oct. 13. The early season loss to then-No. 7 Stanford in Autzen can be healed if Oregon beats Washington.
After beating Washington for 12 consecutive seasons, the past two years have been reversed. The Huskies pummeled the Ducks in Eugene and in Seattle. But Oregon has a revamped defense and a healthy Herbert with multiple offensive targets.
For the past two seasons, as Washington has ascended the AP polls and into the playoffs, Oregon has dealt with coaching changes and struggled in Pac-12 play. Washington will be one of the toughest tests for Oregon this year, led by an experienced quarterback,Jake Browning, and a talented defense. This is a matchup between the Pac-12’s best offense in Oregon and the best defense in Washington, and it’s likely one of these teams will find a spot in the Pac-12 championship.
In terms of the College Football Playoffs, this game is a must-win for both teams. Both need to win outright to have a shot. So what will it take for Oregon to finally get back to winning against Washington?
To start, the Ducks need to play two complete halves. This season, Oregon has played phenomenal, up-tempo football in the first half. They have outscored opponents 145-47 in the first half throughout the season, and 52-17 in conference play.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo echoed Cristobal in that the talented Washington defense also lots of experience.
“Good players, a lot of experience,” Arroyo said. “Any time you got guys with that many snaps, you get a chance to be good and they do a very nice job.”
With a revamped defense, led by experienced players such as Troy Dye and Ugo Amadi, Oregon has a chance to redeem itself. The Ducks’ rushing defense is drastically better than it was a few seasons ago, as they are second in the Pac-12 with 108.6 yards allowed per game.
Cristobal said he believes the key to throwing off Browning is to force him out of the pocket and make him uncomfortable, while at the same time giving him different looks downfield. Oregon’s secondary is also much improved, with Amadi and fellow safety Jevon Holland leading the Pac-12 with three interceptions each. While Browning has been good so far this year, throwing for over 250 yards each game, he’s not untouchable. He’s already thrown five interceptions, matching his total last year.
Cristobal referenced the size, skill and discipline of Washington’s defensive players at his press conference during the bye week.
“They are a complete defense, and there’s a reason they lead the league in scoring defense and many other categories,” Head coach Cristobal said.
Washington’s defense still knows how to deal with a capable offense. They rank third in the country in points allowed (13.7). However, they don’t have as great of a pass rush as previous years. The Huskies only have eight sacks this season while the Ducks have 15. Still, Lemieux doesn’t want to let his guard down.
“It seems like every single year they have that one interior guy who’s a real dude,” Lemieux said. “They are the best D-line in the Pac-12 by far.”
Here is something Washington hasn’t had to face yet: a healthy, experienced Justin Herbert. He was a freshman in 2016, and his first start was against Washington in that historic loss. The next year, he sat on the sideline in Seattle with a broken collarbone.
“That was definitely a tough experience but we learned a lot from it,” Herbert said. “I think over the years we’ve gotten close and this team has shown how tough it is.”
Now he’s got some experience under his belt and he’s been a force on the field. Through five games this season, Herbert has shown to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He’s thrown for 15 touchdowns to 12 different players this season, and has led Oregon to a conference-best 42.3 points per game.
Senior quarterback Jake Browning is likely the most formidable and experienced quarterback the Ducks will play this season. He’s a four year starter who’s comfortable in Petersen’s system, and he’s got reliable options with running back Myles Gaskin and wide receiver Aaron Fuller.
“They are about as talented as anyone we’re going to see, and they’re really well coached,” Herbert said.
Lemieux knows how valuable Herbert is to the offense. But an experienced and talented offensive line could be the difference in the game against the talented playmakers on the Washington defense.
“UW is going to see a different Oregon team,” Lemieux said. “Especially with Herbert at the helm.”