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WSU aims to out shoot Ducks in Pullman

Oregon at Washington State? Easy W for the Ducks, right? Maybe not. With the Ducks first return to Pullman since 2010, Connor Halliday and co. look to exploit the Ducks' weakness through the air.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

2006. It has been eight years since the Cougars last beat the Ducks (34-23 in Pullman). If you're wondering, yes, I did have to look that up. Oregon was still wearing the uniforms with the diamond plating patterns on the shoulder and neon was not yet an "official" color of the school.

251-121. The Ducks have poured on the points against the Cougars in their last five match ups (the worse being a 52-6 beat down at Autzen Stadium in 2009). It's evident, the trajectory of each program went in opposite directions since 2006. Oregon rose to national prominence, while Washington St. sunk to the bottom of the Pac-10/12. Now, Oregon enters Martin Stadium--expected to be one of their biggest crowds of all time--with a target on their back. To Cougar fans, hitting that target would exclaim, "We're on our way."

Washington St. head coach Mike Leach has elevated the Cougar program from bottom dweller to middle-of-the-Pac, but they have yet to get over the proverbial hump. A victory Saturday would become a benchmark in the Leach era. One that he can point to in a recruit's living room or recall to potential boosters. "We beat #2 Oregon last year."

From a statistical standpoint, the matchup provides problems on the defensive side of the ball for both squads.

 

OREGON WASHINGTON ST
PASSING YARDS 18th (330.3) 1st (517.0)
RUSHING YARDS 29th (243.0) 126 (40.)
POINTS SCORED 5th (52.0) 47th (36.7)
POINTS AGAINST 27th (18.0) 89th (28.7)
PASS DEFENSE 97th (275.0) 53rd (220.0)
RUSH DEFENSE

64th (150)

83rd (174.0)
TO MARGIN 8th (+1.67)

105th (-1.0)

 [National Rankings]

For the most part, these numbers are not surprising. Oregon has one of the top offenses in the nation, check. Washington State has the most passing yards in the nation, check. Oregon is the 97th best pass defense in the nation, ch---what?

Analyzing these numbers and Saturday's matchup, Roy Stenlund and I previewed our keys to the game.

Roy: What, if anything, can Washington St. do to slow down the Oregon offense?

Josh: Although Marcus Mariota appears to be part machine, part human, the Cougars need to get to him early and often. If they let him get into a rhythm, it will be a long night in Martin Stadium. The Cougars must find a way to take advantage of the Ducks deflated offensive line, which took another hit last weekend when Jake Fisher went down against the Wyoming Cowboys. With that said, I do not believe Cougars will be able to slow down the running game. They haven't been able to do it up to this point in the season, and they have yet to face an offensive attack anywhere near Oregon's level.

Josh: Oregon has four home run threats on the ground -- Tyner, Marshall, Freeman, and Mariota -- how will the 83rd ranked rushing defense (giving up 174 YPG) in the nation be successful at slowing down the Ducks' rushing attack?

Roy: They won't. Oregon is going to run all day on the Cougs. The WSU defensive line has been absent all season, and the linebacker play hasn't been good either. Oregon has had some injuries on their offensive line, so maybe the Cougars can take advantage of that.

Roy: Oregon has not played in Pullman since 2010. It's looking like the biggest crowd EVER in Martin Stadium. Will Oregon overlook the Cougs?

Josh: I don't think so. Who is this game big for? The Cougars. And it should be. But this is another game, for a dominant program that "Wins the Day." Martin Stadium may be one of the smaller venues in the Pac-12, but I'm sure Fireball-fueled fans will make it a great atmosphere--regardless, it's nothing that Oregon has not experienced elsewhere. They get everyone's best, players and fans alike. The Ducks do face Arizona next week, in a rematch after their collapse in Tucson last year, but I cannot imagine they overlook the Cougars for the Wildcats.

Josh: The Cougars success coincides with Halliday's success. Three games into the season, Washington St. has given up nearly three sacks a game to inferior opponents. What is the key for the Washington St. line to protect their QB?

Roy: If the Cougars only give up three sacks they will be OK. Halliday can shake off sacks and get back in the game. The problems arise when he has constant, in his face pressure. If the Washington State offensive line can give Halliday just 2-3 seconds he will be fine. His biggest problem is when he is forced to scramble and throws on the run. That's when he gets his interceptions. Force him out of the pocket, and he's in trouble. Let him stay in the pocket, and he will pick you apart.

Roy: Oregon is 97th in pass defense, WSU is 1st in pass offense. Can the Ducks stop the Cougar passing attack?

Josh: The Ducks haven't really stopped anyone's passing attack. Although the Ducks have been dominant, and have only given up 54 points through three games (including Michigan St.), they have been a "bend but don't break" type of defense. Last week, the Ducks gave up 284 yards through the air to the Wyoming Cowboys. If it were not for Erick Dargan's timely interceptions, the Cowboys were driving down the field with relative ease. Dargan or another member of the secondary will need to step up and create turnovers, because the Cougars are going to get their yards. If Halliday can take care of the football, Washington St. should be able to pick their target.

Josh: Is there any thing that makes you believe Leach and Co. will try and balance out (some what) their offensive game plan versus the Ducks?

Roy: Nope. Leach repeats every week that the opponent doesn't matter, he is sticking with his system. He will pass first, run second. The Cougar offense is based on passing, unless it is favorable to run. The offense is set up so that Halliday checks to a run, if it is favorable at the time. For instance, if Oregon pulls linebackers and goes to a nickel or dime package, Halliday calls an audible at the line and checks to a run. If the defense stays in a base formation, the Cougs will pass. So it really will be determined by Oregon how much the Cougars will pass or run. Expect the Cougar running backs to be heavily involved in the passing game though.

Roy: What are the keys to an Oregon victory?

Josh: Win the turnover battle. Oregon will score points, that is a guarantee. Washington State has not shown anything to think otherwise. But Oregon's defense has been susceptible to the pass, the Cougars forte. The Ducks have kept people out of the end zone by creating turnovers. If they can keep the pressure on Halliday and force him into mistakes, the Ducks should run loose on the Palouse.

Josh: What are the keys to a Cougar victory?

Roy: The keys for a WSU victory are pretty simple. Oregon has to make some mistakes. If Oregon plays well, they will win. The Cougs will hope to match Oregon score for score, and that the Ducks will maybe make a critical mistake at some point that will allow some WSU points. The Cougars have no margin for error, they have to play a perfect game, and pray for a Duck mistake.

Predictions?

Roy: Sorry Cougs, I have to go with Oregon. Ducks win 52-35.

Josh: Cougars make it interesting through three quarters, but late INTs kill the Cougars' chance. Ducks, 59-38.

--

When: September 20, 2014

Time: 7:30 PM PT

Where: Martin Stadium - Pullman, WA

Channel: ESPN

Line: Oregon -24