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The most important person vs. Oregon: the offensive line

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If there’s one thing the Oregon defense does better than anything else, it’s get to the quarterback. WSU’s offensive line must keep Luke Falk upright to get out of Eugene with a win.

USC v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Confidence ... thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live.

-President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Through five games, the Washington State Cougars are 5-0, one win away from bowl eligibility, and sitting at No. 11 in both the Coaches and AP polls.

All in all, things are pretty damn good right now.

Luke Falk, after limping through the first two games of the season, looks like himself again, too. The running backs, though they’ve struggled to run at time, have become an incredibly reliable safety value in the passing game. The receivers (minus a bad case of dropsilitis) are doing their part, too, transforming into a unit Falk can count on when he throws 50-50 balls down field. The defense, well, you can’t say enough about to this point in the season. The defensive line, linebackers, and secondary are all playing incredibly well.

Has there really been any unit on this team that’s not where or above where we wanted them to be?

Yes. And it’s not the one we expected.

Coming into this season, we all thought the offensive line would be, arguably, the greatest strength of this offense. A returning All-American, experience and skill at both tackle positions, and players that could step up and replace seniors who had exhausted eligibility.

All too often though, we’ve found Luke Falk in the exact position as the picture above: on his back, football in hand, for a loss of yardage. Now sure, some of that has to do with the redshirt senior’s penchant for holding ... and holding ... and holding ... and holding onto the ball. Lines can’t protect forever.

But it’s not as if this is a new problem, and through five games, Falk has been sacked 15 times; Tyler Hilinski four times. That’s a rate of 3.8 sacks per game which, given the rate at which the quarterback passes in the Air Raid, isn’t too bad. That is, until you take a look at their dropbacks per sack rate this year compared to last:

2017: 274 pass attempts (Falk 220, Hilinski 54) / 19 sacks = 14.42 dropbacks/sack

2016: 663 pass attempts (Falk 633, Hilinski 30) / 29 sacks = 22.86 dropbacks/sack

Using Falk’s last three game average of dropbacks (49 per game), defenses are sacking him 1.2 more times per game in 2017 than 2016.

That’s not good.

Adding to Washington State’s problem this week is Oregon’s defensive strength: getting into the backfield. Although, as a unit, they’re 50th in S&P+, they’ve racked up 20 sacks and 43 tackles for a loss as a team this year, or four sacks per game and more than eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage. It’s a recipe for near disaster against an offensive line that has struggled in both pass and run blocking so far this season.

Diagnosing an offensive line’s issues are, to put it bluntly, hard. That goes doubly for a person like me who has about as much knowledge on offensive line play and technique as King Henry VIII did in balancing the English kingdom’s coffers. But it’s very clear that something’s wrong. Whether that’s the absence of Riley Sorenson having a bigger effect on them than we thought, getting newcomers worked in, whatever, I don’t know what it is.

The good news is I have a ton of faith in Clay McGuire to figure it out and get it fixed. The miracles this dude has worked with the offensive line are nothing short of canonization worthy. It’s just got to happen in a hurry before the Cougs hit the road for the first time this weekend.

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Why does the offensive lineman who just gave up a sack head straight to the bank?

To get his quarter back.

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The offensive line, the most important person(s) against the Oregon Ducks.