The No. 11 Washington State Cougars pack their bags for the first time all season for a date with the Oregon Ducks in Eugene at 5 p.m. (PT) on Fox. Sadly, there will be no Gus Johnson on the call, and you might have to adjust the color settings on your TV — Oregon is going with a head-to-toe highlighter yellow look against Wazzu’s icy all-whites.
A fair amount of skepticism from the general public surrounds WSU after their big win over USC last Friday night. Numerous pundits have flagged the game against Oregon as an upset, thinking this weekend — in one of the toughest road environments on the west coast — is a prime let-down spot for the Cougs.
Vegas has flip-flopped between favoring Oregon and WSU this week, but neither side by more than a field goal. Advanced analytics from Bill Connelly at SB Nation give the Ducks a 58 percent win probability. ESPN shows an even higher confidence in Oregon, setting their odds of winning at 67 percent.
And this is all after the news that Oregon will be without starting quarterback Justin Herbert.
Oregon rebounded last week, putting a convincing win on Cal at home after dropping a close one to Arizona State in Tempe. A four-win 2016 is now fully in their rear view, with new head coach Willie Taggart having the Ducks looking like a team that could make a run at the North. Or at the very least, a team that can score at will on bad defenses.
Taggart broke into coaching thanks to a connection to the Harbaugh family. Jim Harbaugh helped recruit Taggart to play quarterback for his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky. Following his playing days, Jack gave Taggart a spot on the WKU staff as a wide receivers coach. He would eventually work his way up to co-offensive coordinator before leaving to join Jim Harbaugh at Stanford as the running backs coach.
After coaching up Toby Gerhart at Stanford, Taggart returned to WKU and took over as head coach in 2010. Taggart went 2-10 in his first season, but got the Hilltoppers into the Little Ceasers Bowl in his third season.
USF came calling and stole him away from his alma mater for the 2013 season, where he led the Bulls to a 2-10 record. Taggart made some staff changes, including hiring Paul Wulff as the offensive coordinator — who had spent time on Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers staff — and went 4-8 in 2014. (That was Wulff’s only season.) After an eight-win season and a Miami Beach Bowl loss to WKU in 2015, Taggart got the Bulls to 10 wins in 2016 and received an offer to move to Eugene.
Taggart brings a fast-paced offense to Oregon that isn’t really that different from what the Ducks were running under Mark Helfrich. The zone read is still a major part of the offense and, as Jesse Cassino highlights in this week’s Coach’s Corner, the tweaks they’ve made so far have been subtle.
The Ducks brought in one of the best coordinators in college football, Jim Leavitt, and his 4-2-5 base defense. Leavitt created a monster Buffalo defense in Boulder last season that carried CU to the conference championship, and he has made short work of repairing the mess Brady Hoke left behind.
The Ducks’ defense is currently ranked 50th by S&P+ and features a front seven that’s been flat wrecking teams behind the line of scrimmage. Leavitt and the Buffs shut down Wazzu in the second-half of last year’s game in Boulder, holding the Cougs to seven points after giving up 17 in the first two quarters and limiting Falk to 26-of-53 passing on the day.
WSU has been prepping for Saturday’s contest by reviewing that game, rather than any of the nonsense Hoke was doing in 2016.
What has me concerned about the Oregon Ducks
Grounded Ducks: Royce Freeman is your prototypical work-horse back. He’s averaging 20 rush attempts a game and gains 5.7 yards per attempt. Last year, the Cougs “held” Freeman to 138 yards in their blowout win at home. Despite getting dinged-up last Saturday at Cal, expect Freeman to be back and ready to go against Wazzu.
With their starting quarterback down, it’s practical to expect the Ducks to rely heavily on their already substantially favored ground game, which racks up five TDs (1st nationally) and 13.8 first downs (8th) on their 49.4 (9th) attempts per game.
Oregon ranks 8th nationally in Rushing Success Rate while running the ball nearly 70 percent of the time on standard downs, all at the third-fastest pace in college football.
USC didn’t try to run much on Wazzu; Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr combined for only 19 carries. Oregon will try to run very much, which will be a new challenge for WSU’s #SpeedD, which faces an average of just 32 rush attempts a game (23rd fewest).
Autzen: Definitely one of the loudest stadiums in the conference, if not the loudest. With this being one of the few times Wazzu takes the field in Eugene with a lower number next to their name on the score bug, those fans should be primed.
We don’t really know how these Cougs — and, in particular, a youthful receiving corps that showed it gets the dropsies in Prime Time last week — will respond to travel in general, and more specifically, a deafening atmosphere on offense that’ll require almost complete non-verbal communication.
DL: The Ducks are another match-up, like USC was, of a defense that’s great at limiting Success Rate versus a WSU offense that is highly successful.
Oregon sports a nasty front seven that generates a turnover, TFL or sack on nearly 20 percent of plays (12th), four sacks per game (2nd) including 10 percent of all dropbacks (16th), 8.6 TFLs (6th), and an overall Havoc Rate that ranks 10th.
Andrew Greif, who covers the Ducks for The Oregonian, was kind enough to drop by and give us his insights
What are you most confident in about the Oregon Ducks?
“I am most confident that come Saturday, Oregon will have confidence it can win, despite a recent rash of injuries that have created an edge for Washington State. Coach Willie Taggart has run into obstacles during his first season but the one area where his tenure has been an unmitigated success is fostering belief in players. That wasn’t the case last year, by the time UO’s matchup with WSU rolled around, after consecutive three-point losses at Nebraska and at home to a Colorado had shaken UO’s confidence in quarterback Dakota Prukop, its defense and its depth after suffering key injuries. This time, Oregon will once again be without players who have been critical to its 4-1 start — none moreso than quarterback Justin Herbert. Yet this team is tougher mentally and would like nothing more than proving that reports of its demise without Herbert are greatly exaggerated.”
What about Oregon should concern Wazzu?
“Oregon’s pass rush should concern Washington State most. The Cougars have shown they’re vulnerable in pass protection, allowing 3.8 sacks per game — the fifth-worst average nationally. Meanwhile, behind veteran linemen Jalen Jelks and Henry Mondeaux, who are each playing the best football of their careers, Oregon is averaging 4 sacks and 6.8 tackles for loss, marks that each rank among the top six in the FBS. Can UO continue its disruptive ways? It does have an advanced scouting report, courtesy of defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, who held the same position at WSU, and a blueprint of past success courtesy of Jim Leavitt, the only coordinator to hold Luke Falk to less than 50 percent passing and a touchdown or less.”
What has me confident in the Cougs
Falk4Heisman: Quarterback Luke Falk has quickly moved from needing to take a series off against Boise State to being a legit Heisman contender. While the crowd at Autzen was a concern for the Cougs as a whole, it isn’t for Falk — who has multiple game winning/tying drives away from Martin under his belt.
Falk also has a good idea that DC Coach Leavitt will stick to the same coverages and tactics he used to stymie him last season ... which are going to look pretty similar on the back end to what USC moved into last week.
DEEP: The two inside receiver positions, H and Y, have exploded in terms of production in the last few games on limited touches. That’s a pretty exciting development for an offense that has only shown one deep threat, usually outside, to opposing defenses for the last five years.
Despite being real tough against methodical, marching offenses, Oregon is prone to giving up explosives; giving up 16 pass plays over 20 yards (84th) and ranking 94th in Passing IsoPPP.
Hitting the Ducks deep might end up being the difference in the game.
Front: Taggart is being tight-lipped about who will start for the Ducks at quarterback on Saturday, and it doesn’t really matter. Oregon will still do Oregon things, no matter who is taking the snaps. Herbert was gaining real traction in the offense though, and losing him definitely hurts. Whoever gets the nod will be walking into a maelstrom.
As nasty as all those Oregon D-Line stats were, Wazzu’s front is right there with them. The Cougs get a sack, TFL or turnover on 22 percent of their plays (5th) and sack opposing quarterbacks on 13 percent of their drop-backs (6th).
The SpeedD allows a little over six passing first downs a game (14th), 0.6 passing TDs (5th), 146.6 passing yards (7th), and 9.52 yards per completion (7th). And that’s mostly because of the defensive line pressuring a quarterback into bad throws — the DBs rank 124th in passes defensed to incompletion ratio (22 percent).
Think those guys up front wont be inspired to play in front of their old coach, Joe Salave’a? Yeah, I think they might have a little extra juice for this one.
How I see this game playing out
I think there’s two, close to equally plausible ways this thing goes.
One way, Oregon mows down the WSU defense all game with rush attempts and rips off a handful of long ones, seemingly catching the defense in bad run fits whenever they want. Wazzu’s offense never really gets going because a Duck pass rush tees off on Falk all game. The Cougs are put in a hole early and the not-road-savvy team can’t do much more than keep things close, and under 60 combined points.
Alternatively, Wazzu’s offense buries Oregon in a two or three possession deficit they can’t overcome without asking an inexperienced back-up quarterback to throw the ball. The Coug front feasts on rushing the passer and the SpeedD generates a couple turnovers that effectively turn the lights out in Autzen, despite a relatively close score.
I’ll lean a little more toward the second one. WSU shows up excited to play away from Martin and jumps out to a one or two score halftime lead that balloons slightly in the second half. Big pass plays from Wazzu against big rush plays from Oregon, with a little garbage time separation in an otherwise close game.
Final Score: WSU 41 - 28 Oregon
And Mr. Greif...
“Against Cal last week, Oregon’s running game showed it can move the ball even when everyone in the stadium is expecting a run. That should provide confidence for an offense led by a passer — either Taylor Alie or Braxton Burmeister — who has yet to show consistency as a passer. Yet WSU’s defense is tough and opportunistic, and if it can make UO one-dimensional it could force the Ducks to play from behind and take out what is expected to be a loud crowd. Vegas likes the Cougars to win, and my predictions come to the same conclusion.”
Huge thanks to Andrew, who’s given us great contributions for three years now. You can follow his coverage at The Oregonian here.