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WSU vs. Oregon: Cougars out to prove who they really are

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This feels an awful lot like a make-or-break game for both teams.

NCAA Football: Idaho at Washington State
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James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

One of my greatest annoyances in sports is the mythical “must-win” game when a game isn’t an actual “must-win.” That said, tonight’s contest against the Oregon Ducks feels awfully, awfully important, and I wouldn’t really begrudge anyone who used that previous term.

Between losing the first two games and the off-the-field legal troubles for the team, it’s been a less-than-stellar start to the most anticipated season of Cougar football in a decade. And while I don’t know if a win against a reeling Oregon team solves all that, I do know this: Lose the game, and you’re in one heck of a hole that will make it all but impossible to meet any of the lofty preseason expectations.

The game kicks off at 6:30 p.m. from Martin Stadium on Pac-12 Networks. You can watch the game via online streaming at Pac-12.com

Things are set up well for WSU; coming off the bye, the Cougars should be sufficiently healthy, and the time to step back hopefully allowed for some self-scouting, particularly on offense.

Meanwhile, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Ducks respond. They’re coming off two consecutive losses — first at Nebraska, then at home to Colorado. There’s a lot of noise surrounding the program and its direction under Mark Helfrich, which, as Brian Anderson noted in his (always awesome) Pre-Snap Read preview yesterday, can go either way:

Colorado might’ve broken Oregon. Maybe. Possibly. Faith in Mark Helfrich is pretty low after consecutive three-point losses to teams the fan base probably assumed they’d be able to handle. The Ducks could either rebound from that loss to CU all pissed off and angry or show up sad that they aren’t getting the wins they were entitled to when they signed up. It’s tough to guess which way that breaks.

Yes, this also is a massive game for the Ducks, who already are in an 0-1 hole in the Pac-12 North. But if I was betting on which way it goes, I’d bet against the Ducks: Martin Stadium is going to be hostile under the lights, and if you watched that Colorado game, Oregon just doesn’t have the swagger it once did. The Buffs hit them hard early, the Ducks hit back with their best shot ... and it wasn’t enough.

Perhaps this game plays out differently in Eugene, but if the Cougs can come out with a lot of energy early (which, of course, is a massive IF for this particular group), it’s not hard for me to envision the Ducks folding up shop pretty easily.

The key for me will be Royce Freeman, and what the Cougs are able to do to limit him. He’s going to be a battering ram, and if Oregon can ride him, that will go a long way toward buoying whatever self-doubt the Ducks bring into the game.

Go Cougs. Let’s get back to 2-2.