Oregon might not be Oregon anymore, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of WSU’s 51-33 victory over the Ducks in front of a packed house at Martin Stadium on Saturday night.
The Cougars, who had such high hopes coming into 2016, entered the game with their season teetering on the brink after a 1-2 start in the non-conference season. Oregon was feeling much the same way, coming to Pullman on an unfamiliar two-game skid.
But it became clear within a quarter that the Ducks just didn’t have as much juice as the Cougars, who came out loose and aggressive looking to take the game to a palpably fragile Oregon.
The Cougs rolled up 651 yards of total offense in the game, including 280(!!!!!) yards on the ground as the Ducks were generally helpless to stop WSU, which showed off the offense we all expected coming into this season. The teams traded blows early in the game, but the WSU defense got a couple of stops and the Cougars scored touchdowns on four of five drives to start the game to take a 28-14 lead into the break, never looking back.
Oregon did have some success early handing the ball to Royce Freeman, who returned from injury to rack up 138 yards on 19 carries. But when the Ducks didn’t hand him the ball, they didn’t have a lot of luck moving it; for the second consecutive year, Oregon really just couldn’t throw it against the Cougars at all. Dakota Prukop finished 14-of-22 for 138 yards.
In the end, the Cougs outgained the Ducks 651-416 and 7.4 to 6.5 on a yards per play basis. But honestly, the game wasn’t even that close; a 75-yard run by Freeman and a 100-yard kickoff return by Charles Nelson in the second half with the game already out of hand — plus a TD with backups on the field in the last minute — made the final score look closer than it really was.
It was domination from start to finish; the Cougs left points on the board with a blocked field goal and a failed fourth and goal (likely spurred on by the blocked field goal). This could have easily been something like 60-20.
Undoubtedly, the most impressive development of this game was the performance of the rushing attack. The Air Raid will never be confused with a punishing pro-style running game, but it is designed to take advantage of defenses that don’t put enough defenders in the box in an effort to defend the pass. And every time the Ducks presented a front that wasn’t sufficiently committed to stopping the Cougars’ rushing attack, WSU made them pay. That even seemed to include some times that Oregon had six guys near the line.
In the end, Jamal Morrow would run for 122 yards on 13 attempts, while James Williams went for 91 yards on 11 attempts and Gerard Wicks gained 60 yards on 11 attempts.
In all, the running backs went for 273 yards on 35 attempts, besting last week’s 218 yards on 30 attempts to set a new high for rushing yards in the the Mike Leach era at WSU. Each running back scored two touchdowns apiece. Apiece!
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Air Raid without plenty of passes, and Falk still put the ball in the air 48 times with 36 completions for 371 yards and a touchdown. He was outstanding, showing greater decisiveness and a willingness to push the ball downfield when called for.
The game also featured a delivery on the promise of Hercules Mata’afa, who was the disruptive force we all imagined he would be this season, registering 3.5 tackles for loss that included a sack for a safety.
In all, it was the kind of performance that makes you believe the Cougs might just be back on track for the season we all hoped. Even if it’s not true — Stanford looms next weekend — for a week, the Cougs sit at 1-0 in the Pac-12 after stomping a team that was in the top 25 a couple of weeks ago and everything feels right again.