Washington State welcomes the Oregon Ducks into Martin Stadium on Saturday for a late-night affair to open conference play, kicking off at 6:30 PM PST on PAC-12 Networks. Oregon is coming off a tightly contested loss to a surprisingly decent Colorado team, where they dressed up like their mascot in front of their fans in Autzen and showed everybody that stopping the run was a real issue.
Colorado backup quarterback Steven Montez chalked up 135 yards on the ground, averaging 6.4 yards a pop, and the two Buff running backs added another 133 yards on 25 carries.
Wazzu sent a pretty clear message last week that it can — and will — run the ball on you if you can’t do anything to stop it. Which adds a little different dynamic to the series with Oregon under Mike Leach that’s featured no more than 18 rush attempts in a game and has gone over 70 pass attempts twice.
Before the season, people were already starting to give Oregon the side eye. College football is cyclical and the Ducks had a few things happen that put an odor in the air that their turn at the top is up. They lost the offensive coordinator most responsible for continuing to innovate Chip Kelly’s style of play in Scott Frost; failed to produce a home-grown quarterback in the shadow of Macus Mariota and tapped the FCS grad-transfer well for a second consecutive season; and brought in a totally new defensive style that they haven’t recruited for, while keeping the old defensive coordinator that wasn’t at all successful still on staff.
There was — and still is — a sense that Oregon might not be the football death machine they’ve been for the last decade. The Ducks can get got.
Brady Hoke is very much a Michigan Man, despite being born in Ohio, winning the MAC championship as a player at Ball State, and having a serious Buckeye ties in his family. Hoke’s dad played college football with Bo Schembechler under future Ohio State legendary coach Woody Hayes at Miami University (Ohio).
A former Michigan player of his, Kevin Kroger describes Hoke best as “Gritty. Not pretty” which makes for a strange fit as the new defensive coordinator at Oregon.
Hoke was previously in the Pacific Northwest as an assistant coach at Oregon State in the early 90’s under defensive coordinator Rocky Long, coaching up linebackers and the defensive line. The Beavers didn’t have much success and he was retained through a head coaching change in 1991. He parlayed that experience for a spot on the Michigan staff in 1995, his dream, remaining there through 2002 and being named Associate Head Coach by Lloyd Carr.
Hoke then had head coaching stints at his alma mater, Ball State for six years (record: 34-38), San Diego State for two years (record: 13-12) and Michigan for four years (record: 31-20). At Michigan, the Wolverine defense improved from 108th in total defense to top 20 rankings in each of his first two seasons. They ranked 7th in his final season.
Hoke is one of the first names you think of when you hear the “attacking 4-3 defense” line that’s become so popular. The Ducks have spent the last six seasons in a 3-4 scheme, recruiting — and building their brand, really — around speed at every position.
The primary difference here is between what’s called a “one-gap” and “two-gap” style of defensive play. Like most things in football, the nomenclature is somewhat self-explanatory. In a two-gap defense, which is often (not always) associated with an odd front like in a 3-4, defensive lineman are responsible for the gaps on either side of the offensive lineman they’re head up on.
The two-gap is designed to fill more gaps with less players, allowing a defense to swarm ball-carriers if the defensive line is fast and active enough to engage the offensive lineman. Its big advantage is getting numbers to the ball, specifically free flowing inside linebackers that can raise hell.
A one-gap defense, like the 4-3 Under that Hoke is leading at Oregon, has one defender assigned to every gap pre-snap. You need size and strength at defensive end positions and solid, consistent inside backers; one missed assignment and the gap integrity fails, and you’re looking at running backs putting moves on safeties at the second level.
Because Oregon hasn’t recruited for this new style of defensive front, they’ve had to blend the one-gap philosophy with players that are a little smaller and a little faster than what defenses that are typically successful with it use, creating an ultra aggressive and designed-to-be-disruptive defense that is very much hit or miss.
What has me concerned about Oregon
Attitude: Yogi Roth rather nicely summed up three ways a team will respond to the sort of off-the-field issues WSU has been hit with — a) I’m in it for me, I don’t care about the team; b) screw the coaching staff; or c) us against the world.
At this point, we don’t really know how the team is going to respond. They’ve been wildly inconsistent in how well they’ve played, even series to series within games, and have had a couple weeks now to either write the season off or rally together. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
BLITZ: Oregon is bringing heat on 45 percent of opponent drop-backs. (Thanks to Chantel Jennings for looking that up.) Highest in the conference. They aren’t doing much with it, registering a paltry 1.9 percent sack rate on passing downs, but it’s a little concerning to know that an opponent is blitz-happy and that your quarterback likes to do long division in the pocket when deciding who to throw it to.
Rolls Royce: Freeman is expected to be fine and play, which is good cause we don’t like anyone injured, and also “aw shucks” cause he averages 8.7 yards per carry. The Duck rushing attack hasn’t waned, ranking 9th in success rate and containing three backs that all average at least 7.0 yards per carry.
Andrew Greif, beat-writer extraordinaire for the Ducks at The Oregonian at OregonLive.com was kind enough to stop by and lend his insights.
What are you most confident in about the Oregon Ducks?
“This Oregon team has tested many people’s confidence so far, but I think what I’m most sure about is that the staff won’t be thrown off by the loud criticism to put together a sound gameplan for Saturday. The noise around the program and its direction right now is loud — not as bad as the volume of their practice playlists, but close — but you have to remember that some of these staffers have been through this wringer before, sometimes multiple times. (Back in ’94, when fans were wearing “Ditch Rich” T-shirts in the parking lots before games, Gary Campbell, Steve Greatwood and Don Pellum each were still on staff.) The outside concerns about the team might influence young players more likely to check traditional and social media, but I do think they should be prepared well for Saturday by a staff that knows how a win can mend most wounds.”
What has me confident about the Cougs
Attitude: 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.
Due: Oregon hasn’t lost three in a row since 2007 and the Cougs haven’t beaten them in consecutive years since 2002 and 2003. In the almighty words of Bruce Buffer, “It’s Time”.
Every down is a passing down in Pullman: The Duck defense ranks 121st in Success Rate (allowing teams to march), 95th in IsoPPP (stopping explosive plays and scoring), 119th in Line yards per carry (stopping rushing success), and 114th in Sack Rate on passing downs. They don’t do anything well on passing downs and most of what they attempt isn’t successful at defending anything.
BOOBIE: James Williams gets a chance to shine against a PAC-12 defense. Oregon is 85th in yards per rush attempt allowed and 111th in giving up rushing first downs. They also rank 123rd in Opportunity Rate, which is a measure of how frequently running backs get past five yards.
Wazzu is currently 17th in Rushing Success Rate, 6th in Opportunity Rate, 24th in Power Success Rate (short yardage rush attempts on 3rd/4th down), and 3rd in Stuff Rate (percentage of rush attempts stopped at the line of scrimmage).
Boobie’s gonna get a few chances one-on-one with a safety.
Rush defense...not a problem?: The Cougar defense is actually ranked 21st in rushing yards allowed per game, 11th in first downs allowed, 12th in Power Success Rate, and 4th in Stuff Rate. Now...they haven’t played any run heavy teams and got smoked in the passing game a couple of times but we’ll just ignore that and feel good about ourselves for the time being.
Return of the Marks: Gabe was noticeably hobbled the past few games after lighting up Eastern. Everyone is always happy and healthy but hopefully the bye week came at a good time and Gabe is even happier and healthier now.
Who even are you?: Oregon has now played three different secondary schemes in as many weeks. They went base Nickel against Colorado last week and we’d suspect they do that again on Saturday against a similar spread passing attack from WSU. Flip the adage “it’s better to do one thing well than ten things poorly” and you have the Oregon defense right now.
So, Mr. Greif...
What about Wazzu should concern Oregon?
“Certainly, it’s Luke Falk. Last season, Oregon dialed up the right coverage, defensive backs coach John Neal said, only to have Falk place his pass in the exact spot needed to exploit the defense. Although I feel Oregon’s rush defense has more questions than its pass defense, Falk’s ability — Neal thinks he’ll be an NFL starter — will test the secondary to its limits, once again.”
How I see this game playing out
We see the Wazzu team we expected to see a month ago for the first time on Saturday. Bye weeks this early are usually not viewed as a good thing, as injuries and general season fatigue haven’t really piled up yet, but the week off came at a time when WSU needed to seriously re-group before entering conference play against one of the PAC-12’s toughest opponents.
Oregon will do it’s thing, they’ll have big plays on offense and their aggressive defensive style could mix Luke Falk up for a couple series. Overall, the WSU offense should consistently move the ball on the Ducks and a lead late in the game will force Dakota Prukop, rather than their experienced bevy of running backs to win the game for them.
That doesn’t happen.
Final Score: WSU 48 - 38 Oregon
“After how much Mark Helfrich has discussed his surprise at UO’s ‘malaise’ during a slow start against Colorado, I have to believe Oregon plays faster and more focused from the opening kickoff. Running back Royce Freeman will get his yards in his return from a leg injury, and quarterback Dakota Prukop will make a few plays on third down to extend some scoring drives. And then, I think we’ll all settle in and watch two teams settle in for a shootout. Given WSU’s extra time to prepare coming off a bye, I’ve given the edge to the Cougars to win in another close one. Last one with the ball wins?”
Huge thanks to Andrew Greif for answering our questions. You can follow him on Twitter here, and read all of his Oregon coverage here.