After failing to rip a win out of Cal's shaky grasp last weekend, the Cougs trip into one of the most imposing stadiums on the West Coast for a lunch date with the Oregon Ducks. Oregon is a shell of the team that went to the national title game a year ago, but still has the formidable weapons at skill positions you'd expect from what has recently been the premier program in the conference.
Just not all of them are healthy. Oregon starting quarterback Vernon Adams remains sidelined with a broken finger on his throwing hand and is unlikely to take snaps against the Cougs. Converted wide receiver Byron Marshall is out with a leg injury. Wide receiver Darren Carrington and tight end Pharoh Brown are both out too. The injury bug hasn't been kind to the Ducks, but it's their defense that's been most eyebrow-raising.
The Ducks rank 113th in the nation in points allowed per game (37.4) and 91st in defense S&P+. Wazzu's strongest attribute offensively is Passing Success Rate, where they rank 17th nationally. This is an efficiency metric that gauges how well an offense stays on pace to move the chains when it throws the ball. Oregon's pass defense ranks 108th against this efficiency measure.
Long story short: WSU dinks and dunks very well and Oregon cannot stop it.
Oregon rebounded from the Utah thrashing well against Colorado, holding them to 24 points and Sefo Liufau to just 25-of-42 passing for 251 yards. Both Georgia State and Eastern Washington threw for over 300 yards on them earlier in the season. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum moved down to the sideline following the home loss to the Utes, and the Duck defense seemingly responded well to having his energy on the sideline as they try to turn things around.
This is the most vulnerable Oregon has been in years.
What has me concerned about the Oregon Ducks
Taylor Alie...('s legs). Normally, not facing a starting quarterback is a good thing, but there could be more give & take in that for WSU. Alie will likely split series with their other back-up, Jeff Lockie, and is a considerably greater run threat than either Lockie or the starter Adams. The Coug D has strung together six quarters of really solid rush defense, but got torched by PSU the last time they went up against a mobile quarterback running veer.
Whether or not WSU figured out how to defend zone-read is still a major question mark, and with some Duck WR playmakers out, Oregon will be giving them a heavy dose of it. Alie had more rush attempts (5) than pass completions (4) against Colorado, and while he hasn't had any huge statistic games, he's shown enough speed in his appearances to be a concern.
Royce Freeman (et al.) The other half of that zone-read duo. Freeman has already amassed 617 yards and seven TDs, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He also leads the country in number of rush attempts that have gone for 10 or more yards (25). Freeman led the way for Oregon's offense last week -- going 163 yards on 27 carries -- and the Ducks are going to need him to carry the offense until things at quarterback and wide receiver get straightened out. Lightning fast freshman Taj Griffin also had a breakout game at running back and could be seeing his role increase.
Most special of teams. WSU is ranked 109th nationally in opponent kick-off return yardage (25 yards) and 119th in punt return yardage (19.75 yards). I have no idea why Eric Mele is so persistent about not kicking touchbacks, but do have a heart palpitation every time I see the return man get a running start from the five yard line.
This is not a good weakness to have when your opponent's strength is overwhelming speed at the skill positions. Charles Nelson returned four kicks for 124 yards against Colorado. I don't wanna say it's a given he's going to house a kick, but it's probably a given he's going to house a kick. Swallow your pride and boot it out of the end zone, please.
At this point it's almost guaranteed the Coug special teams is going to directly spot the opponent points and is consistently making two blunders a game. How they've done it has been creative, so look forward to that. So far we have a blocked FG, fumbled punt, kick return, punt return, fumbled fake, and an onside kick.
Andrew Greif, beat writer for the Ducks at The Oregonian, stopped by to learn you a thing or two
What are you most confident about in the Oregon Ducks?
"At this point, all the confidence has to be placed in Oregon's running game, whose 300.4 yards per game ranks eighth-best among FBS teams. Like every other position group this season it hasn't been perfect; though Vernon Adams Jr.'s overthrow of a wide-open Byron Marshall in the end zone will be remembered most from Oregon's loss at Michigan State, the Spartans' stuff of UO on fourth-and-goal from the MSU 1-yard line was just as damaging.
"Yet while Oregon has struggled to find rhythm in its passing game, its running backs have been much more consistent, not to mention deep. Royce Freeman's encore to becoming the fourth true freshman in conference history to rush for more than 1,000 yards has been a 122.6-yard average this fall, which is 16th-best nationally. No other back in the country has more than Freeman's 25 runs of 10-plus yards. Behind him will be either Kani Benoit, a bigger back physically in the mold of Freeman, or Taj Griffin, a five-star recruit from Georgia who gets to the edge faster than anybody on the team. Just 13 months after tearing knee ligaments as a prep senior, Griffin had 150 total yards in his first start of the season last week against Colorado."
What has me confident about Wazzu
I done fell in love with the Coug D. Heading into last Saturday's match-up, Cal averaged just shy of 200 yards on the ground per game. WSU held them to 79 yards. Over half of those went to Enwere on his 42 yard scamper on a third-and-The Nile River that effectively doused any real shot WSU had left. That was bad, but overall the defense was really, really solid against a very potent Bear ground game.
The Cougs have progressively gotten better on defense each week. They aren't to the point where they'll win games for the team, but if last weekend's effort can be consistently replicated, they look like a defense that can certainly keep things close.
Trenches. I'm comfortable saying the seven sacks given up to Cal were more aberration than indicative of the rest of the season. Five of them were easily attributable to the quarterback and the unit just didn't have its best day. Even with that bad posting, the WSU sack rate is still only 2.9 pct on passing downs and 6.1 pct on standard downs.
Mike Leach on who was responsible for the seven sacks on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/X6kdwoPqV9— Jacob Thorpe (@JacobThorpeSR) October 5, 2015
It shouldn't be surprising to hear Coach Leach call them out a little bit as motivation after a mediocre game. They get to really prove a point next Saturday, as Oregon's pass rush relies almost entirely on the shoulders of one man, DeForest Buckner, who is a stud at defensive end.
Collectively, Oregon's pass rush hasn't been that effective. The defensive line havoc rate is way below average at 2.2 pct, and their adjusted sack rate ranks 116th nationally. The Ducks looked most comfortable bringing four man pressure against the Buffs, and would very often elect coverage over pressure, rushing just three. They're playing a much softer zone coverage against spread teams this season than they have in years past.
On the flip side, WSU's defense ranks 7th in adjusted sack rate and 2nd (!!!) in linebacker havoc rate at 7.2 pct. That means on 7.2 percent of plays, a Coug LB either records a sack, TFL, INT, or pass break up. That's phenomenal.
Their seven sacks of Marcus Mariota were a major reason Wazzu kept things close enough to win last season, and that may be a similar story this year if they can force passing downs on two QBs that are struggling to throw the ball. Pressuring inexperienced QBs into making poor decisions under duress is a strategy as old as the forward pass.
Cougs like Ducks. For whatever reason, even when WSU was really bad, the Cougs always seem to give Oregon a game (or at least a half).
So, Mr. Greif....
What scares you about Wazzu?
"This will not be a groundbreaking opinion, but it's the only real answer: Washington State's passing attack against Oregon's secondary.
"Oregon replaced three of four starters after last season, and then in mid-September the fourth (corner Chris Seisay) hurt his foot and is sidelined indefinitely. The Ducks' two deep for this week includes three freshmen, four sophomores and a junior who has struggled with open-field tackling. Improvement came in the form of 39 passing yards allowed in the second half last week against Colorado. Yet UO nonetheless ranks 105th in passing efficiency defense because it's been hurt by balls thrown both over the top and underneath, where poor tackling — at all levels, including the linebackers -- has turned quick routes into long gains."
How I think the game plays out
It's hard to see the Cougs not getting up for this game. Last week should've garnered some confidence that when things are on point, the defense can be pretty decent. Still, stopping Oregon for four quarters is a challenge even if it's against some back-ups in key roles.
This game is likely a battle of WSU sustained drives and Oregon explosive plays. Wazzu has been pretty methodical on most all of their scoring drives, and should be able to pick apart the Duck defense underneath. Stringing a couple of those type of drives together a quarter will not only be important for points (duh), but keeping the Duck tempo from draining the Coug D. All that work underneath (and deficiencies of Oregon's secondary) will lead to a couple explosives. I can see Dom Williams or Tavares Martin Jr. getting a step behind the defense for a long score when Falk takes his shot, and either could break a screen, too.
Oregon will run close to 80 plays -- 50 will be rush attempts -- and they're averaging an explosive (10+ yds) on 21 percent of them. Those big runs are what's going to push pace on the Cougs. However, remove the game against Eastern Washington and the Ducks are actually averaging less than 6.0 yards per play. I think we see the defense playing well for most of the game, but breakdowns are going to eventually happen against this offense and Oregon will get theirs. I also think pressure on either of their quarterbacks, but especially Lockie, could force an interception or two.
After a back and forth all game, the Wazzu offense clutches up and finishes a couple drives late to win it.
Final score WSU 38 - 35 Oregon
And Mr. Greif...
"I think this game — which I've got as an Oregon victory — hinges on Oregon's line play. For Oregon's defense to have a chance, its pass rush must get Luke Falk uncomfortable, and that effort starts up front. For really the first time this season, UO found success with three- and four-man rushes against Colorado. If Alex Balducci can stop his gaps over the top of Washington State's center and guard, and DeForest Buckner can be another force of nature from his end position, then that pressure on Falk will buy the Ducks' pass coverage the time it needs.
"Offensively, Oregon has a surplus of talented receivers even without Byron Marshall and Darren Carrington, but they've been of little use as the quarterbacks have struggled mightily to throw accurately downfield. That puts more pressure on Oregon's offensive line and running backs to get close to their 300-yard average. UO is 10-0 under coach Mark Helfrich when rushing for at least that many yards.
Huge thanks to Andrew for filling us in on the Ducks. You can follow him on twitter, see all of his posts here, and read half of a Q&A he had with our friend Jacob Thorpe in his 5 Questions about the Cougars.