Once upon a time, not very long ago — and unfortunately for a certain defensive back who I’m sure is a very nice man — this was the enduring image of the Washington State Cougars versus the Oregon Ducks:
From 2007 to 2013, the least amount of points Oregon scored against WSU was 43. The Ducks built a brand, particularly at Autzen Stadium, out of obliterating opponents with speed — the kind of speed that left defenses grasping at ghosts as the Ducks waltzed into the end zone AGAIN. I mean, look closely at that gif, which is from 2011: The Oregon lineman trailing the play is keeping pace with WSU’s defensive backs.
On Saturday, as WSU savored its third consecutive victory over Oregon — a 33-10 victory that moved the Cougs to 6-0 on the season and catapulted them to No. 8 in the nation — the Ducks walked off the field with the fewest points they’d scored against the Cougs since the Palouse Posse was involved.
The speed gap is gone — on both sides of the ball — and the swagger that’s been so closely associated with Oregon for the better part of two decades now rests squarely on the WSU sideline.
I’m quickly running out of fresh and interesting observations about this team (what a terrible problem to have, right?), but they did surprise me in one respect this weekend: The ease with which they dispatched the Ducks.
It wasn’t a cakewalk — not with Jim Leavitt, who seems to have developed some kind of magic potion to slow down the Air Raid, coaching the Duck defense. But there was very little that led you to believe the avalanche of points synonymous with Oregon was ever coming, as even the touchdown the Ducks did get felt pretty fluky.
We spent last week’s column praising the Speed D, but it was this week’s game that really drove the point home. And DO NOT tell me Oregon was injured. Like the team the Cougs beat last week, the Ducks’ last four recruiting classes ranked Nos. 21, 16, 27 and 19. In that time, Oregon brought in 25 players rated four stars or better. Unsurprisingly, more than half of those players were on offense. Oregon still had plenty of talent — including a four-star QB, freshman or not — and plenty of speed.
The Cougars simply out-speeded the speediest team in the west. Check out this play from the first drive of the game:
Jason Gesser gives an awesome breakdown of the play here, but it’s not hard to see what happened. The line summarily blows up the handoff portion of this run-pass option, with Isaac Dotson chasing down Royce Freeman to give the QB the impression that keeping is a good plan. But Braxton Burmeister is played perfectly by Jahad Woods, who loops around for that responsibility, forcing the Burmeister to send it out to the receiver.
Now, this is the part where Oregon usually just makes one guy miss in space to rip off a big gain. Not this time: Hunter Dale pushes through the block, Jalen Thompson assists (after initially taking a bad angle) and Woods comes allllllllll the way over to deliver a shot, just for good measure.
Would the Cougar defense win every foot race with their Oregon counterparts? Probably not, but that’s often not what matters in football: Alex Grinch has these guys playing loose and aggressive, and they’re maximizing the excellent speed they do possess to close down opportunities before they can ever get started.
For the third consecutive year, things have clicked for the Cougs. They seem to teeter a little bit in the early going, then there just comes a point where the nerves simply melt away and they realize how good they actually are. Two years ago, it was a comeback win over the Ducks at Autzen that did it. Last year, it was that two-game stretch over Oregon and Stanford. This year? Beating USC at home did the trick, because there was no trepidation on the part of the Cougs as they walked into Autzen.
They knew they were the better team, and they played like the better team — a little bit of crowd noise and some shiny uniforms weren’t going to get in the way of that.
What We Liked
Speaking of swagger ... in addition to Isaiah Johnson-Mack throwing a little shade at the Autzen crowd, how many of you caught this?
And how many of you noticed that WSU commandeered the #DidSomething hashtag on Twitter, a play on Willie Taggart’s “Do Something” mantra with the Ducks?
And how many of you noticed that Roy Manning, repeatedly shouted into a camera, “JOIN THE HUNT, NOT THE HYPE!”
This doesn’t seem to be just about taking joy in beating a team that had been a bully in the conference for 20 years; this seems to be about planting a flag in the ground, a statement that WSU is for real, every bit the program Oregon is, and not going anywhere anytime soon.
I, for one, am loving every bit of this.
Yeah, Erik Powell kicked four field goals. And yeah, Hunter Dale had a billion tackles. You can read about their exploits elsewhere.
How about Gerard Wicks showing up out of nowhere to be the team’s most effective running back?
He picked up 58 yards on seven carries in a game where the ineffectiveness of the running attack was a major contributor to the Cougs often being unable to stay ahead of the sticks. Jamal Morrow and James Williams could muster only 52 yards on 14 carries.
To this point, it’s been a bit of a disappointing season for Wicks, if for no other reason than he’s been relegated to a clear third option in the backfield — before Saturday, he’d carried the ball just 15 times in the first five games. But he’s been ready when called upon, scoring an important overtime TD against Boise State before coming to the rescue against the Ducks.
It can’t be easy to get to your senior year and know that you probably aren’t going to get regular carries, but Wicks has had a tremendous attitude about it, something he wrote about:
Since that first year (redshirting), I’ve tried to keep that same hunger and drive to stay on the field.
But with our offense, that’s sometimes more difficult than it sounds. With so many weapons and different packages, you won’t be out there for every play. We are built more like the Patriots, where everyone has a job, and if you do your job well, the whole team can achieve their goals.
As my career progressed that became much easier for me to see, but I didn’t always see it so clearly before. At first, I just wanted to be the guy. ...
Whether it’s Jamal Morrow, James Williams, or me out there, our group of running backs know we can all succeed together. When one guy makes a play, our mentality is that iron sharpens iron, not of jealousy.
Frankly, it’s a tremendous — and uncommon — attitude to have. WSU is so lucky to have quality individuals like Wicks on the team, and it was fabulous to see him be able to make the most out of his chance on Saturday.
What Needs To Improve
Punting. Wash, rinse, repeat. I don’t really have anything else to add here, other than maybe our offense should just score on every drive.
The Cougs travel to Cal for a Friday night ESPN game. The Golden Bears had a promising start to the season, but nonconference wins over North Carolina and Ole Miss look less impressive by the week — as does their game against USC, where they hung around for a while — and they’re fresh off consecutive curb stompings by Oregon and Washington.
Yes, Cal will have an advantage of playing at home on the short-ish week when compared to WSU, which will be playing it’s second consecutive road game. While some people might believe such a proposition is all but unwinnable for the Cougars, the Golden Bears are kind of a mess at the moment as Justin Wilcox tries to rebuild the program in his first season. They’ve got a bit of a quarterback quandary, as Wilcox has declared that “everything is on the table” with regards to personnel.
This is one of those classic coaching moves designed to “shake things up” on a struggling team by “putting everyone on notice” and letting them know they better start doing their job, or they’ll “find someone else who will.” I don’t know how often these things actually work, but it doesn’t seem like it works very often when a team just isn’t all that good.
I’m sure Wilcox will have something cooked up to try and slow down the Air Raid. But it’s worth noting that S&P+ projects the Cougs to win this game about eight out of nine times.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. PT on BIG ESPN — and don’t you DARE complain about it, you ungrateful peons!