If ESPN’s College GameDay were something you could win, I think WSU and it’s fans would be winning in an epic blow out. I’m having a freaking blast watching the commotion and excitement. But what about that game on Saturday that puts the winner in the Pac-12 North driver’s seat? It is looking to me like it’s going to match the excitement level our fanbase and the college football world has around GameDay’s arrival in Pullman. Expect points.
Like, a lot of points.
The Oregon Ducks and Washington State Cougars are first and second in the Pac-12 in points per game and points per play, while WSU is first and Oregon is third in yards per play. Nationally, WSU is eighth in percentage of possessions that result in a touchdown, finding the end zone on 48% of their possessions, while Oregon is 11th at 45%. The Cougs are going for it on 4th down 38% of the time (6th in #NeverKick%), and Oregon is going for it on 4th down 31% of the time (13th nationally). So something’s gotta give right?
I think it’s all going to come down to how well each team protects the QB. Gardner Minshew II’s ability to move around in the pocket and extend plays with his feet and the excellent play of Andre Dillard and the Cougar offense line in pass protection has WSU operating at a very impressive level when it comes to keeping their mustached QB upright. No other team has attempted more passes in FBS this year than WSU, and they’ve only given up five sacks, tied for seventh nationally with Alabama. They’re currently giving up a sack every 66 pass attempts, good for second in the Power 5.
The below viz looks at all Power 5 conferences (you can filter the others in if you like) by pass attempts per sack (pass attempts + sacks+interceptions/sacks). Oregon is by far the best in the statistic of WSU’s FBS opponents this year, checking in at 3rd in the Pac-12 and 15th in Power 5 at 24 pass attempts per sack.
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There are two reasons I think that stat is going to be important.
First, Oregon’s ranks 95th in FBS in % of plays gained over 10+ yards, where WSU’s offense ranks 13th. Oregon jumps all the way to 24th in % of plays 20+ yards, whereas WSU falls to 83rd. What that means is that WSU is way more efficient than Oregon, but is going to struggle if we get knocked into long yardage situations where as Oregon is more capable of moving the chains even if they face a long yardage to gain. I think their proficiency in getting 20+ yard plays is a big reason why Oregon leads the Pac-12 in 3rd down conversion % while also being decently inefficient on offense.
Second, WSU ranks first in the Pac-12 on defense in pass attempts per sack, taking down the opposing QB every 9.72 pass attempts, Oregon ranks 3rd at 11.7 pass attempts per sack. Since Oregon isn’t as efficient as WSU, hopefully Dominck Silvels and the #SpeedD get after Justin Herbert and can put the Ducks in some longer third down situations where they won’t be able to run as effectively. For the Cougs to stay on schedule against an equally adept Oregon defensive line, they’ll need to keep Gardner from getting dropped.
This feels like a who ever has the ball last wins type game. If WSU can keep Gardner clean and stay in manageable situations, I really like our chances — mostly because of how we’ve been scoring touchdowns in the red zone. I wrote before the season started about the need for WSU to go back to the running game in the red zone and the good news is that they have. They’re running the ball on 42% of the red zone plays (a 16% increase vs before the red zone) and 44% of their red zone touchdowns have been via the ground (identical to 2016). We all know what Oregon is going to do; they’re going to pound the ball — it’s part of the identity that Mario Cristobal is installing. However, the Duck defense could be in for a change up in the red zone when it comes to the Cougs.
The below chart looks at what % of an opponent’s plays are rushing vs passing before the red zone and in the red zone. In 2018 Oregon’s opponent’s are running the ball 59% of the time before the red zone and only 40% of the time once in it. The increased focus on the pass is also showing up in touchdowns where Oregon is giving up 70% of it’s touchdowns in the red zone through the air, a big shift from 2017 where their opponents relied much more on the run to get points. The Cougs are seeing teams go from running 58% of the time before the red zone to 75% of the time once in it, probably a big reason by 10 of the 11 touchdowns they’ve given up in the red zone this year are via the run.
I think the renewed focus on running the ball in the red zone could be just the change up the WSU offense needs to keep converting their drives into touchdowns and stay on pace with Oregon.
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Oregon is going to run the ball, WSU is going to pass it. The Cougs struggle to stop the run, the Duck defense has some weird stuff going on in the red zone that James Williams and Max Borghi can hopefully exploit. I think the crowd is going to be a huge factor and I honestly think that WSU’s collective talent level is on par with Oregon’s. Get ready for a wild, wild ride that I think results in a Cougar W.