The Washington State Cougars are coming off a win for the first time in a month, but after stomping Colorado they will face a much tougher task in Eugene. Oregon looks better than it has in years, and if the Cougs are going to make it five in a row over the Ducks, they’ll have to play better than they did in taking down the Buffaloes.
Just like when it faced Wazzu in 2018, Oregon is coming off a big win over the Washington Huskies. This is certainly a Coug-approved victory, and it probably helps that the Ducks expelled so much emotional energy last weekend.
Last year WSU got off to a big start, and steamrolled Oregon on the way to a 27-0 lead. That edition of the Ducks did not possess the defense that Mario Cristobal’s current squad has. It’s going to be tough in Autzen.
Let’s look at the important trends and factors that will impact the Cougs vs. Ducks. (Note: I’m on vacation in Mexico, so this preview is about half the length it is normally. Please stop clapping when I say that.)
When Oregon has the ball...
It was a bit of a surprise when Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior season. That decision has paid off big time for the Ducks, with Herbert tossing 21 touchdown passes against one single solitary interception thus far.
Herbert has come back to lead a pretty potent passing offense. The Ducks excel on passing downs—9th best in the country, and are successful on passes of any down at the 18th-best rate nationally.
Still, like many opponents WSU has faced, Oregon can’t help but run the ball to its own detriment at times when the pass is clearly the strength of the offense. The running game isn’t bad—it’s a little above average by most measures—but it sure seems like the Ducks would benefit from chucking it around a little more.
Arizona State and Utah figured this out against the Coug defense, it will be interesting to see if Oregon does the same.
One good sign for the Cougs is that Oregon hasn’t been particularly explosive, and limiting explosive plays has been key to the success of WSU defenses. If Wazzu can keep Oregon from getting chunks, it could employ some bend-don’t-break and put the Ducks in some awkward situations where they might have to use their not-so-good kicking game.
Still, WSU has made some non-explosive offenses look explosive this year. The obvious exception is Colorado. That is also the most recent game, so it does give us some hope.
When WSU has the ball...
Let’s not sugar coat things: Oregon has been excellent against the pass this season. The Ducks are giving up just 4.4 yards per pass, sixth-best nationally. They are seventh in passing success rate and fourth in passing down success rate. This has been a defense that has been very good against the pass.
Oregon also doesn’t give up much in scoring opportunities. The Ducks do let teams move—they are 88th in allowing drives that get inside the 40. However, once teams are close, Oregon locks down. Opposing teams have scored touchdowns just 28 percent of the time when reaching the 40, and just 25 percent of the time when getting inside the red zone (that’s the best in the country).
That means chunk plays will matter, big time, for the Cougs. If Gordon, Borghi, and associates can hit on some 20- to 40-yard touchdowns plays, they can circumvent what Oregon does best. And the Ducks are only about average in allowing explosive plays, so there is that opportunity.
Washington was also the best offense that Oregon has faced all year, and the Huskies moved the ball well particularly in the passing game. Jacob Eason was over nine yards a pass. If you are wondering, UW is ranked seventh offensively in SP+. WSU is ranked fourth.
There’s a chance Oregon’s defense isn’t as good as it looked early this season and there’s an opportunity for the Cougs to do a little exposing. However, Wazzu needs those big plays. If not, Blake Mazza will likely be getting a workout.
The Bottom Line
Oregon is the more talented team. The Ducks have a clear path to the College Football Playoff if they can take care of business. However, that game against UW might have exposed some weaknesses that the Cougs and other teams can exploit down the stretch,
WSU has the ability to win this game if it can limit big plays and get a few long TDs of its own. On the balance, Oregon wins most of the time. However, SP+ still thinks the Cougs win roughly 30 percent and that means there are a lot of scenarios where things go right for Washington State.
The Ducks are likely to win, and likely to win by a couple scores. However, if you see the Cougs force them into some long drives and break a big play early, we may be in for an unexpected afternoon.