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More than you need to know about the Cougs vs. Ducks

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WSU football needs to level up in a hurry to handle the challenge from the Oregon Ducks.

WSU Cougars Oregon Ducks football preview Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars and Oregon Ducks both came away victorious in their opening games of the shortened 2020 season, and now they’ll put those unblemished records to the test in Martin Stadium on Saturday afternoon (4pm PT, FOX). The Ducks are favored to win the Pac-12, while Washington State was predicted to land near the bottom of the Pac-12 North.

With a new coaching staff, a new quarterback, an injured star running back, and a defense coming off a horrendous 2019 season, it was safe to assume it would be difficult for Wazzu to get going in an abbreviated schedule. However, the Cougs looked solid on the road in beating Oregon State. If you go by SP+, Bill Connelly’s advanced metric, WSU outperformed expectations, jumping from 59th before the game to 40th overall after beating the Beavers.

Meanwhile, Mario Cristobal’s squad took a nice leap of its own by moving to 7th from 14th in SP+ after taking down Stanford. Let’s look at the players and trends that make the Ducks so potentially dangerous, starting with the offense.


Oregon’s Offense

After many years of the Justin Herbert show, Oregon’s quarterback spot is now occupied by sophomore Tyler Shough. The former 4-star, top-150 recruit was listed as a “Pro-Style” QB out of high school, which typically means a tendency toward pocket passing. However, like many actual professional quarterbacks these days, Shough is dangerous with his legs.

Against Stanford, Shough picked up 85 yards on the ground. He can punish a defense that leaves space to run, something WSU really didn’t have to contend with in Tristan Gebbia last week. Shough looked pretty solid through the air as well, completing 17/26 for 227 yards with a touchdown and a pick.

Shough won’t be asked to do everything, though. Oregon still has talented running back CJ Verdell, who carried 20 times for 105 yards and a score last week. You might remember Verdell torching the Cougs for a long run in Eugene in 2019. You also might not have remembered, in which case I’m sorry.

Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio will also get carries out of the backfield. Dye put up 78 yards on just six attempts against Stanford, while Habibi-Likio rushed for only six yards and a score. Expect to see him in short yardage situations.

When Shough is throwing, he’ll often look the way of fellow Chandler, Ariz. native Johnny Johnson III, who caught four passes 60 yards in the opener. He’ll also target another Johnson, DJ Johnson, at the tight end spot. Johnson (DJ) is a big body (6’5, 258) that could give WSU’s linebackers and safeties trouble.

Former top-100 recruit Mycah Pittman is a threat to pick up yards after the catch out of the slot. Senior Jaylon Redd is a chains-mover type, while Devon Williams is another former highly-regarded recruit that has a big body (6’5, 205) on the outside.

With plenty of talent, both unproven and proven, the Ducks should be a tough offense with which to contend. They currently rank 21st in SP+, although much of that is preseason rankings. Oregon is likely to be a much tougher test than Oregon State for Jake Dickert’s new defense.


Oregon’s Defense

Much like Oregon’s offense will be a bigger challenge for WSU, its defense will be many steps up from what Oregon State had to offer. While Oregon trends young on defense, playing many sophomores and even some freshmen, that doesn’t mean the Ducks lack for talent.

Oregon has landed four 5-star recruits (247 composite) in the the past two years. All four have been on defense. Add in some more high-4-stars, and there’s a lot of talent at the top buoyed by a solid base. This is where I remind you that the coaches often landing these blue chips were once employed at Washington State University.

Talent is no guarantee of success, but it does provide a floor. Oregon’s defense is fully expected to be a force, checking in at 6th in SP+. However, they may have looked closer to that floor than the ceiling against Stanford. Sure, allowing just 14 points looks good, but it could have been as much as 26 if a typically solid kicker didn’t suddenly catch the yips.

Oregon was more bend-don’t-break than dominant against the Cardinal, who were playing a backup QB. Despite the low scoring output, Stanford amassed 413 yards at a respectable 7.25 yards per play.

A big chunk of that yardage came on four plays that created Stanford’s best four drives—a 38-yard pass that sparked a touchdown drive, a 33-yard pass that put the Cardinal in position for a missed field goal, a 46-yard pass that led to another missed field goal, and a 73-yard run that mercifully set up a touchdown.

When Stanford wasn’t popping big plays, it struggled to move, particularly after it crossed the Oregon 40. That may be where the raw talent and athleticism of Oregon’s defense takes over. The big plays, perhaps, are where that youth finally shows.

I could list a bunch of defensive players and the number of tackles they made last week here, but I’ll spare you the time.


The Bottom Line

Oregon is the more talented team, but Oregon is almost always the more talented team in this matchup. Somehow, the Cougs have outperformed against the Ducks time and time again, and they nearly stretched their series win streak to five in Eugene last year. Maybe Mike Leach’s style just vibed well against Oregon, maybe Nick Rolovich’s will too. Maybe Oregon’s status as the top program in the Pac-12 for many years put a target on their back for many of these kids that weren’t recruited by the Ducks. Who knows?

None of that really matters, these are different teams. What will matter for WSU defensively will be tackling guys in space, limiting big runs, and potentially spying the QB. This all won’t happen all the time, it just needs to happen enough to keep the Cougs in the game.

Jayden de Laura and crew may have faced the worst defense in the conference last week, and this week they are probably facing the best. Stanford did expose a potential weakness—the big play. The Cougs showed the ability to create big plays against Oregon State, and the Run and Shoot offense stretches the field vertically.

To find success against Oregon’s defense, the Cougs will need more deep-throw dimes from de Laura, more big plays from Travell Harris, and probably some nice chunk plays from Deon McIntosh on the ground. The ability from de Laura to extend plays, and convert first downs with his legs when receivers are covered will also be an important weapon.

Certainly, the freshman will need to take care of the ball. Maybe hold it a little tighter when scrambling, and hitting reads earlier to ensure he throws them on time. Oregon’s defense will be faster and less forgiving than Oregon State’s.

The Cougs will need big plays on both sides of the ball. Turnovers will help the defense, but so will forcing negative plays. Tightening up on third and longs will be important, Oregon has multiple players with the ability to shake loose and convert something frustrating. Offensively, much of the same. WSU needs big chunks, who doesn’t love big chunks?

This is the equivalent of completing the tutorial of a video game and then being immediately thrown into a late-stage boss fight. We’ll see if the Cougs have leveled up enough in Rolovich’s second outing to handle the change in difficulty.