The Washington State Cougars host the No. 15 Oregon Ducks in Pullman on Saturday afternoon (1 pm PT, FOX). This is the Pac-12 opener for both teams, and both are riding high from big non-conference wins. The Ducks did lose to Georgia, but many fine teams will suffer the same fate at the hands of the Bulldogs this season.
Martin Stadium should be full for this one, with tickets sold out and an overall energy among the fanbase to match. In response to the big moment, the Cougs are wearing their all-anthracite uniforms—the same combination they were wearing when they beat the Ducks on “Gameday” in 2018.
Some may say that all-anthracite is tainted forever because of a certain game that we all remember from the 21st night of September in 2019, but that was different. WSU planned all-anthracite as a marketing promotion before that game before the season even started. The selection of all-anthracite must be organic and saved for the biggest moments. Time to recapture its power.
But enough about uniforms, you want to hear about football. Let’s dig into a rapid-fire preview of the Cougs vs. the Ducks.
The Most Interesting Thing About Oregon
The Ducks are the originators of the revolving transfer quarterback door, and Bo Nix is the latest to come to Eugene after previously playing college football elsewhere. Bo Nix is the most QB from Alabama name possible, and he is now taking snaps for Oregon.
You may remember Nix as a decent quarterback at Auburn. He can throw a little and he’ll run a little. The Ducks won’t ask him to do too much—they still run over half of the time with a rotating set of tailbacks.
Nix’s ability to gain yardage with his feet is just the type of QB that keeps WSU fans up at night. The Cougs will need to be disciplined in their pass rush, lest the man from Alabama gets free and picks up some easy first downs with his legs. Nix won’t be easy to bring down in the backfield—Oregon has yet to give up a sack this season.
Another Interesting Thing About Oregon
While Oregon has had some famously disruptive defensive linemen lately, that hasn’t been the case through three games. The Ducks sit at nine total tackles-for-loss in three games, and just three total quarterback sacks.
The WSU offensive line was a major question mark coming into the season. So far, they have largely overperformed expectations but definitely have faltered at times throughout games. Can they hold their own against an Oregon front seven that hasn’t generated much havoc so far? That will be an important factor.
Has WSU’s Offense Turned a Corner?
The Cougs scored on their first four drives against Colorado State, building a 28-0 lead in the second quarter. WSU seemed to go on cruise control after that, and the highlights were few in the second half.
Should Coug fans be more encouraged by the first-half barrage, or discouraged by the second-half slip-up (which, honestly, was largely fueled by the offensive line)? Probably more of the former than the latter—Cam Ward showed he can make some tough throws, and that he’s willing to take a hit in order to make a big play. Nakia Watson is improving by the week in the run game, and WSU’s outside receivers finally made some plays.
It’s always good to do something just so you know you can do it—and scoring multiple touchdowns in a game is a good thing to know you can do. If any of WSU’s receivers can emulate that against Oregon, that’ll be a good sign.
How WSU Can Win
The matchup against Oregon will be the third time in four games that WSU faces a team that prefers to run more than pass. The Cougar defense fared well in its first two outings against run-heavy opponents, including against a boss-level running attack in Madison.
Oregon will come at WSU differently than the Badgers, but it’s likely the Cougs will take a similar defensive approach as they did in Wisconsin—selling out against the run game and forcing the quarterback to beat them through the air.
In order for this approach to be successful, the Cougs need to put Oregon into obvious passing downs. That means stuff plays and loss plays on first and second down runs. Havoc needs to reign supreme—turnovers would be great, too. Hello, Daiyan Henley? How about another big game.
Oregon has been very efficient and effective at getting into manageable third downs, so creating that havoc is easier said than done.
On the other side, Ward needs to build on what he did against Colorado State as WSU continues to open up the offense. Against Wisconsin, the big atmosphere seemed to get to him early. There will be a similar level of excitement in Martin Stadium. It will be good to see him come out and hit his throws in the first quarter and avoid any critical mistakes.
That’s another thing—WSU has been prone to major miscues leading to easy points for their opponents in all three games. At some point, that will come back to bite them. It almost did against Wisconsin, it likely would against Oregon.
Beyond limiting mistakes, WSU’s offense has struggled to maintain long drives unless it is killing clock. Most of its scoring drives have come on short fields. The Cougars will probably need to put together some sustained scoring drives from deep in their own territory to beat the Ducks.
So far this season, Oregon’s biggest weakness has been defending the pass. It would be highly encouraging to see Ward and his receivers continue that trend.
How WSU Can Cover
The spread favors Oregon by 6.5. WSU covering would not be satisfying for any non-gamblers. Sorry, gamblers, but just win Cougs.
Is This a Rivalry?
Yes. Oregon hates playing WSU. The Cougs, both fans and team, circle Oregon on the calendar every year. The all-time series is fairly even, and was completely even until WSU’s worst stretch as a program aligned with Oregon’s best. Someone should name this game. Let’s make a trophy.
Bonus Song to Get Hyped
Cougs of a certain era remember E-Drid, and the rapper’s crowning achievement was a song he recorded before the 2004 football campaign, when WSU was coming off three-straight 10-win seasons. It has an infectious hook that I can never get out of my head. It also has the expertly crafted line: “Oh my god, the Oregon Ducks suck.”
Here’s to hoping that people are saying that loudly and frequently on Saturday.