WSU in Week 8: Will Ducks go up top more?

THE DUCKS HAVE a new head coach, but there's not a lot of uncertainty in Eugene. Oregon is the favorite to win the Pac-12, the program no longer has the threat of sanctions hanging over their heads and they have a QB being touted for the Heisman. Besting Oregon in 2013 will be tough for anyone, but let's look a little deeper. Here's what's on tap for the Cougs when they face Oregon in Week 8.

It's going to be hard to assess how good a head coach Mark Helfrich is in 2013. Larry Coker was labeled a genius in his first year at Miami. But fissures soon appeared, and five years later he was out on his can with the program in disarray.

But for 2013, the Ducks are stacked -- an interpretive dance coach could probably coax 10 wins from this year's Ducks. All but four members of the defensive two-deeps return, (not counting safety and leader John Boyett, who appeared only once).

By one count, the Ducks return 8 starters on offense, 7 on defense plus their kicker, although some Duck fans wish that last part wasn't the case. (Alejandro Maldonado has missed a critical field goal attempt each of the last two seasons from 41 yards or closer, leading to losses against Stanford and USC, and was 2-of-8 from beyond 40 yards or more last year.)

CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, leads what should be a pretty good secondary with so many experienced players returning. Still, the gushing preseason media reports on the defensive backs might be a little overblown, on paper anyway. The Oregon defense and pass defense were good but not stellar last season -- they ranked 44th in total defense last year, and 56th in pass defense.

Oregon doesn't lose a lot in terms from numbers but from a talent standpoint on defense, it's significant. DE Dion Jordan and DT Isaac Remington leave large holes. Duck optimists point to the fact the duo missed time to injury last year and their backups got some invaluable face time. The key may rest in how well senior Wade Keliikipi plays the nose, with the Ducks running their hybrid 3-4 base defense.

Oregon loses its top two tacklers in linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay. Sophomore Anthony Wallace transferred, further diminishing the depth. Senior SAM Boseko Lokombo is very athletic but the rest of the group has big question marks and little starting experience. The Cougs may try to stress the hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot until the Ducks prove they can handle it.

BUT ON OFFENSE IS where Oregon makes its money. The Ducks ran the ball big-time last year (685 rushes vs. 373 pass attempts). But with QB Marcus Mariota throwing to a veteran group of receivers and tight ends -- and a new coach who wants more balance in 2013 -- that figures to change some.

Colt Lyerla is a versatile weapon for the Ducks' offense, as long as he stays out of the coach's doghouse and off Twitter. And sophomore wide receiver Bralon Addison is one to watch.

But it's hard to see the Ducks going too far away from the run, even though there are a lot of question marks in the RB ranks. De'Anthony Thomas can be electric, but he didn't get a ton of carries last year (92) and he's 5-9, 176-pounds – maybe. Byron Marshall (87 car., 447 yards) ably backed up last season but neither one of those guys had as many rushing attempts or yards as Mariota, who had 106 carries for 752 hashes. (The departed Kenjon Barner had 1,767 yards on 278 carries to lead the '12 Ducks.)

The anticipation this fall camp at running back was all about if 5-star commit Thomas Tyner would be ready to take center stage. He was injured about a week ago, showed up in a boot and later crutches on the sideline. But Helfrich hasn't shed any light on the subject, only saying that he was 100 percent to his knowledge when he first appeared in a boot.

The Ducks are replacing both guards but the three guys returning are A-listers: C Hroniss Grasu, OT Jake Fisher and OT Tyler Johnstone. Three of the four 2-deep guards must be replaced. Still, o-line coach Steve Greatwood has put out some highly productive o-lines with less.

AND IF YOU want to stop the Ducks in 2013 on offense, you have to start with Mariotta -- and in both the run and pass game. He's awfully good at running their system and seven good plays in a row followed by one breakdown can often lead to him guiding Oregon to the end zone.

An elite D can stop Oregon -- Against Stanford, Mariotta completed 57 percent of his passes at 4.9 yards per attempt (including sacks). Against the Kansas State defense, he completed only 50 percent of his passes at 6.5 yards per attempt, but the Ducks' running game won that tilt for them.

In 2012, WSU trailed Oregon 23-19 at the half and they should have been ahead, having to settle for two field goals and missing an extra point. The Cougs had 26 first downs in the game, the same as Oregon had. Total yards were close at 469-402, in Oregon's favor. WSU's defense kept them in it that first half, picking off two passes and stuffed Oregon's only fourth down attempt.

The difference was Oregon ripped the Cougs for 28 unanswered points to start the third quarter, and WSU didn't take advantage of their scoring opportunities. Consistency? What consistency?

WSU will obviously need to play 60 full minutes against the Ducks to spring an upset in Eugene and even then the chances are probably slim with the Cougs still developing under Leach. But the big decider is going to be after the Ducks get inside the WSU 40-yard line – the Cougs must turn the Ducks away and/or force them to attempt field goals.

Offensively, the Cougars need to break through with more touchdowns while still nailing the field goals they do try. A monster defensive effort will be needed, and the Cougs have to take something away from the Ducks.

Even though Oregon is expected to pass more in ‘13, taking away the running game is still the key to victory against Oregon from this chair.

From the CF.C archives:

WSU in Week 7: Can Cougs exploit Beav DTs?
WSU in Week 6: Cougs face new Cal Air Raid
WSU in Week 5: Cougs host much-hyped Cardinal
WSU in Week 4: Battle of the Palouse resumes
WSU in Week 3: Who the hell is Southern Utah?
WSU in Week 2: Sizing up a different USC
WSU opener: Getting to know Auburn's defense, offense and special teams.

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