Oregon 101: Cougs need to take away the...

SOMETIMES, CRAZY STUFF in sports just happens. Chris Bosio once threw a no-hitter. John Daly once won the PGA Championship. And I maintain that any team in the Pac-12 conference has at least a chance of beating Oregon, no matter good the Ducks may be in 2013. And that certainly includes the Cougs.

There's a precedent here, as the Cougars not only beat a Top-10 ranked Oregon team in Eugene once upon a time, they thumped ‘em 55-16. No, a game from 2003 doesn't have much to do with this year's squads, except to further illustrate that upsets do happen. It is just the nature of football.

But remember when Pete Carroll's Trojan teams were seemingly invincible? Except they weren't. They Trojans almost always lost a conference game or two each year. The same holds true of the Ducks in this decade. Since 2009, the Ducks have been to four straight BCS Bowls, but only once did they survive the conference slate unscathed: in 2010.

The 2010 Ducks were Oregon's greatest team. They came within seconds of a national title -- but they also came within inches of disaster on a seemingly random week in November, when they narrowly escaped a 5-7 Cal team by the pedestrian score of 15-13.

Only one ingredient is necessary for the Cougs to stage an upset: the belief that you can. Similarly, the belief that you can't ensures you won't. If the right team holds onto one, and the wrong team learns during the game to hold onto the other, life can get interesting.

Cougars (4-3) vs Ducks (6-0)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
7:00 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Autzen Stadium (56,000)

TELEVISION:
FOX Sports 1

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
Oregon by 38.5 points

LAST MEETING:
WSU lost 51-26 in 2012.

THE SERIES:
WSU is 38-44-7 in the series.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Ducks 55, Cougs 30

THE DUCKS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Marcus Mariota, QB: Mariota is equally dangerous on the ground or through the air. He averages 10.4 yards per rush and 10.4 yards per pass attempt. Pick your poison. The Heisman frontrunner according to most, he ranks No. 5 in passing efficiency nationally, and No. 6 in total offense. The UW game was the first time the sophomore played in a fourth quarter this season.

De'Anthony Thomas, RB: As if the Cougs didn't have enough to worry about, the Ducks expect to get the lightning fast DeAnthony Thomas back this week after last playing in a game Sep. 28. Byron Marshall has carried the load admirably while Thomas has been recovering from an ankle injury, but "DAT" is really special.

Overview
Oregon's read option is being imitated by more and more programs, but nobody does it quite like the Ducks. Fast paced and aggressive, it gains something extra when being run by a really talented quarterback. And Mariota is as dynamic as he is improvisational.

Strategy
Oregon is used to blowing teams out. So much so, that they really seem uncomfortable when they aren't. Over the last six seasons, the Ducks have been held to 30 points or less just eight times, but they have lost seven of those contests. Any hope of victory for the Cougs centers around an epic defensive performance -- and any defensive game plan should be centered around attacking Mariota. You have to take something away when you face an elite offensive team, and the Cougs would do well to make that one thing Mariota and Oregon's ability to run. Mariota and Oregon will actually help you in this regard, especially early, because Mariota wants to throw more to increase his NFL stock and Oregon wants him to throw more so they can attract elite QBs who aren't hearing so much about how UO quarterbacks don't make it in the NFL. While the long passes have hurt, the Cougars have proven capable of stuffing the run and keeping receivers contained on short passes. They need to bank on that being the case this week because the safeties will need to play up to help contain and pressure Mariota, and the Ducks lead the Pac-12 and are No. 3 nationally in rushing at 324.0 hashes per game.

Key Statistic
Zero turnovers for Mariota: Oregon's quarterback has yet to throw an interception or fumble the ball this season.

THE DUCKS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB: All-America and Thorpe Award candidate. He actually ranks second on the team in tackles with so many teams trying to play catch up on the scoreboard.

Tony Washington, DE: UO's most disruptive pass rusher, Washington has 4.5 sacks and 7 tackles-for-loss this season.

Overview
The man at the top and the players keep changing, but defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti endures in Eugene. His 4-3 defense has changed little over the years. He brings a lot of pressure and expects to create turnovers. He caused a stir this week when he blasted the officials and said WSU should pass long because they'll get easy pass interference calls, with the inference being they should be called.

Strategy
The Ducks have occasionally looked susceptible to the running game, which the Cougars might need to utilize anyway to slow the game down. With little to lose, Leach and Co. should use all four downs whenever practical to try a keep the ball out of Oregon's hands and keep pace on the scoreboard. As potent as Oregon's offense is, starting field position is of little concern anyway so even those who don't like how often the Cougs go for it, they should rethink that strategy for this one game.

Key Statistic
A 94.1 in Pass Efficiency Defense: The Ducks rank No. 5 nationally in pass defense. A glaring concern for an opponent who passes the ball 54.4 times per game.

THE DUCKS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Ducks' punting and field goal units are merely average. The bad news is they are about as called upon as the Maytag repair man.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-The Ducks are coming off a big buildup in the UW game. But Oregon's offense is so prolific that even when they've come out a little flat, they've still blown by people eventually. But WSU needs to hit upon that from the start and work it as long as they can. If not, it's going to be a long day.

The Ducks are likely to take the Cougars lightly, no matter how much of this week they've spent saying the "right things." And that is when a team can get a scare. For WSU to actually win the game though, the Cougs have to play with a ridiculous level of confidence. That confidence may be shaken after the collapse to the Beavers, but I think they have tasted enough success on the road this season to believe they are capable of beating anybody when they are playing well. One big play early in the game could be all it takes to get the ball rolling.

On defense, the Cougs need their outside defensive linemen to not only put pressure on the quarterback but also to track down quick, shifty running backs – or at least alter their course enough that the linebackers can clean it up. To deal with Oregon's speed and the speedy way they play, WSU will have to both rotate and use their own speed, something that was more apparent on defense against Auburn and other early season opponents than it has been of late.

Teams that have beaten Oregon in recent years have mostly done so by controlling the line of scrimmage and pounding the ball at them – not exactly what you think of when you consider the Air Raid. While Leach would do well to at least try to run a little bit more, success will ultimately be determined if the WSU screen passing game, particularly to running backs Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell. That's WSU's run game, and in order to chew up yards and clock, the Cougar running backs are going to have to pile up the yards, all-purpose style.

Turnovers are always fatal, from destroying momentum to the points themselves. But Washington State has paid a particularly high price this season for their giveaways. If WSU wants to have any chance, they cannot turn over the football. On a slightly related topic, the Ducks are going to make big plays and they are going to score points. If the WSU players start hanging their heads at all after either one of those two things like they did against OSU in the fourth quarter, Oregon will put up points in bunches. This week is going to tell us a lot about the Cougs' current ability to face and overcome adversity. "Current" because the Cougs have not had a bye week yet but after Oregon, they'll get two in the following three weeks.

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