WSU in Week 4: Oregon

A NUMBER OF pundits are already saying this could be Oregon's best team with 15 returning starters back led by QB Marcus Mariota and the entire offensive line. Of course, some of those pundits said the same thing last year. So what will Washington State be facing when they host the Ducks on Sept. 20 in Pullman?

Assuming QB Marcus Mariota is healthy, the Cougs figure to have their hands full.

Oregon looked close to unstoppable the first part of last year, with Mariota running (and passing) wild. When Mariota strained his MCL in October, the Ducks faltered considerably. With his running threat diminished, defenses could focus their attention elsewhere. The Ducks were still successful and productive, but not nearly at the same high level and went 3-2 the rest of the way.

What makes Mariota so electric is his ability to run. He's a good passer, but it's hard to say he's in the elite category. Running the read-option or taking off from the pocket, that's where he has few peers. Oregon hasn't named a backup QB yet though it's likely going to be Jake Rodrigues.

Oregon's running backs aren't as celebrated as earlier vintages but the offensive line may make them into 2014 stars in spite of it. The o-line is bigger than last year, which has led some to think Oregon is going to try and run more read-option, and run more in general between the tackles.

That goes against what head man Mark Helfrich and Mariota say they want to do, which is to become more pass-oriented.

The Ducks do not have proven depth behind the o-line starters, particularly at guard, but Oregon also has not experienced the injury problems other teams have faced in recent years up front.

The receivers are a mixed bag, with Bralon Addison going down to injury and the Ducks having to replace three of their top four receivers. But if the o-line gives Mariota the time they are expected to, Oregon should still be plenty productive.

Oregon threw 68 percent of their passes to receivers last season. The conventional wisdom if for UO to throw more to the running backs and tight ends in 2014.

THE D-LINE lost Ricky Havili-Heimuli, Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart. But some think the Ducks will be just fine in their 3-4 with 2012 signees Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci. The results were mixed this spring.

The linebackers figure to be the strength of defense and they also have promising depth here. One OLB job is all that looks to be settled in fall camp. But Oregon struggled against the run last year and headed into 2014, they lack a dominant 'backer among their outside, inside and hybrid players. Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick combined for 5.5 tackles for loss all of last season.

Oregon has a star in cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, but they'll be replacing their other three starters. And teams like the Cougs are expected to go after that trio.

Erick Dargan is one likely starter at safety but the other corner and safety jobs won't be settled until fall camp.

A team like the Cougs isn't going to try and exploit what is seen as Oregon's biggest vulnerability in 2014 - their run defense. WSU can still upset Oregon if they can put together methodical drives that result in touchdowns. When Arizona upset Oregon last year, they converted 11-of-16 third downs. But a close game against the Ducks can just as easily become a blowout in quick order, as WSU fans have witnessed.

OREGON'S Don Pellum takes over as defensive coordinator from the retiring Nick Aliotti -- pundits are mixed on if there will be fall off or much of an adjustment period. Oregon isn't expected to change a whole lot, and any potential issues will likely have more to do with personnel and replacing starters and key personnel.

The biggest intangible for 2014 instead has to do with expectations.

It's already been established ad nauseum by the media that unless the Ducks make the four-team playoff in 2014, they've failed. When one loss can eliminate a team, that's a difficult standard to measure up to.

But Oregon in recent years has been lights out the first half of the season, and the Cougs will get them in Week 4, when two of their first three games against South Dakota and Wyoming should be little more than tune-ups and all three of their non-conference games are at home.

Add it all up and Washington State is likely to get a healthy Oregon's best shot in Week 4.

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