Oregon 101: Enter The Dragon

COUGFANS HAVE been saying they miss some of the scrappy, chip-on-their-shoulder Cougar teams of the 1990's, but you might see something similar this week when Washington State plays host to Oregon (7:30 p.m., ESPN). Because this Cougar team needs a dragon to slay.

Despite what is so often said, it is sometimes hard for 18-22 year old players to get amped up enough over the course of the week for lesser non-conference opponents, and it is tough to play loose when you have so much to lose. This Saturday, however, Washington State is playing with house money, and the payoff could be huge.

Cougars (1-2) vs Ducks (3-0)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
7:30 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (32,952)

TELEVISION:
ESPN

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

THE LINE:
Oregon by 24

LAST MEETING:
2013, WSU lost 62-38

THE SERIES:
WSU is 38-46 in the series.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Ducks 48, Cougs 31

THE DUCKS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Marcus Mariota QB: WSU got some good practice against dual threat quarterbacks in the first three games, but none are in the same class as Mariota. The early season Heisman favorite has been near perfect this season through the air and on the ground (11.4 yards per pass, 7.8 yards per rush), although one could quibble with some of his passes thrown high and wide. Still, he's scored 11 total touchdowns in the first three games and has yet to throw an interception.

Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall, and Royce Freeman, RB: Oregon has one of the most solid stable of running backs in the conference. The trio has 520 rushing yards and nine touchdowns this season. The group does however lack the home-run hitter of years past.

Hroniss Grasu, C: The Ducks began the season returning their entire offensive line from last season led by the All-American Grasu. But injuries have been rampant. Bottom line: They aren't big, but they remain very nimble.

Overview
The read option continues put up ridiculous numbers, but evidence suggests that 1) Mark Helfrich is not quite the offensive genius Chip Kelly was and 2) the competition may have masked some growing deficiencies. Indeed, Jake Fisher became the fourth lineman last week to go down with a potentially serious injury. Also, Pac-12 teams in particular seem to be figuring this offense out. Oregon averaged just 29 points per game in their final four conference games in 2013.

(More on the injuries: Starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone (knee) was the first to go down and is out for the season. Fisher moved from RT to LT, then he went down last week. Replacing Fisher at RT was Andre Yruretagoyena, who was hurt against Michigan State and missed last week. Junior college transfer guard Haniteli Lousi was hurt before MSU and has been in a boot since. Can the Cougar D take advantage?) Strategy
This is a rhythm based offense, and it can be unstoppable once it get going. Teams that gave the Ducks fits last year, like Arizona, Stanford, and Oregon State, rattled them early, got good penetration and never let up. The Ducks thrive on speed and space, and the Cougars need to take away both. Compress the point of attack and wrap up quickly.

What separates Mariota from previous Duck quarterbacks though is he has an NFL-ready arm. Over-committing to the run means you can get beat early and often through the air – if Mariota has time to operate. Get a little heat on him and force him to throw on the move and his accuracy decreases.

WSU needs to continue to crash the point of attack and maintain their composure when they get beat. While the initial progression of the zone-read often looks identical, Oregon rarely runs the same play twice. As a result they crush teams that try to fix what went wrong on the previous play. You have to anticipate the rhythm, rather than follow it.

Key Statistic
Three sacks surrendered: The Ducks have protected their quarterback like Fort Knox, as well they should. Mariota is the launching point of every offensive play and Oregon will go only as far as he takes them.

THE DUCKS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB: One of the top cornerbacks in the country. Ekpre-Olomu rarely shows up on the stat sheet because quarterbacks don’t challenge him.

Arik Armstead, DT: The 6-8 296-pounder opted to leave the Duck basketball team and focus on football. Leads the team with 4 tackles for loss.

Overview
Gone is coordinator Nick Aliotti, but his 4-3 system remains in place under new DC and longtime linebackers coach Don Pellum. The basic recipe Oregon has always used is to play bend but don't break defense until the offense generates a lead. When the game starts to get out of control, they add pressure and nickel coverages to try and compound the effect with turnovers.

Strategy
The Duck defense has rarely been extraordinary, but it is well geared at capitalizing on offenses’ mistakes once they start to panic. Keeping pace with the Duck offense is no small task, but Connor Halliday has to keep his cool and not force the issue, as he did on two occasions last week against Portland State that resulted in easy picks. Oregon has a veteran secondary and solid pass rushers. They can be beaten … with good decisions.

Key Statistic
Yards allowed per pass attempt, 7.2: While it doesn't look like much in face of the ridiculous numbers Oregon puts up on offense, teams have thrown the football effectively on Oregon this year.

THE DUCKS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Oregon kicks so few field goals and punts, it almost irrelevant. Matt Wogan converted his only field goal attempt this season. Historically, Oregon has struggled in this area, and it has rarely mattered.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-This sort of feels like Oregon's swan song season. Mariota and Ekpre-Olomu's decision to forgo the NFL gave the Ducks just enough talent to make a run at another conference title, but more and more teams figure to be nipping at the Duck's heels in ‘14. The days of blowing away most of the conference are ending.

Outside of Cal and Colorado, everybody hung around with the Ducks last year into the second half, and Arizona and Stanford completely destroyed them for the majority of the game. It seems clear to me they have lost the air of invincibility they had under Chip Kelly.

-The Cougars got their confidence back just in time to face their toughest opponent of the season. On paper the Cougars don't have the horses to keep up with the Ducks, but the gap between Oregon and Wazzu is smaller than it used to be. With solid execution and a little luck, an upset is not unfathomable. The line in Vegas is 11 points lower than what it was last year.

-Conference road games are generally where upsets happen most and Vegas seems to be aware of it. It is particularly common when the underdog wants the game badly and the favorite might not take them seriously enough. It is a long shot this Saturday, but the ingredients for a big upset are there in my view. Eight of Oregon's last 10 losses have been away from Autzen Stadium.

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