Washington State finds a much different Oregon squad this year than the one it nearly beat 38-31 in 2014

THERE HAVE BEEN many times during the past decade Washington State's biennial trip to Eugene had the feeling of a formality. Take your beating like most Oregon opponents, and move on to the next week.

It doesn't have that feeling this year. Do not take this as a prediction of victory, but the Cougars have every right to believe they can walk out of Autzen Stadium with a win Saturday.

We haven't seen a Ducks team this lacking in many years. Oregon is a mess at quarterback, and has had many bad moments on defense. It's not breaking news to say that California is a better team at this moment than the Ducks. And based on what happened last Saturday, there wasn't much separating the Bears and Cougars.

The Ducks should be favored. They're at home, and they still have plenty of elite athletes on the roster. But without the threat of a passing attack, the Cougars' defense ought to be able to focus its effort on slowing down Oregon's running game.

What concerns me as much as anything Saturday is for Washington State, this is the second of back-to-back road games. I don't have handy up-to-date national stats available, but the second of back-to-back road games has traditionally been a key item for those betting college football. It's tough for college kids to bounce back and play the second of back-to-back road games.

Since 2005, the Cougars are 1-10 in the second of back-to-back road games. The lone time they were successful came in 2013, a 10-7 win at USC after losing at Auburn the previous week.

Another factor to consider, though it's hard to quantify, is Oregon's motivation to get back the home field. The Ducks were embarrassed the last time they played in Autzen, losing to Utah 62-20. Home losses for Oregon are rare, let alone one of that magnitude.

Bottom line for Saturday: there's reason to be cautiously optimistic if you're a Cougar fan.

About Oregon: The Ducks came into the season on the short list of contenders for the College Football Playoff, but it's since been proven that they miss Marcus Mariota more than anyone imagined. Oregon's drop off in quarterback play is as steep as any team has experienced in the Pac-12 this season.

Bringing in Vernon Adams from Eastern Washington hasn't proven to the be the answer. Sure, he's been hurt, and maybe that's all it is. But even when healthy, there were reasons to think Adams would have trouble becoming a consistent threat. Quarterbacks thrive on relationships with their receivers and linemen, and Adams -- who spent his summer in Cheney getting his grades in order -- simply hasn't had time to bond.

Because of a broken finger, it's unlikely Adams plays against Washington State, so the probable scenario for the Ducks is a two-headed quarterback of Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie. They were able to successfully rally Oregon to a 41-24 win over Colorado last Saturday, as the Ducks outscored the Buffaloes 24-7 during the second half.

In the Colorado game, Lockie completed 8 of 11 passes for 54 yards, while Alie -- a walk-on -- was 4 of 9 for 83 yards. The Cougars may have that much passing yardage by the end of the first quarter.

But Oregon still has its running game. It may not be the dynamic attack that led the Ducks to multiple BCS games in recent years, but it still has teeth. Oregon ground out 361 yards against Colorado, most of it coming in the second half. The Ducks' backs to watch are sophomore Royce Freeman and freshman Taj Griffin. Freeman, who ran for 1,365 yards in 2014, has 613 yards and seven touchdowns this season. The highly-touted Griffin may have had his coming out party against Colorado, as he had 11 carries for 110 yards and a score.

The Ducks have formidable talent at receiver -- Charles Nelson, Bralon Addison, Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford come to mind -- but getting the ball in their hands is a work in progress with the current quarterbacks.

Defensively, Duck fans wanted blood after the 62-point meltdown against Utah. Oregon made some corrections against Colorado, but it's hard to say how uch of that was Duck improvements, and how much of it was the lackluster Buffaloes. Washington State's passing game figures to be a step up from Colorado.

Oregon had an improved pass rush against Colorado, getting five sacks even though it generally rushed only four. This could be a factor Saturday, as covering all the Cougar receivers means fewer players rushing the quarterback. If the Ducks can effectively rush four, Washington State's offense will be challenged to consistently move the ball.

Among Oregon's defensive leaders are linebacker Joe Walker, who leads the team in tackles with 35 and returned a fumble 52 yards for a touchdown against Colorado; defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci.

The line: Ducks by 17

The kickoff: 3 p.m./Pac-12 Networks 

The series: Washington State gave No. 2 Oregon all it could handle a year ago, as the Ducks pulled out a 38-31 win in Pullman. Mariota threw a 6-yard pass to Keanon Lowe with 5:33 remaining to snap a 31-31 tie. Cougar fans will long remember the end of the game as the Ducks getting away with one, when the officials missed an obvious pass interference call with Washington State was driving for the potential tying score. Oregon leads the series 47-38-7. Oregon has won eight consecutive games over WSU. The last time Washington State won in Eugene was 2003, when the Cougars routed Oregon 55-16.

Familiar faces: Although Oregon is a border state, the Ducks have only four Washingtonians on their roster. One is particularly familiar in linebacker Danny Mattingly, brother of former Cougar Andy Mattingly. The others are freshmen, offensive linemen Shane Lemieux (Yakima) and Calvin Throckmorton (Bellevue), and defensive back Fotu Leiato (Steilacoom). Among coaches, long-time assistant Tom Osborne (special teams/tight ends) is a former Cougar walk onwho played receiver during the early 1980s.

Notable notes:

  • Washington State leads the Pac-12 in passing offense at 369.2 yards per game. The Cougars also top the league in tackles for loss at 9.0 (No. 6 nationally).


  • According to a story on GoDucks.com, UO defensive backs coach John Neal told the defense that it gave up 170 yards in missed tackles against Washington State in their 2014 games.


  • Oregon will wear Lewis & Clark Pioneer-themed uniforms and helmets for Saturday's game.

 

Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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