Returning starters: 12 (4 defense, 6 offense, 2 special teams)
Date of matchup: Oct. 1 (Time/TV TBA)
Location/venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman
Star players: RB Royce Freeman, Jr., DE Henry Mondeaux, Jr., WR Darren Carrington, R-Jr., OT Tyrell Crosby, Jr., WR Devon Allen, R. Jr., WR Charles Nelson, Jr., TE Pharaoh Brown, R-Sr.
Matchup to watch for: Oregon QB Dakota Prukop vs. WSU defense
On paper, the matchup would seem to be stud running back Royce Freeman vs. the Cougar front seven. But Oregon doesn’t just lean on Freeman and try to ride him to wins – he averaged 21 carries per game last year and was inexplicably an afterthought late in Oregon’s collapse against TCU in its bowl game. Limiting the damage done by Freeman is the top priority for the Cougar D, yes, but another matchup is likely to decide this one.
Prukop is an exceptional runner. He’s not nearly as polished throwing the ball (though his FCS stats last year were solid). What WSU must guard against is winning 85 percent of the battle -- only to see Prukop rip off a few runs that end up winning the game for Oregon.
Prukop, a graduate transfer from Montana State, completed 216 of 344 passes (63 percent) for 3,025 yards and 28 touchdowns against 10 interceptions in 2015. He also rushed for 774 yards and 11 touchdowns for a Big Sky team that finished 5-6. His two-year rushing totals at MSU: 327 carries, 1,743 yards (5.3 ypc) and 24 TDs.
A running QB is always vulnerable, so who's backup? Justin Herbert, the true freshman out of Sheldon High in Eugene, was surprisingly named No. 2 QB over more heralded recruits Terry Wilson and Travis Jonsen on the chart.
Oregon returns only two o-line starters and one of them, Crosby, could miss time after being put into a walking boot last week. Still, head man Mark Helfrich is high on his young offensive line. And it’s worth noting Duck o-line coach Steve Greatwood, one of the most underrated Pac-12 assistants, has worked magic in years past with youngish o-lines expected to struggle more than they did.
Area of weakness that WSU could exploit:
Oregon’s defensive woes in 2015 resulted in the demotion of d-coordinator Don Pellum and former Michigan head man Brady Hoke coming on board. The Ducks are switching from a two-gap defense to a one-gap 4-3 base and looking to use their athleticism to attack more.
But youth was served on the Week One depth chart, and also of surprise to Duck fans was seeing junior ‘backer Jimmie Swain, and sophomore and former five-star d-tackle Canton Kaumatule, were left off the depth chart altogether. Senior defensive end Torrodney Prevot, a likely starter, was also missing from the depth chart after being suspended indefinitely (see notable notes at bottom).
The Ducks were awful at times last year on defense, and it’s reasonable to expect it take time to find both consistency and solid play. Oregon is young on D in ‘16 -- and there will be a transition period to a new DC on top of it. Luke Falk, Gabe Marks and Co. should be able to stress the Duck defense over the course of four quarters and find the soft spots, though they can’t get careless and commit turnovers that would bail Oregon out at the end of long drives.
A quick analysis of the stakes, considering three possible outcomes:
1) WSU wins big. The national spotlight would shine brightly indeed on Wazzu. A blowout Washington State win over Oregon, a pipe dream just a few years ago, isn’t an entirely crazy thought to entertain in 2016.
2) WSU wins close. Oregon has its issues, yes, but still boasts a boatload of talent and athleticism. The big difference for Oregon in 2016 – unlike the way so many games played out in its heyday -- they might be one of those teams that looks fantastic one week, and poor-to-middlin’ the next. A win is a win, and on paper Cougar fans have to like their prospects to make it two in a row over the Ducks here in the preseason.
3) Oregon wins. Starting off the conference slate with a loss is always a downer. The Cougs wouldn’t have much time to feel sorry for themselves though, with Stanford and a shot to climb right back into the thick of things the following week. All signs in the preseason point to a North division that will beat itself up this season. A conference loss or two might not mean nearly what it has in recent years for the North teams.
* Ten first- and second-year freshmen are listed on Oregon’s two-deeps, compared with 11 seniors.
* Hoke will coordinate the defense from the sideline rather than from the booth. Secondary coach John Neal will take his place and be Hoke’s eye in the sky.
* Keep an eye on Duck true freshman corner Brenden Schooler (6-2, 190). He’s worked his way into the two-deeps and is expected to make an impact on the punt and kick coverage units.
* Prevot has been suspended indefinitely by Oregon for violating both the university’s and athletic department’s code of conduct. The school and police aren’t providing details but the Daily Emerald reported a former Oregon athlete says she’s filed a police complaint against Prevot, claiming he physically assaulted her twice earlier this year. How this might all play out isn’t known at this stage. If Prevot isn’t on the field when WSU hosts Oregon, sophomores Justin Hollins and Jalen Jelks are likely to combine to fill his spot.
* Oregon was Herbert’s only Pac-12 offer. The quarterback’s other offers came from Montana State, Portland State, Northern Arizona and Nevada. That he beat out the two more heralded QBs on the depth chart in fall camp was a big surprise to Duck fans.
* Best twitter reaction to Oregon's Week One depth chart:
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