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Oregon 101: Cougs and Ducks both looking to regain badly needed momentum

CALL IT a “first world problem” but Oregon has not lost consecutive games in a season since Mike Bellotti was their head coach. And Duck fans are not happy about it. Washington State, meanwhile, hopes to make it two straight over the Ducks in what should be another wild night in Martin between two teams that both need a win to open the conference slate in the worst way.

AT A GLANCE: Cougars (1-2) vs. Ducks (2-2)

KICKOFF:
6:30 p.m. PT

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (32,952)

TELEVISION:
Pac-12 Network, Pac-12 Washington, Pac-12 Oregon

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

THE LINE:
Oregon is favored by 1 point.

LAST MEETING:
Washington State won 45-38 in Eugene in 2015.

THE SERIES:
Washington State trails 47-39-3.

MATT MOORE's PREDICTION:
Cougs 45, Ducks 40

THE DUCKS ON OFFENSE
QB Dakota Prukop: The Montana State transfer does everything well, he hasn’t yet shown himself to be the elite level playmaker Oregon has become accustomed to at the quarterback position. He does not have blazing speed nor a powerful arm, but he still has all the tools needed to run the offense. He has completed 67 percent of his throws this season for 1,041 yards and 8 scores, but that accuracy has come at limited range. The interception that sealed Colorado's upset was his first of the year.

RBs Royce Freeman, Taj Griffin, Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit: When he is healthy, Freeman is the best pure runner in the conference, but a minor knee injury kept him out against Colorado. He remains questionable this week -- but even if he is out, the Ducks have tremendous depth at running back. Through four games, the group has 873 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. The Register Guard reported today that Freeman participated in Monday’s practice. Benoit, who missed portions of the CU game, did not participate on Monday.

WRs Darren Carrington II and Dwayne Stanford: Injuries to Devon Allen and Pharroh Brown have limited Prukop's passing options, but he still has a pair of big targets on the outside. Oregon relies on them to create a deep threat so teams don't crowd the line of scrimmage.

Overview
The Ducks continue to operate the same offensive system that has led the conference in scoring every season of the Chip Kelly-Mark Helfrich era. They have some of the best skill position players in the conference, and still put up points in bunches. What has been different about the 2016 offensive attack has been the lack of an elite quarterback, plus inexperience on the offensive line. Injuries have forced the Ducks to start four freshmen on their o-line, and they are making typical freshman mistakes. Prukop is making the best of the situation, but he has not yet proved to be the kind of QB who can beat teams, on his own, in crunch time.

Strategy
The key to stopping Oregon has always been to force them into passing downs. The Ducks thrive on unpredictability, but struggle when the defense knows what's coming. WSU needs to contain the point of attack and force as many negative plays as possible, then make the most of opportunities when they come up. Oregon will get their rushing yards, but yards don't always equal points.

Key Stat
7.2 yards per rush: Without or without Royce Freeman, the Duck running game is one of the best in the business.

THE DUCKS ON DEFENSE
CB Tyree Robinson: Oregon has a very young front seven, but a fair amount of experience in the secondary. Robinson was moved from safety to corner after the WSU game last season, and the pass defense improved.

LB Troy Dye: A freshman, he looks like he’ll be a good one in the Pac-12 and he had a nice pick against Colorado. But he’s still a freshman. He’s not yet a game changer, he’s still developing, and there will be growing pains as there will be with any freshman starter.

S Brenden Schooler: Another freshman, you can cut and paste everything said about Dye and plug it in here – a huge amount of potential, had an interception against Colorado, but not yet a seasoned veteran.

DT Austin Maloata: Arguably the best d-lineman on Oregon’s beleaguered front, he has 17 tackles (8 solo) in four games.

Overview
Former Michigan head man Brady Hoke was brought in this season as Duck d-coordinator to try and fix Oregon's D, which was arguably the worst in the conference in 2015. He ditched the old Nick Aliotti 3-4 for a highly complex 4-3. His players have looked confused at times, and have given up a conference-worst 18 touchdowns this season. Oregon's defense had been struggling for years, but they always had at least an NFL player or two to work with. That doesn't look to be the case at the moment.

Strategy
The 4-3 scheme puts more pressure on the linebackers, who are asked to cover more space, and the linebacker corps isn’t completely healthy on top of that (five LBs have already missed time this season). As such, it’s not surprising that the Ducks have looked lost and undertalented at that position. WSU needs to run it right at them when the D alignment calls for it, and the WSU slot men need to make hay in space in the intermediate zones.  Oregon has gotten beat by both the run and the pass and if the linebackers are worried about both, it should be overwhelming.

Luke Falk did not really hit his stride till the Oregon game last year and I expect he will look like his old self again this week. Running back James Williams is expected to get plenty of touches after his impressive Week Three performance against Idaho. And Jamal Morrow (pictured above) despite initial reports to the contrary, will not have to sit out the first half the Spokesman-Review and the Seattle Times reported (as Morrow was ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct, rather than "fighting" or targeting). Meanwhile, it would be a mistake to forget about Gerard Wicks. And also, as we've said often, depth charts are not always a good indicator of what is seen on the field on Saturdays.

Key Stat
4 sacks per game: The Ducks have sacrificed size for speed, and they try to bring a lot pressure on the quarterback. Expect a lot of corner blitzes.

THE DUCKS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Aiden Schneider is the most accurate kicker in Oregon history, which seemingly would give the Ducks an edge if the game comes down to the wire. Charles Nelson is Oregon's do-everything return man.

FINAL THOUGHTS
* This is the first real test as to whether the 2016 Cougars have actually regressed. The nine wins from 2015 have clouded Cougar fans’ memories -- WSU looked pretty much lousy in the first three games of 2015 too. Oregon is the first common opponent to which to judge any degree progress. WSU can win this game, and they badly need to. The path to bowl eligibility opens wide with a victory, while a loss puts the Cougs in a deep hole.

* The biggest danger against the Ducks is to enjoy whatever success gained – we saw it for the umpteenth time just last week. Colorado had dominated Oregon into the third quarter -- and then the Ducks put together one of their patented spurts.  Oregon scored three TDs in the space of just 6:08 and suddenly grabbed the lead. WSU can’t let its foot off the gas in this game, even for a minute, or they risk losing whatever momentum they may have built up.

* WSU's outlook on life changed considerably during the bye week. Cal, Oregon State and Oregon all lost, while Washington and Stanford looked very mortal. Without playing a Pac-12 game, WSU nearly entered conference play in sole possession of second place. The Cougs may still be an afterthought given their first three games, but a win over Oregon could well have WSU playing for first place in the North next week vs. Stanford in what could become a very chaotic division race.

* Expect a wild game on Saturday, full of emotion. WSU (11) and Oregon (10.25) are the third- and seventh-most most highly penalized teams in the country, respectively. The Ducks are motivated to save their season -- and at this point, Mark Helfrich's job. Former WSU inside receivers coach David Yost also returns to Martin, and has no doubt offered the Ducks’ staff a lot of insight into both WSU's offense and defense.

* Oregon guards its injury status as if it were the crown jewels, but the Register Guard reported today that starting defensive tackle Rex Manu was in a walking boot after the Colorado game, and key backup Drayton Carlberg was still wearing one on Monday after missing the Colorado game.

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WASHINGTON STATE DEPTH CHART:


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