Can Oregon Finally Cover WSU? Ducks vs Cougs Preview and Predictions

by Kevin Nesgoda

The Ducks walked away from week one with an impressive 35-14 win over the Stanford Cardinal. Many of the fans’ big questions heading into the year were answered in week one. Tyler Shough got the start at QB and looked good for the majority of the game. The Ducks completely overhauled offensive line was really impressive, allowing just one QB hurry and leading the way for 269 yards on the ground.

This weekend, Oregon shifts their attention to a road trip to Pullman. There have been some Covid issues with the Cougs, but they seem to be managing things well enough to play this weekend and to have put a competitive product on the field vs the Beavs. It’s still unclear what all of Washington State’s availability will look like heading into Saturday. Most notably, the status of the Cougs star running back Max Borghi is still up in the air. Those in the know are saying they don’t believe Borghi will be available Saturday, but we’ll just have to wait and see when kickoff rolls around. 

Another major storyline, particularly from a betting perspective, is that our Ducks have failed to cover the spread against Washington State in 10 straight matchups. Obviously, Oregon has lost 4 of the past 5 to Wazzu, something that would’ve been unthinkable just a decade ago. However, the Oregon program is in the process of building back a stable culture under Cristobal, while Washington State has made a major transition away from long time coach Mike Leach, and towards first-year man Nick Rolovich. Anyways, without further adieu, let’s get into it. 

Oregon Offense vs Washington St Defense

I’ll start with a weather report: it’s looking like Saturday night might be characterized by cold temperatures, sleet, and slush in Pullman. If that’s the case, then Oregon will need to “pack its physicality” as Cristobal likes to say. Establishing the run will be absolutely crucial for the Ducks, more on that in a second. Generally, Washington State is feeling good about their improvements on defense under new coordinator Jake Dickert from Wyoming. That optimism, however, didn’t exactly materialize for the Cougs last week. Particularly, Jermar Jefferson of OSU had a great game, going for 170 total yards and 3 TDs en route to the Beavers putting up 28 points. Also, while the Wazzu D-line was able to force some QB pressures last week, the interior of that D-line has been affected by some of the covid availability issues I had mentioned earlier. All this suggests that Oregon will, and should, place a premium Saturday on running the ball. The Ducks offensive line played quite well against Stanford, giving legitimacy to many fans’ belief that Cristobal and Mirabal will work their magic regardless of how many new faces they have. We all remember CJ Verdell’s breakout performance against the Cougs last year when he went 314 total yards and 3 touchdowns! It was a career-best performance from Verdell, and the Ducks needed every bit of it. Again in 2020, I’ll expect a heavy dose of Verdell, and some rotation from the other 3 backs. I’m especially hoping to get Sean Dollars more involved after his impressive offseason and fall camp. 

In the passing game, Oregon will likely pick its spots with this being Tyler Shough’s first road start. I feel very confident in the play we saw in week one from Oregon’s top 3 receivers in Pittman, Redd, and Johnson. Largely, the Oregon offense executed really well vs Stanford, and execution will be key again on Saturday. Moorhead’s group only punted on one drive all game, and it was the first of the season. The Oregon offense also went an absurd 9 for 11 on 3rd down. Shough had a few throws he wishes he could have back in his debut, one of which was actually taken away by the Cardinal. Then, Cyrus Habibi-Likio had a freak fumble after losing his footing on a 1st and 10 in the red zone. That’s one of those plays you just can’t predict and it probably took 7 points off the board for Oregon. Regardless, that type of sustained success and improvement throughout a game is something that we very rarely experienced during Marcus Arroyo’s time in Eugene. Overcoming a 2 turnover deficit and still winning comfortably against a David Shaw coached team is nothing to scoff at. If this Ducks offense can play with that level of consistency in their execution, then we will really start to look like the type of team that can go unbeaten through Pac-12 play. 

To summarize, we saw Oregon State put up 28 on the Cougars D last weekend, while the Ducks put up 35 on Stanford (and could’ve had more). Obviously, there’s more complexity than this, but if I have to choose I would say Oregon has a better offense than OSU, mainly because of Oregon’s advantage in the trenches. Defensively, I also think Washington State is worse than Stanford, mainly because I’m not willing to disrespect David Shaw to that degree. So doing some quick calculations, you would expect Oregon to score in the upper 30s or even low 40s. I’m going to deviate from that slightly because I believe Oregon will want to run the ball a lot, which bleeds clock, and that the weather conditions could also tamper the scoring totals a bit.  

Oregon Defense vs Washington St Offense

This side of the ball presents some very intriguing matchups. A lot has been made from Ducks fans about the team’s underwhelming pass rush in week one. Expectations were high with big-name recruits like Mase Funa and Kayvon Thibodeaux figuring to develop into full-blown stars and game wreckers entering their second season. Add those guys to returning names on the interior like Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu, seasoned linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia, and the hyped 5-star freshman linebacker duo of Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell. There was plenty of reason to believe the pass rush would be a strength of Avalos’s defense. Through one game, it didn’t show up on the stat sheet. However, I would seriously caution Ducks fans from drawing sweeping conclusions based on a box score, and instead suggest that you place the unit’s performance in its appropriate context. Especially once we learned Stanford QB Davis Mills was going to be out last Saturday, it was always going to be difficult to fill up the stat sheet with sacks and pressures. Stanford already leans heavily on their power run game and that tendency makes those 3rd and long passing situations, that sharks like Kayvon love so much, all the rarer. Those excuses, as valid as they may be, will not available to Oregon after this Saturday. The obstacles to Oregon applying consistent pressure and even getting home for a few sacks on Saturday will not be scheme based so much as they will be personnel based. Washington State trots out a pair of NFL caliber tackles and a mobile, gunslinging freshman QB Jayden de Laura, who impressed in his debut.

To help the passing attack, de Laura has a very solid receiver group to work with. Travell Harris broke out for 107 and 2 TDs last week, Renard Bell was a solid contributor with 6 catches, and Calvin Jackson Jr came up with a pair of big catches in key moments. The Oregon corners looked pretty solid last week. Dede Lenoir was in lockdown mode as if an NFL corner had just been put on a college field. On the other side, Stanford tried to pick on Mykael Wright a few times, but he stood up tall and consistently found a way to get his hand on the ball against bigger receivers. This week will likely present some new challenges for the Oregon secondary, however, but I am optimistic about Rod Chance’s ability to get his guys ready based on what we saw in week one. One p
otential x-factor for the Oregon defense is redshirt sophomore linebacker, Adrian Jackson. Fans didn’t get to see Jackson last season while he was dealing with an injury, but he is one of those guys who is an athletic freak. Ajax (as I prefer to call him) was the top player in the state of Colorado coming out of high school and played primarily wide receiver and strong safety at that level. Now he stands at 6’3”, 235, but still moves with elite speed. Whether we see Ajax as a game wrecking edge rusher or a guy who can cover and run with Washington State running backs coming out of the backfield, he’s a guy I will be watching closely in this matchup. 

The last thing that needs to be mentioned is that this is not Mike Leach’s offense in Pullman. The Cougs will not be running an air raid on Saturday, Rolovich will instead be calling his run and shoot offense. From the foundational X’s and O’s perspective, these two schemes are quite different. No stat bares that out more clearly than the 18 carries and 147 yards we saw from Wazzu RB Deon McIntosh last Saturday, the most a Cougar back has rushed for in a single game since 2007. As I mentioned above, star Wazzu back Max Borghi may be out Saturday although nothing is official yet. That will certainly be a hit to the Cougs chances, but McIntosh and others showed they are capable contributors in week one. They will need to be contributors Saturday because as the name “run and shoot” would suggest, establishing the run is a crucial part of Rolo’s attack. At times against Stanford, the Oregon run defense left a lot to be desired. Honestly, I believe that if there is a single area to be concerned about after week one for the Ducks, it is the run defense. Jordon Scott, Austin Faoliu, Brandon Dorlus, and others need to assert themselves on the interior. Those guys are big, talented, and experienced, they absolutely have what it takes to control the line of scrimmage in this conference. At the next level, Oregon’s got to improve at the linebacker spot in being sound with communication and assignments so that the holes are plugged and running backs can’t break out. It makes sense, Oregon lost a 4-year defensive leader at the linebacker spot in Troy Dye. A big key to his replacement, in my mind, is the emergence of true freshman Noah Sewell. Anyone who watched the game last weekend saw it. Just like his older brother before him, Noah Sewell is destined to be a star in Eugene. His instincts, size, and speed were evident immediately vs Stanford. If I’m a coach, and certainly they have a lot more authority to make these decisions than I, but if I’m a coach I am putting Noah Sewell on the field for as many plays as I can. 

Final Prediction

Oregon 35, Washington State 24. Ultimately, I think the Ducks advantage in physicality and depth will show by the end of this game. Looking at the matchups I feel pretty solid about where the Ducks stand going into this one. 2 things make me cautious, and prevented me from picking Oregon to pull away by 3 or more scores. First, the weather Saturday could be weird… Cold, wet, icy, and maybe even some snow. I think Oregon can adapt to those conditions well because of our run game, but I also think that those conditions typically lead to games being played a little closer. The second factor is that Oregon has failed to cover the spread against Wazzu for 10 straight years! We’ve lost 4 out of the last 5 to the Cougs. Something a little weird always seems to happen in this matchup, and I usually find myself feeling a lot less comfortable into the second half than I wish I was. We’ll see what happens Saturday, as long as the Ducks can walk away at 2-0 then I’ll be happy. Go Ducks!

[cover by WSU Marketing via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

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