Pac-12 Conference play opens Saturday in Pullman, with undefeated Washington State looking to make its mark against Oregon.
The Ducks opened 2022 and the Dan Lanning era with a dud of a showing against reigning national champion Georgia. If the 49-3 blowout loss cast a pall on expectations for this season, last week's more-lopsided-than-its-final-score victory over then-No. 12 BYU was the clouds lifting.
Oregon looked every bit the conference title contender it's been for the better part of the last 15 years in its 41-20 win, combining overwhelming defense with balanced offense.
Meanwhile, Washington State should be Oregon's second consecutive Top 25 opponent and third this month. The Cougars sit among the Others Receiving Votes despite a perfect start that includes a road win over perennial Big Ten contender Wisconsin.
There'll be no denying Washington State a spot in the polls if it scores its first win over Oregon since 2018. From 2015 through that 2018 campaign, no team in the Pac-12 had the Ducks' number quite like the Cougars. That's a trend they'd like to restart in Jake Dickert's first time welcoming Oregon to Martin Stadium as Washington State head coach.
No. 15 Oregon at Washington State
When Oregon Has the Ball
Quarterback Bo Nix has been downright electric since a less-than-stellar start against Georgia. After completing just 57 percent of his pass attempts and throwing two picks against the Bulldogs, Nix completed north of 84 percent against annual FCS championship contender Eastern Washington and better than 72 percent last week against BYU.
Nix also threw seven combined touchdowns in those wins and wasn't intercepted. Continuing to limit turnovers is vital for this Oregon offense, particularly against a Washington State defense that's been solid in the takeaway department.
Four different Cougars have an interception, including breakout star Daiyan Henley, a transfer from Nevada. Henley's forced two fumbles to go with his pick and team-leading four sacks. The versatile linebacker also leads the charge against the run, which Washington State can expect to see plenty.
Oregon has four players with at least 90 rushing yards on the season, including Nix. The running back trio of Sean Dollars, Bucky Irving, and Noah Whittington has combined for 387 yards, with Dollars and Irving both averaging more than six yards per carry.
When Washington State Has the Ball
Among the most intriguing offseason transfer portal additions in the Pac-12 was Washington State signing Cameron Ward, a breakthrough quarterback at FCS program Incarnate Word.
Ward evolved from a lowly recruited Wing-T signal-caller to someone in the mix for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive performer in the FCS. His start at Washington State has been somewhat quiet, but more than effective — especially working in concert with the productive rushing Nakia Watson is giving the Cougars.
The run-pass mix is a deviation from Washington State's Air Raid look in the Mike Leach years, but a strong complement to a stifling defense holding opponents to fewer than 13 points per game. How much of a split it ends up being against an Oregon defense holding opponents to 3.8 yards per rush, but allowing 277 yards passing per game and a completion percentage north of 70 should make for an interesting chess match.
Two of the programs most responsible for leading an offensive revolution in the Pac-12 over the last decade are most noteworthy these days for defense. Oregon's scored points en masse the last two weeks, but its ability to shut down both Eastern Washington's pass-heavy attack and BYU's balanced power-running game suggests the Georgia loss was an aberration (not to mention a ringing endorsement of the defending national champion's strength).
Washington State's defensive play thus far is among the most under-the-radar developments of 2022. The Cougars will have the chance to score the upset thanks to their play on that side of the ball, but Oregon might have just enough of an edge to leave Pullman with a hard-fought win.
Prediction: Oregon 24, Washington State 20
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.
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