Oregon finds itself in an unfamiliar position just four games into the season. Back-to-back losses to Nebraska and Colorado have grounded the Ducks (2-2) from soaring above the Pac-12 North like they have often done over the past decade. Now Oregon faces a must-win game against a Washington State team that beat it a year ago.
The Cougars (1-2) are also trying to bounce back from a disappointing start that saw them drop back-to-back games to Eastern Washington and Boise State. Washington State is looking to win its Pac-12 opener for the first time since 2013 and just the third time in the last 10 seasons.
Oregon leads the all-time series 47-39-7 and has defeated the Cougars four straight times in Pullman dating back to a 34-23 loss in 2006. Washington State snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Ducks with last season's 45-38 double overtime win in Eugene.
Oregon at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Oregon -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Oregon slow down the air raid?
Once again, Washington State is finding plenty of ways to make life miserable through the air for opposing defenses. The Cougars average 42.0 points per game and 7.1 yards per pass attempt. They rank third nationally in passing offense (393.0 yards per game) through three games.
Having a quarterback like Luke Falk has made Mike Leach's explosive offensive schemes even more dangerous. Falk is the active career FBS leader with 359.5 passing yards per game. The junior has totaled 7,549 career passing yards in just 21 games. Last season, Falk finished the year with a school-record 10 300-yard games and five 400-yard games. He has passed for 300 yards or more 16 times in his career.
Oregon has already given up more than 300 passing yards twice this season — yielding 303 yards against UC Davis and 333 yards against Colorado. Given those numbers, keeping Falk under 400 yards may be a chore for the Ducks' secondary. He threw for a season-high 505 yards and five touchdowns against Oregon a year ago.
2. Will the Ducks own the ground?
Washington State enters Pac-12 play ranking second in the Pac-12 in run defense (103.0 ypg) and is tied for third in red zone defense (77.8 percent). The Cougars' ability to stop the run will face a stiff challenge against Oregon.
Dominating on the ground is nothing new for the Ducks. Oregon has led the Pac-12 in rushing for 10 straight seasons and has averaged at least 200 rushing yards per game each season dating back to 2007. The Ducks have produced a 1,000-yard rusher each of the last nine seasons, the longest active streak for any FBS team in the country. Once again, Oregon is leading the Pac-12 in rushing with 275.75 yards per game.
Royce Freeman is the one doing the most damage in the backfield. Freeman is one of only four Oregon players to rush for more than 3,000 career yards. With 3,526 career yards, the junior needs to total 98 yards against Washington State to pass Kenjon Barner for second place on Oregon's all-time rushing yardage list. He already claimed the team's single-season rushing record last season, totaling 1,836 yards for the Ducks.
3. Can Washington State's kicking game get back on track?
If getting a second straight win over Oregon comes down to making a field goal, Washington State could be in trouble. The Cougars have not made a field goal yet this season.
Erik Powell has gone 0-of-3 on his field goal attempts so far, missing from 38, 39 and 43 yards. Powell missed a field goal attempt against Eastern Washington and another one against Boise State. Both misses proved costly, since those losses both came by a three-point margin. It is a rough start for Powell who went 20-of-26 on his field goal attempts last season. He has converted just 64.7 percent of his career attempts.
Defensive questions plague Oregon once again this season, and the Ducks suddenly face the prospect of struggling to stay at or above .500 with a tough schedule still ahead. Washington State is not a good matchup for Oregon. The Ducks proved incapable of stopping Luke Falk a year ago. There's no reason to believe they will figure out a solution this time around.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Oregon 34
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.