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Washington State Cougars vs. Oregon Ducks Preview and Prediction

Royce Freeman

Royce Freeman

Oregon's dream 2014 season very nearly derailed early against Washington State. The Cougars took advantage of an injury-plagued offensive line in that meeting last September, but Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota bailed the Ducks out.

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What does last year's 38-31 close call mean for Washington State?

"None of those plays help us this year," Washington State head coach Mike Leach said. "We just have to go out and play the best that we can."

The question then, of course, is whether Washington State's best is enough to topple Oregon this time around. The Cougars rebounded well from an ugly, Week 1 loss to FCS member Portland State with a pair of wins over Rutgers and Wyoming, and last week nearly upset nationally ranked Cal on the road.

Similarly, Oregon came back from a 42-point blowout loss at home to Utah in Week 4 to rally against a vastly improved Colorado team on the road.

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Washington State at Oregon

Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Spread: Oregon -17

Three Things to Watch

1. Air Raid vs. Oregon's Secondary

After its rough outing against Utah, the Oregon defense collective tightened up against Colorado. The Buffs' multifaceted rushing attack was limited to just 77 yards, but perhaps more importantly, a pass defense that had been woeful limited quarterback Sefo Liufau to 231 yards, one touchdown and an interception.

The Ducks' young secondary has been forced rapidly to mature and will get a workout this week against Washington State's pass-happy air-raid offense.

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Leach-coached teams are known for attacking with the pass almost exclusively. And while the Cougars are rushing more this season — their 91 carries in four games has them on pace to exceed last season's total by about 30 — Washington State still operates largely through the air. It's 369.3 passing yards per game is seventh nationally.

Quarterback Luke Falk is completing an impressive 72.6 percent for his attempts and has 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions.

The move for defensive coordinator Don Pellum from the booth back to the sideline, where he spent last season, could be a factor in how Oregon attacks Washington State's air raid.

2. Quarterback Still in the Air for Oregon

Perhaps perfectly crystallizing Oregon's quarterback quandary last week, arguably the best pass of the Ducks' 41-24 win at Colorado was thrown by wide receiver Bralon Addison.

Addison's touchdown strike off a reverse was a highlight in an otherwise rough night for Oregon's passing game. Jeff Lockie got the hook for third-stringer Taylor Alie, but offensive coordinator Scott Frost relied on the run to the tune of 361 yards and three touchdowns.

Taj Griffin's emergence as a capable No. 2 to star running back Royce Freeman gives the Ducks offense the diversity from the run game it needs as Oregon awaits the return of Vernon Adams from a finger injury.

3. The Mid-Quarter Squeeze

A signature of Oregon football beginning in the Chip Kelly era and continuing the first two seasons under Mark Helfrich was a deluge, typically coming in the second or third quarter, which put teams away.

The big runs didn't quite come for Oregon through the season's first month — not as they had in years past, anyway. But last week saw something of a return to that style, with the Ducks breaking out of a nip-and-tuck contest with a 14-0 third quarter.

Last week at Cal, Washington State was victim of such a run, coughing up its lead on the wrong end of a 21-7 Golden Bears burst.

Final Analysis

Washington State had a knack for playing Oregon competitively under Leach, first in a closer-than-the-score-indicates 51-26 game in 2012, then last year's nail-biter. Even in a 2013 rout, the Cougars set a record for pass attempts, forced a few big turnovers and gave the Ducks reason to sweat.

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Oregon seemed to resolve a few of its problematic areas in time for the win at Colorado, though the quarterback situation remains worrisome. Expect the Ducks to come at Washington State's defensive front with the run frequently in the early going and essentially beg the Cougars to prove they can stop Freeman and Griffin before going to the air.

The Cougars performed admirably against Cal's run a week ago, save a big play or two late, but Oregon is designed to attack from the ground much more effectively than the Golden Bears.

Prediction: Oregon 38, Washington State 24

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.