The previous two seasons have seen long-time Pac-12 cellar-dweller Washington State ascend to be a genuine threat. The ascension is now a veritable rocket ride, with the Cougars coming off a defeat of top 5-ranked, Pac-12 preseason favorite USC.
Undefeated at 5-0, and ranked No. 11 – its best ranking since spending three weeks at No. 6 in 2003, on the heels of a Rose Bowl berth – Washington State hits the road for a potential trap game at Oregon.
The Cougars lost eight straight against the Ducks, from 2007-14, but closer margins under head coach Mike Leach foreshadowed the breakthrough that came in ‘15. It was then Washington State won an overtime affair at Autzen Stadium, 45-38, the first of two consecutive victories for the Cougars. The last time they won back-to-back games over Oregon was in that magical 2002-03 stretch.
Washington State aims for three in a row for the first time since 1981-84, when the Cougars rolled off four straight. That means stopping an excellent Oregon running game, however, and contending with a much-improved defense under first-year coordinator Jim Leavitt.
Washington State at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Mighty Hercules
Setting the tone for coordinator Alex Grinch's "Speed D" defense, which emphasizes quickness over size, is defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa. Despite standing 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, a size comparable to some teams' linebackers, Mata'afa is dominant on the line.
USC head coach Clay Helton called him the best defensive player his team's faced this season.
Pro Football Focus backs up the assertion:
That's something to take note, particularly with Oregon down starting quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert injured his collar bone last week against Cal, leaving either Taylor Alie or Braxton Burmeister to captain the Ducks offense.
2. Turnover D vs. an accurate QB
Something missing from Oregon the last two seasons, which had been central to the Ducks' identity during its championship years, was a defense that generated turnovers en masse. Jim Leavitt has proven adept at implementing schemes that garner takeaways, and Oregon's seeing immediate results.
With seven interceptions through five games, the Ducks are tied for 10th-most in the nation. This week, takeaways may come at a premium against one of college football's most accurate passers, Luke Falk.
Falk no longer has the nation's best touchdown-to-interception ratio; after throwing just the second pick of the season last week vs. USC, Virginia's Kurt Benkert now holds that distinction. Nevertheless, with 16 scores against just two interceptions, and a 74.5 percent completion rate, Falk does not make many mistakes.
3. Ducks on the run
With Herbert sidelined, the Oregon offense relied almost exclusively on the run against Cal — 44 rushes against 14 passes once the injury occurred.
Now, that might seem as though it's a one-dimensional approach, but the Oregon rushing attack features enough weapons to make a run-heavy approach varied — almost like an option opponent.
Kani Benoit (right) had a star performance against Cal once Royce Freeman (above, right) was pulled with a shoulder injury. He rushed for 138 yards and had his third multiple-touchdown game of the season. Freeman should be back Saturday, giving the Ducks two different and equally capable bell-cow backs. Add the explosive scatback Tony Brooks-James to the mix, and Oregon should test a Washington State run defense allowing fewer than four yards per carry.
Oregon's various injuries, most notably quarterback Justin Herbert, came at a most inopportune time. The Ducks begin a critical stretch, with Washington State as the first in a month that also includes dates against Utah, Washington, UCLA and Stanford.
Capitalizing on opportunities at home is a must for the Ducks to factor into the Pac-12 North race, but Washington State arrives at Autzen Stadium playing its best football since 2003, and with Oregon depleted. The Cougars' impressive defense and prolific passing attack should be too much for the Ducks, who need to keep their heads above water as much as possible here in the next month.