Pac-12 coaches have always said that the conference schedule can be unforgiving. Oregon is going to find out how unforgiving that schedule can be on Saturday.
After their exciting overtime win over Washington last week, the Ducks travel north to the Palouse and face a Washington State team (4:30 pm, FOX) that has the capability of pulling off the same kind of upset that was witnessed in Eugene.
“We’re understanding the importance of getting refocused, getting dialed in and locked in to Washington State in the kind of team they are,” Ducks coach Mario Cristobal said. “They are obviously a really good football team, so the game plan has been going well so far.”
The newly-ranked No. 25 Cougars (5-1, 2-1) are preparing for their biggest game in some time as ESPN’s College Gameday will broadcast from Pullman for the first time ever. To say the atmosphere inside Martin Stadium is bound to be a bit crazy might be an understatement.
But all of the distractions the Cougars will have to endure by hosting Gameday might work in the Ducks’ favor. Washington State is in uncharted territory while Oregon is certainly on a roll.
Last week’s upset over then No. 7 Washington propelled the Ducks to a No. 12 ranking and although the season is already half over, the thoughts of Pasadena is starting to creep into the minds of some Duck faithful.
Oregon should be favored by a good amount in the rest of its games with the contest at Utah being the only real obstacle that stands in the way between the Ducks and a Pac-12 North championship. They’ll have to win out and hope Stanford loses another game, but with the way the two teams are playing now, that scenario doesn’t look all that probable now as it did three weeks ago.
That loss to the Cardinal seems like a decade ago, doesn’t it?
But none of that matters in the Ducks don’t take care of business this week on the road and the Cougars have had their way recently with the Ducks. WSU came into Autzen Stadium last year and whipped Oregon up and down the field to the tune of a 33-10 beating. The Cougars have won three straight over the Ducks.
However, Justin Herbert didn’t play in last year’s loss and in 2016 where Oregon lost 51-33, Herbert was a freshman subbing in for an injured Dakota Prukop where he went a whole 3-for-5 for 70 yards.
Washington State will be seeing a very different Justin Herbert this time around.
Gone is the wide-eyed spindly freshman and incoming will be a Heisman Trophy hopeful and the probable first pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. He’ll also have one of the best receivers in the country available to throw at and a handful of other receivers coming into their own.
Dillon Mitchell leads the NCAA averaging 154.4 yards per game in league action and three touchdowns. Overall, he has 35 catches for 561 yards (93.5 ypg). Jaylon Redd only has 12 receptions to his name, but four of those have gone for touchdowns, including a game-tying score in the first half where his tip toes were just an inch away from the sideline. He is also averaging almost 17 yards per catch.
If the WSU defense wants to concentrate on the Duck passing game, CJ Verdell can make them pay on the ground as he is quickly turning into one of the best tailbacks in the Pac-12. With his fumbling days seemingly behind him, Verdell is averaging 88.5 yards per game and has scored four times, including last week’s game-winner in overtime.
Unfortunately, the Ducks will not have offensive lineman Penei Sewell up front blocking for the likes of Herbert or Verdell as the big 340-pound freshman suffered a high ankle sprain where he may miss up to six weeks of action.
On the other side of ball, Mike Leach’s air raid offense has always been a tough challenge for the Duck defense and this year doesn’t look to be any different.
Quarterback Gardner Minshew transferred in from East Carolina and he has been the perfect fit for the Cougar offensive attack. He has already surpassed several statistics this season has he did all of last year in just half the games. Minshew has thrown for 19 touchdowns (16 last season) and just four interceptions. He is also completing 69 percent of his passes and has thrown for 2,422 yards (404 ypg).
Receivers Devontavean Martin (40 rec, 440 yards, 6 TD) and Easop Winston (29 rec, 426 yards, 5 TD) are his favorite targets, but 13 different Cougars have caught passes this season.
In his weekly news conference, Cristobal said that new secondary coaches Keith Heyward and Donte Williams have put in some new techniques that have helped the Duck defenders out this season, but will be put to the test against the Cougars.
“Keith has put some new wrinkles in terms of coverage to be able to, not only to sometimes protect your corners so they’re not on an island all day, but to give different pictures and looks to the opponent,” he said. “The quarterback is an excellent player, the offensive line is a veteran group that protects him well.”
Oregon will have to do protecting of its own. Protecting Herbert will go a long way to where the Ducks want to be at season’s end.
~ Don Smalley