In addition to ESPN’s College GameDay visiting the campus Saturday for 25th-ranked Washington State’s showdown with No. 12 Oregon, Mike Leach’s program finds itself in the hunt for a Pac-12 North title for the third consecutive year.
The game between Washington State (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) and Oregon (5-1, 2-1) will go a long way to determining the North champion because the winner will have a two-game edge over the other (one game, plus the tie-breaker).
The Cougars, Ducks, No. 15 Washington (5-2, 3-1) and Stanford (4-2, 2-1) each have one loss in conference play, with five games remaining for the Huskies and six for the others.
The presence of Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Desmond Howard with College GameDay only adds to the intrigue Saturday at Martin Stadium.
“I think it’s pretty good. With the flag tradition that we have, I think it’s very important with that and I think it’s overdue,” Leach said of the College GameDay visit.
“We’re certainly excited to have it and our students are excited to have it. As a team, it’s kind of business as usual but I think it’s a really good opportunity for our fans and a good showcase for our university and our team.”
Leach’s team is coming off a bye week after defeating Oregon State 56-37 in Corvallis, Ore., on Oct. 6. Oregon is coming off a thrilling 30-27 overtime win over then-No. 7 Washington on CJ Verdell’s touchdown run.
Oregon first-year coach Mario Cristobal said his team did not celebrate long after the win over Washington. He said his team during Monday’s practice immediately became “refocused” and “dialed in and locked in to Washington State and the kind of team that they are.”
He talked about practice on Tuesday and Wednesday as being vital to his team’s success this weekend.
“The Tuesday/Wednesday practice for us is the ultimate difference-maker for us in our process and our program,” he said.
“It really is that simple. I know it sounds boring and certainly not interesting at all, but for us, because of where we are and how we’re developing, it’s completely tied into how we play on Saturday.
Also getting Oregon’s attention is the fact Washington State has won three consecutive games over its Pacific Northwest rival. A big plus for the Ducks this time is that All-Pac-12 quarterback candidate Justin Herbert is healthy.
In the last three games against the Ducks, the Cougars have gone against suspect quarterback competition, starting in 2015 with Jeff Lockie, a former Marcus Mariota backup. Dakota Prukop and Herbert, then a true freshman, split time in 2016, and true freshman Braxton Burmeister played in last year’s game.
Oregon’s quarterbacks completed 57 percent of their passes, with three touchdowns and four interceptions, during that span.
Herbert, a 6-foot-6, 233-pound NFL prospect, enters Saturday’s game completing 63.1 percent of his passes (106 of 168) for 1,613 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. He will go against a Washington State defense that ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 against the pass (165.5 yards allowed a game), but the Cougars have not faced a quarterback of his caliber.
“I think he’s pretty good,” Leach said of Herbert. “He does a good job leading the unit. I think that he can run a little bit (106 yards on 38 carries). He’s more effective throwing it, though.
“They are kind of a running team, I think. They’re one that has that sense of balance that appeals to a lot of people. They’re 50/50-ish.”
Oregon ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 with 209.5 yards rushing a game. Verdell has gained 531 yards on 97 carries with four touchdowns.
Of particular concern for Oregon is that two offensive line starters — tackle Penei Sewell and guard Dallas Warmack — were injured against Washington. Cristobal said Warmack is “full go” for Saturday but Sewell is likely to miss the rest of the regular season because of an ankle injury.
Washington State is primarily a passing team with its “Air Raid” offense under Leach. East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew is the top passer in the Pac-12 (averaging 403.7 yards a game) while completing 68.7 percent of his passes (215 of 313) with 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
“He’s been excellent … he is very decisive and he gets it out quick. I’m talking about just not the decision, but his actual mechanics, the ball is gone,” Cristobal said of Minshew.
“He’s a 6-3 guy, so he’s a good size guy that can see over those big offensive linemen, but he knows where he’s going with the football. Changing the picture on him is important because if he knows exactly what you’re in he can dial it up.”