STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Scouting the run defense: For most of the season, Oregon’s strength on defense has been stopping the run. But since conference play began, the Ducks have given up 168.7 yards per game. The defense is sort of a Jekyll and Hyde type of unit, either giving up 0-2 yards per rush or 6-8 yards per rush. Because the Ducks have struggled in the secondary, they have been a bit hesitant to commit to the run fully, often making sure they aren’t beaten with play action
Outside linebacker Justin Hollins has been a terror for opposing offenses, leading the Ducks with nine tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He does a great job of either setting the edge and forcing the ball carrier back to the inside or using his strength/speed to beat his blocker and make the play in the backfield.
Linebackers Kaulana Apelu and Troy Dye have a combined 7.5 tackles for loss while defensive linemen Jalen Jelks and Jordon Scott also have also combined for 7.5 tackles for loss. Scott is a one-man wrecking crew at nose tackle, often occupying both “A” gaps by himself while Jelks, Oregon’s most gifted pass rusher, finds himself facing double teams often.
Washington State isn’t known for running the ball (last in the Pac-12 at 71.8 yards per game) but in recent years, they’ve gashed the Ducks on the ground.
James Williams leads the team with 260 rushing yards and five scores while Max Borghi is more of a homerun threat, averaging 6.1 yards per carry with five touchdowns on 24 carries.
Washington State will try to run the ball just enough to be effective and keep the Ducks from overloading the secondary. If the Cougars find success on the ground, it’ll really open the passing game.
Likewise, Oregon must stop Washington State’s running backs. The Ducks must be able to stop the run without committing too many linebackers or safeties to doing so. They’ll need all the help they can get in the passing game and can’t afford to send any extra players into the box.
Scouting the pass defense: The Ducks entered Pac-12 play one of worst pass defenses in the conference but have steadily seen their secondary gain confidence and improve.
Oregon gives up an average of 252 passing yards per game in conference play, third worst in the Pac-12. But, the Ducks’ five interceptions is tops in the Pac-12, showing off their high-risk, high-reward type of style.
Safeties Ugochukwu Amadi and Jevon Holland lead the Pac-12 in interceptions with three each. Different in size, both players show the ability to cover ground with the ball in the air and run with receivers or tight ends when needed.
The Ducks struggle at cornerback where Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir have shown flashes of being very good but get beat too often on plays they shouldn’t. Graham is the veteran of the cornerbacks after starting last year as a freshman — he must take the next step in his progression as top cornerback.
Oregon routinely rotates 6-7 players in the secondary over the course of a game but with Washington State’s air raid offense, expect more players to see the field to keep fresh.
Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew leads the Pac-12 in touchdowns (19) and passing yards per game (403.7 — also tops in the nation). Minshew does a very good job of getting the ball out quick and accurate to his receivers, understanding that a four-yard pass is the same result as a four-yard run. Because he gets the ball out so quick, he completely takes away the opponents pass rush.
What makes Washington State hard to defend is that eight players have at least 12 catches on the season and seven have a receiving touchdown. Tay Martin is the leader of the bunch with 40 catches for 440 yards and six scores on the season. Jr. Easop Winster and Dezmon Patton are the big-play guys, averaging over 14.7 yards per catch.
Williams is the team’s second leading receiver despite being a running back — totaling 32 catches for 283 yards and three scores. The Cougars will often motion him out of the backfield, forcing a linebacker to cover him the passing game. Williams will then use his precise route running and athleticism to take advantage of the situation.
There’s no easy way to say it, the Cougars are going to test Oregon’s secondary and keep testing them till the final whistle blows. The Ducks can’t rely on the secondary to do it all themselves. Rather, the defensive linemen must get their hands up on the quick passes Minshew throws, hoping to either bat it down or disrupt the timing of the routes.
Oregon has grown a lot over the past couple weeks, but this week promises to prove whether or not the secondary is for real or still a work in progress.