Key Matchup:Oregon DC Jim Leavitt vs. Washington State HC Mike Leach
The battle between great football minds in Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and Washington State head coach/offensive guru Mike Leach is going to provide the most entertainment on Saturday.
Leach is renowned for his work in the “air raid” offense, a style of play where the offense throws the ball, and then throws it some more. Over the years, Leach has perfected this style of play and now in his seventh year with the Cougars, has the right personnel running it to perfection.
“Coach Leach has done an incredible job everywhere he's been,” Cristobal said of Washington State head coach Mike Leach. “He really knows how to attack defenses — he knows where the holes are and the way that offense is designed, that offense is designed to expose those holes.”
Washington State averages 413.7 passing yards per game, tops in the nation — and 41.8 points per game, 15th in the nation.
Part of what makes the Cougars so difficult is that they use different drops to get defenses out of sync. By getting the ball out quick, it neutralizes opposing defenses pass rush, essentially taking that weapon away. And then when pass rushers feel dejected, that’s when the quarterback can take his time in the pocket and pick secondaries apart.
“The ball is out, the ball is gone now so the problem is if you allow (it) to lull your defensive line asleep, when he does drop back and does his quick five stuff or his shot stuff, he's going to have a lot of time to throw the ball, so you got stay relentless to him,” Cristobal said of Washington quarterback Gardner Minshew.
On the season, Minshew has thrown for 19 touchdowns and 2,422 yards, completing 68.7-percent of his passes. Eight different players have at least 12 catches on the season while six of them have more than 230 yards receiving.
“They like to throw the ball, it's obvious. They've got the top passing offense in the conference, one of the best in the country, if not the best,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “Our guys have to really just burn our eyes watching film and watching formations, watching everything that relates to how they've and what they've done to have success.”
How Leavitt handles this offense and disguises his coverages and blitzes will go a long way into slowing down the Cougars. Because of the sheer volume that Washington State throws it, shutting the Cougars down is nearly impossible. But every stop and forced punt is a victory that Leavitt and his defense will be striving for.
To be successful, Oregon must use its height on the outside to prevent those quick passes from going out to open receivers. That means that defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins (both 6-foot-6) must get their hands up on times they don’t get to Minshew.
Also, Leavitt must have a plan for when the Cougars motion out the running backs, which often leads to mismatches for Washington State.
The good news is that the Ducks have athletic linebackers who can run with opposing offensive players. The problem with moving a linebacker to the outside though is that it takes away the blitz, leaving the middle of the field open.
These are all problems Leavitt faced, and failed against, in last year’s 33-10 loss. Saturday will determine how much Leavitt learned from last year and what he feels comfortable doing with this year’s group of players.
“Their defensive coordinator was there last year — it'll be more of a look at last year,” Leach said of Oregon’s defense. “Then (we’ll) try to get a sense of how they've evolved as a team between this year and last year; if there's much difference philosophy-wise and things like that in what they've introduced this year.”
Either way, the chess match between two of the most philosophical coaches in college football promises to be a good one — one that will determine who remains in first place in the Pac-12 North.