Entering the 2018 college football season, very few people would’ve guessed that the Oregon Ducks would be where they are. Ranked No. 12 in the nation at 5-1 (2-1 Pac-12), a win over hated-rival Washington and in the driver’s seat for the Pac-12 North.
All of that could come crashing down Saturday when the Ducks fly north to take on No. 25 Washington State. The Cougars are no slouch themselves, being 5-1 and 2-1 in the Pac-12. They will present Oregon with problems on both sides of the ball, mainly with quarterback Gardner Minshew, the leader of the air raid offense.
Minshew is the Pac-12 leader in touchdowns (19) and passing yards (403.7) — his passing yards is also best in the country. He does a great job of taking what the defense gives him, rarely forcing the ball to receivers in tight spots, as evidenced by his four interceptions in 313 pass attempts.
“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,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said of Minshew.
Tay Martin is Minshew’s main target with 40 receptions for 440 yards and six scores — all team highs. Martin is a mismatch nightmare, standing 6-3, 185 pounds, who can beat defenses in the air with his height or deep with his speed. Dezmon Patmon and Jr. Easop Winster are the big-play threats, each averaging over 14 yards per catch.
Part of Washington State’s offensive philosophy is understanding that a four-yard pass yields the same result as a four-yard run, something Minshew has taken to heart. He averages 52 throws per game, putting relentless pressure on opposing defenses to keep everything in front of them.
"We just have to defend their game and make them get out of their comfort zone," Oregon linebacker Kaulana Apelu said. "We just have to do what we do and play defense."
Running back James Williams is the team’s leading rusher with 264 yards and five scores. Max Borgi is a nice compliment to Williams, averaging 6.1 yards per rush with five of his 24 carries going for a touchdown.
"Their running backs are really talented guys —those big splits are challenging,” Cristobal said. “Naturally they create a lot of air right there… if you get a hat on a hat and give those guys some room they can do some damage.”
Williams is more dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, being second on the team with 32 catches for 283 yards and three scores. Minshew will often motion Williams out of the backfield, forcing a linebacker to cover him in the open field, a mismatch in the favor of Washington State.
Defensively, Washington State is very comfortable throwing a lot of different looks at opposing offensive lines, rarely showing off the same front on back-to-back plays. The Cougars take pride in winning first down, then showing off their blitz packages on second and third down.
"They wreak havoc," Oregon guard Shane Lemieux said. "They do a really good job of wreaking havoc on first downs to try to make you false start and get the offensive linemen to jump, make it first-and-15 situations."
"That's kind of what they're known for," Oregon tackle Brady Aiello added. "Almost every play they're going to do last-second stemming, try to get us to false start. Got to be disciplined. We are a very disciplined group. We're a veteran group. This line has been there a few times. Looking forward to the challenge."
Washington State has 40 tackles for loss on the season, with Logan Tago, Dominic Silvels and Peyton Pueller each with 4.5 tackles for loss. Silvels is the leader of Washington State’s secondary, giving up a Pac-12 best 165.5 yards per game.