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Ducks Preparing For Different Sort of Challenge at WSU

Sep 14, 2014

By Rob Moseley

After three weeks of defending pro-style offenses, during No. 2 Oregon’s perfect run through nonconference play to start this season, the pendulum is about to swing dramatically in the other direction.

The Ducks (3-0) go on the road to open Pac-12 Conference play on Saturday when they play at Washington State (7:30 p.m., ESPN). The Cougars (1-2) lead the nation with 517 passing yards per game, more than 30 more than second-place Western Kentucky, and are coming off a win over Portland State in which they threw for a Pac-12 record 630 yards.

That broke the previous record of 557, set by the Cougars last fall in a 62-38 loss at Autzen Stadium. Connor Halliday, who accounted for all those yards against the Ducks last season, threw for 544 against the Vikings on Saturday, second-most in the NCAA this year.

“That’s like PlayStation numbers, what he did,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said Sunday.

The Cougars, who opened the year with losses to Rutgers and Nevada, already have six plays of 50 yards or more, most in the country, and are tied for first with 68 plays of 10 yards or more. Oregon, meanwhile, has been burned at times by explosion plays, having allowed 52 of 10 yards or more, and seven of 30 yards or more.

A major theme of Helfrich’s weekly Sunday press conference with local media, held the day after Oregon’s 48-14 win over Wyoming, was communication – or more accurately, the way so many of the Ducks’ breakdowns through three games, whether in coverage in defense or at the line of scrimmage on offense, boil down to miscommunications.

The Cowboys on Saturday had several gains for double-digit yardage, including plays of 21, 24, 25, 15 and 18 yards as they drove to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter (penalties forced the Cowboys to drive 112 yards on the possession, which started at the 2-yard line).

“When everybody’s done their job and everybody fits where they’re supposed to fit and takes care of their business, we’ve been great,” Helfrich said. “A few breakdowns yesterday, just gap-wise, turned into big plays. …

“Those are the kinds of things that cannot happen. We have to coach them up and get them ready to rock.”

Oregon moved up to No. 3 in the USA Today coaches’ poll on Sunday, passing Oklahoma after previously being ranked No. 4. The Ducks are nine points behind No. 2 Alabama and also nine points ahead of the Sooners in the polling.

In the AP top 25, the Ducks remained at No. 2 and collected 17 first-place votes to come in 42 points behind No. 1 Florida State. Oregon received six first-place votes from the coaches.

The first midseason poll from the College Football Playoff selection committee will be released next month.

Helfrich’s assessment of the Ducks in the wake of nonconference play is that they knew they’d need to rely on some young players this season, that there have been some growing pains through three weeks, but that the time for that is passed.

“We’re to the point now, there’s no freshmen and sophomores and juniors and seniors,” Helfrich said. “If you’re in there, you’re our No. 1 guy, period. We expect those guys to play like it, and play great.”

Oregon’s starters against Wyoming included true freshman right tackle Tyrell Crosby, redshirt freshman receiver Devon Allen and redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Seisay. Crosby is one of 10 true freshmen to have played so far this season – all of whom played against both South Dakota and Wyoming – and one of eight to have appeared in all three nonconference games.

Some young defenders were tasked with keeping the Cowboys out of the end zone late in the game, after the Ducks’ final touchdown made it 48-14 with 8:30 to play. Wyoming’s ensuing drive got down to the Oregon 5-yard line, but true freshman outside linebacker Justin Hollins made a tackle on fourth down to keep the visitors from scoring again.

The pairing at inside linebacker for that play was true freshman Jimmie Swain, who had three tackles during the drive, and true freshman Henry Mondeaux, giving the Ducks true freshmen at three of the four linebacker spots.

The coaching staff’s players of the game against Wyoming were running back Byron Marshall on offense, safety Erick Dargan on defense and, for the third week in a row, Charles Nelson on special teams.

Marshall led the Ducks with 80 rushing yards, Dargan had two interceptions to give him three for the season – tied for most in the country – and Nelson had two tackles on kickoff coverage for the third straight game.

Oregon’s top scout-team players as the Ducks prepared to face the Cowboys were running backs Ayele Forde and Tony James on offense, outside linebacker Mike Garrity on defense, and defensive back Michael Manns on special teams. Helfrich noted that James “has been spectacular” through preseason camp and the first three weeks of the season.