5 Things To Watch: WSU
Pac-12 play opens for the Oregon football team Saturday afternoon when the Ducks play at Washington State.
The No. 15 Ducks (2-1) have won two straight since dropping their opener, and are fresh off a win over Brigham Young in a battle of top-25 teams. The Cougars are somewhat surprisingly unranked despite getting off to a 3-0 start that includes a win at Wisconsin.
Oregon leads the all-time series 52-40-7 and is 26-21-2 all-time in Pullman, Wash. The Ducks have won three straight, after dropping four in a row to WSU between 2015-18.
The game will kick off at 1 p.m. and is slated for a FOX telecast, with Tim Brando on play by play and Spencer Tillman providing analysis.
Some factors to watch when the Ducks face the Cougars. …
1. Something's got to give at the line of scrimmage when the Ducks have the ball. Washington State is tied for the Pac-12 lead and second in the country with 14 sacks, while Oregon's offensive line has yet to allow a sack through three games – despite some lineup shuffling by position coach Adrian Klemm due to injuries.
The odds are, Oregon won't go all season without allowing a sack. But as long as the Ducks keep consistently buying time for Bo Nix and clearing lanes for running backs, they're getting the job done regardless.
"I'll say this: We don't want to give up sacks, but on the same note our goal isn't how many sacks we give up a game, our goal is to win," UO coach Dan Lanning said. "It's a really good job by our offensive staff, coach Klemm and those guys up front, but it's not the only measuring stick for us offensively."
2. Along with Oregon, the Cougars also are benefiting from the addition of a transfer at quarterback. In WSU's case it's Cameron Ward, a national player of the year finalist at the FCS level last fall while playing for Incarnate Word.
After employing the "Air Raid" system under former coach Mike Leach, now it's the "Coug Raid," which can spread the ball around in the passing game while also capitalizing on the athleticism of Ward and also some dynamic running backs.
"They're more balanced," Lanning said. "It's unique; when I've played teams like this in the past, you kind of carry one defense, and it's what you have to play the entire week and it's usually a little bit unique for that. That being said they still have 11 personnel; they have 12 personnel. They use the tight end. So it's more to prepare for and they do a lot more, but they still can create some of those issues that the 'Air Raid' can create. Not as much time can be devoted to one thing in practice, and I think that's a challenge."
3. This will be the first Pac-12 Conference game for the Ducks under Lanning, and also the first Pac-12 game for Nix. Oregon's senior quarterback is completing slightly better than 70 percent of his passes so far, and over the past two games he had 10 total touchdowns without a turnover.
The offensive line has been doing its part to keep Nix from taking excessive hits, but there's only so much they can do – against BYU, Nix got into the open field while trying to scramble for a first down and absorbed a big hit just as he reached the line to gain. It was a big-time collision, and Lanning appreciated the effort.
"I mean, I like guys that are winners – the ones who will get first downs like Bo wants to get a first down," Lanning said. "Obviously you want to be smart, but you're a competitor. You want to get a first? Go get a first. Certainly at some point I could be sitting up here and regret that I said that, but you don't tell guys how to compete. Bo wanted to compete and go get a first down."
4. Saturday's game is the next chance to see what offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham has in his bag of tricks. Offensively the Ducks have been attacking the perimeter, they've been taking deep shots, they've been pounding it between the tackles and even employing a fullback – an entertaining mix for fans, and the source of consternation for defenses.
The foundation though, on both sides of the ball, is holding up at the line of scrimmage.
"I think we're playing a little bit more of a physical brand of football, really on both sides of the ball," Lanning said. "We've obviously been able to establish the run and then do a good job tackling on the perimeter the last couple games. That's something that has to continue for us. We've said for us it's about chopping wood and carrying water. There's work to be done if you want results; you got to keep chopping wood and carrying water."
5. The work Oregon has been putting in has yielded immediate results in games the last two weeks. After breakdowns on the perimeter defensively against Georgia, the Ducks were much better against Eastern Washington. And when Lanning wanted to see more explosive offense against BYU, the Ducks obliged, personified by the acrobatic play Troy Franklin made to haul in a 50-yard reception.
Keep making improvements like that, and big things could be in store for this Oregon football team.
"I just think it speaks to the character of our team and being able to take constructive criticism," Lanning said. "… Our guys have been hungry to improve, and if they see something they can get better at, and they can see a visual of why it matters, it usually carries over. They do a really good job of receiving the message and then trying to detail their work so they can be better at it."