Washington State heads to Eugene with major divisional implications and College Football Playoff hopes for Oregon setting the table.
The Washington State Cougars head to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks on Saturday night (7:30 pm PT, ESPN) with supremacy in the Pac-12 North on the line. If the Cougs win, they will control their own destiny for the division with two games to play. If Oregon wins, it can potentially clinch the division if Oregon State loses to Stanford. Oh, and there’s that small matter of the College Football Playoff, which is of serious interest to the CFP-ranked No. 3 Ducks.
It’s Mario Cristobal facing off against Jake Dickert in the biggest game of the Pac-12’s day on November 13, just as everyone would have predicted. Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Ducks.
When Oregon has the ball…
The rise of the spread and its many iterations and offshoots hasn’t meant that teams are slinging the ball everywhere. Many programs, like Oregon, utilize a run-heavy spread attack.
So far this season, Oregon has run the ball on 58% of its early downs, according to cfb-graphs. Overall, the Ducks have recorded a non-sack rush attempt on 56% of plays from scrimmage. That commitment to the run is warranted. Despite losing top running back CJ Verdell for the season in its 5th game, Oregon has picked up 5.8 yards per carry on non-sack rushing attempts, while ranking 4th nationally in EPA/rush and 12th in rushing success rate.
Senior Travis Dye has taken over primary running duties for the Ducks, amassing 820 yards and 11 touchdowns on 134 carries. Quarterback Anthony Brown also plays a big role in Oregon’s running game. He’s dangerous on the ground, whether it’s through option keepers, direct runs, or scrambling on a pass play.
Brown’s running prowess hasn’t been enough to sway Duck fans who think he should be making more plays in the passing game. His numbers look fine on their face—in fact, his yards per attempt is higher than Justin Herbert’s 2018 season and close to Herbert’s 2019 campaign. Overall, the Ducks’ passing offense has been solid, but not spectacular—they rank 54th in EPA/pass and 36th in passing success rate.
Key receivers include Dye out of the backfield, who is leading the team with 26 catches and is second with 277 yards. Devon Williams is tops with 322 yards on 20 catches, while Johnny Johnson III, Micah Pittman, and Jaylon Redd are all dangerous. Freshman tight end Terrence Ferguson might be called upon in a goal-line situation.
WSU’s pass defense has performed reasonably well this season—sitting at 39th in EPA/pass. Much of that success is built on taking the ball away via interception or fumble recoveries, as the Cougs’ passing success rate allowed is just 84th nationally. Brown has been good in taking care of the ball through the air—just four interceptions in 241 attempts. Oregon has fumbled the ball just 10 times this season, losing it on four of those occasions.
The Cougs have been takeaway specialists, and that prowess will be tested. Wazzu ranks first nationally in fumbles forced, second in fumbles recovered, and is tied for 34th in interceptions. Forcing turnovers seems more than a trait than random luck at this point.
Takeaways will most likely be necessary, because the WSU defense, which ranks 98th in EPA/rush allowed and 114th in rushing success rate allowed, is probably going to have a tough time stopping Oregon’s ground game. The Ducks are merely average on passing downs—a 33% success rate—but the challenge is getting them to obvious passing downs in the first place.
Oregon runs a successful play 56% of the time on standard downs. That has put the Ducks in a lot of favorable positions on third and fourth down, where they are successful nearly 54% of the time, 4th nationally.
To slow down Oregon’s attack, WSU is going to need to flip that script. The Cougs need to stuff runs on early downs and put Brown in predictable passing situations—that’s where the Cougar pass rush and secondary can thrive. It’s a tall task—Oregon’s runs get stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage less than 12% of the time—9th-best nationally. If WSU can’t limit the effectiveness of early-down runs, it will need multiple turnovers to keep the Duck offense grounded.
When WSU has the ball…
Oregon’s defense is above average in EPA/play allowed, but struggling in success rate allowed (82nd, allowed successful plays on 41% of downs).
Much like WSU, Oregon is able to overcome allowing successful plays at a high rate by turning the other team over. The Ducks have forced 17 turnovers this season, including 12 interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Still, with all that havoc created through turnovers and with Oregon’s vaunted front seven, including star defensive end Kayveon Thibodeaux, the Ducks are below average in havoc rate (defined as the percentage of plays involving tackles-for-loss, pass breakups, and turnovers).
Early down defense is a saving grace for Oregon. The Ducks rank 16th in defensive early downs EPA/play and 45th in success rate allowed on first and second down. This is probably due in part to Oregon’s run defense, which ranks 32nd in EPA/rush. The Ducks’ pass defense is exploitable, as they are 55th in EPA/pass allowed and 78th in defensive passing success rate.
WSU’s passing game has been increasingly effective as Jayden de Laura grows more comfortable in the starting role. If the young quarterback can avoid big mistakes and sacks, there are plays to be made downfield against Oregon.
The Bottom Line
Oregon’s offense presents a very similar challenge to WSU as Arizona State’s offense. The Cougs were able to limit ASU through turnovers in the first half, then through stifling big plays in the second half. It’s likely Wazzu will need to force a few turnovers again and hope it can get some key plays—incomplete passes and runs stopped short—to get Oregon into difficult third and fourth downs.
If the Cougs can stay patient on offense, it might be able to grind out some first downs until the potential for bigger plays opens up. Oregon’s defense thrives on early downs, so avoiding mistakes on first and second down will be key, as will the play of WSU’s offensive line.
It’s likely that WSU will need to force at least a couple more turnovers than it gives away to win, and just like against Arizona State, the offense will need to capitalize on its opportunities.