PULLMAN — For Washington State to stay competitive with No. 2 Oregon, Connor Halliday and the WSU offense will have to play well.
The offense simply has to rise to the occasion for the Cougars to have a good showing against an opponent that has beaten them by an average of 22.1 points the last seven times they have played.
But the determining factor for WSU today will be: whether or not the Cougars defense can rise to the challenge of slowing a seemingly unstoppable Ducks offense.
“It’s a great opportunity,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “That’s why you signed up to play Pac-12 ball, to compete in the most competitive, top football conference so we’re excited about that.”
Superior strength has been the most effective way to combat UO’s speed in recent years and big, physical teams like Auburn in 2010-11 and Stanford the past two seasons have beaten the Ducks and held their offense to 22 points or fewer.
The Cougars are putting speed on the field, notably starting linebacker Jeremiah Allison on the weak side this week, but are taking a smash-mouth approach.
“You’ve got to be more aggressive,” linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “You have to be in your right gap and force them to get off those double teams in the front. If they can push our double team with two or three blockers on each guy they’re going to have a lot of rush yards.”
Washington State’s defensive task will be made more difficult if defensive linemen Destiny Vaeao and Kalafitoni Pole are unavailable. Vaeao has been limited in practice this week and reporters could not spot him at Thursday’s practice. Pole, too, appeared to be absent.
Oregon’s talent on offense is undeniable. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is a Heisman Trophy candidate with the same running ability as his predecessors in the speed-based Ducks offense.
But he’s also a better thrower than any of his forerunners, throwing at least one touchdown pass in all 29 games of his career, and at least two of them 21 times.
The Ducks have a three-headed hydra at running back with junior Byron Marshall, sophomore Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman combining to average 266.7 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns per game.
All three are fast, but none could win a footrace against redshirt freshman receiver Devon Allen, who won the NCAA title in the 110-meter hurdles last spring. His mark was the second-fastest collegiate time ever recorded.
With so many threats on the field the Ducks have been able to successfully misdirect defenses and turn most any missed assignment into a long gain.
But the Cougars have had ample time to prepare. They will substitute liberally against the Ducks, particularly when the opposing offense is near the WSU sideline.
“We’ll face a good team but we’ve faced three straight speed option teams, triple option teams so the carryover should be good,” Wilson said. “We’ve just got to get better what we’re doing being in the right spots against these guys.”