(Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
You would have to go all the way to 2006 to find the last time both Washington State and Oregon were above .500 in their matchup. During that 11 year stretch, Oregon has won seven out of ten of those games. However, Washington State has won the last two. The difference has been that Oregon has struggled to find a true quarterback and Washington State has had consistency at the position with Luke Falk. It is possible that trend continues today. The Oregon quarterback, Justin Herbert, broke his collarbone in a 45-24 road win at Cal. Fifth year senior, Taylor Alie, took over for Herbert and Willie Taggert had to burn the redshirt of true freshman, Braxton Burmeister. We expect to see both of them to play tonight against Washington State.
For Washington State, this is a big test. It is their first road game of the season, somehow managing to play five straight games at home to open the season. That sounds nice until you realize they have to play five of their next seven games on the road, including trips to Utah and Washington in back-to-back weeks to finish the season. The Cougars are riding high after their big Friday night win against USC. Historically, this is when teams become more vulnerable. The emotion levels start rising and so do the stakes. Washington State has put itself in a position to compete in the Pac 12 North, but there can be no slip-ups between now and their matchup with the Washington Huskies in late November.
In the Cougars last trip to Eugene in 2015, Luke Falk threw for 505 yards and five touchdowns. In last year’s game, Falk threw for 371 while completing 75% of his passes. In Falk’s two games against the Ducks, Washington State has averaged 48 points per game. Pretty much, Luke Falk loves playing Oregon.
A year ago, Washington State had six rushing touchdowns on an Oregon team that finished the year 4-8. I do not think that will happen again this year, but Jamal Morrow is back as a senior and is looking to have another big game after rushing for 122 yards and two touchdowns in this game a year ago. Along with Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks each had two touchdowns in last years game. All of those guys are back for the Cougars and have to be starving for another chance to exploit this Oregon defense, which has looked night and day compared to last year.
Washington State’s defense has been respectable this year — allowing just 275.2 yards per game. If they can stop Royce Freeman (listed as day-to-day), who has popped off for 384 yards and five touchdowns in their last two meetings, Washington State will be in a good position to get their third straight victory over Oregon for the first time since 1981-84.
Before I start on Oregon, I want to rave about Willie Taggert for a second. When I heard Oregon hired this guy, I could not have thought of a better fit. He may not have been the most popular decision at the time, but I am sure the Oregon fans are now all aboard his system. He knows offense like very few people do. South Florida was not the best program when he took hold of them— he went 2-10 in his first year with the Bulls. Through recruiting and finding his under-the-radar guys, such as USF quarterback Quinton Flowers, he was able to make USF a top 25 program that won a share of their conference championship in 2016 and took them back to their first bowl game in five years. I knew coming into this year that Oregon was going to stomp on their 4-8 record from last year and start looking like the team we come to expect from the Ducks.
This Oregon team is averaging 537.4 yards per game, which I would expect to drop because of their quarterback issues. We do not know how Braxton Burmeister is going to look and Taylor Alie has yet to throw a touchdown pass. There is a lot of question marks on this Oregon offense now. It is never ideal to rotate quarterbacks, but Taggert truly does not know where to go in this situation. Braxton Burmeister has thrown a grand total of one career pass and Alie has thrown just 34 passes in his four years of college football.
It is safe to say that Oregon is going to rely heavily on their run game.The Ducks have ran the ball exactly 100 more times than they have passed this season and I expect that trend to continue tonight. We should see Royce Freeman play on Saturday and that will be huge for Oregon because he has killed the Cougars in previous years. Freeman is having a strong senior campaign. He has rushed for 592 yards and ten touchdowns already this season. It is clear that Royce Freeman has been the guy for Willie Taggert on offense. He has almost triple the amount of rushing attempts that the next running back has. That leads me to senior Kani Benoit. Benoit has been great for the Ducks as well, and is averaging 8.5 yards per carry. A guy that I love is true freshman Darrian Felix. I wanted him at Miami so, so badly last class, but Willie Taggert was able to get the Fort Myers product to move across the entire nation to Eugene. If Taggert continues to recruit Florida well, Oregon will be back before we know it.
One lingering problem Oregon has not been able to shake is their penalties. The Ducks are ranked 128 of 129 teams nationally, averaging 93.4 yards per game on penalties. That is absolutely putrid. That is not a word I use lightly. Putrid is the only word to describe Oregon’s lack of discipline on the field. That has to be a main priority in this game if they want to beat a confident Washington State team that feels like they are competing for a spot in the Pac 12 Championship.
Jim Leavitt has coached up this Oregon defense to be stingy against the run. The Ducks are allowing just 95 yards a game on the round. The problem is that Washington State does not run the ball very much. They are averaging just 81.8 yards a game on the ground. Oregon has the 76th ranked passing defense and is going up against the number two passing offense. It is going to be a fun game to watch in Autzen Stadium Saturday night, especially if the Oregon offense comes out to play.
Luke Falk finishes his career 3-0 against Oregon in a big victory at Oregon. I am predicting a 450 yard passing game from Luke Falk with three touchdowns. I think that Oregon’s quarterback situation is going to get off to a rocky start and that gives Luke Falk and the Cougar offense too many possessions. Royce Freeman and company will keep the Ducks in the game with their rushing attack, but the defense will be expecting run all game and force one of these quarterbacks to make good throws.
I really wanted to pick Oregon in this game, but with the uncertainty at quarterback I cannot do that in good conscious. If they can clean up their penalty situation, though nothing indicates that they will, they can give themselves a real chance to keep the game close. After that, who knows. I believe the Cougars survive another day and pass their first road test of the season
(11) Washington State: 35