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Cougars eager for another crack at Jim Leavitt’s defense as Washington State-Oregon looms

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 6, 2017, 11:32 p.m.

The Washington State Cougars (5-0, 2-0) face the Oregon Ducks (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Washington State Cougars (5-0, 2-0) face the Oregon Ducks (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

EUGENE, Ore. – One might get a few quizzical looks by suggesting Oregon’s defensive coordinator shut down Washington State’s offense last season.

Didn’t the Cougars rumble for 280 rushing yards in an early-October game against the Ducks at Martin Stadium? Didn’t they put up 651 yards of total offense? Didn’t WSU leave the Ducks panting as they haplessly tried to catch up to Cougar running backs Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks, who each contributed two touchdowns?

Yep, all of that’s accurate. The Cougars left the Ducks gassed and sprinted off with a 51-33 win. Jim Leavitt just wasn’t around yet.

Oregon’s first-year defensive coordinator was one of the few coaches who had a formula for the WSU Air Raid – and the suddenly relevant ground game – last season. The Colorado Buffaloes reaped the benefits during a late November game in Boulder.

Leavitt’s defense kept Luke Falk to a sub-50 percent completion percentage – the only time in Falk’s career it’s happened – the Buffs limited the WSU backs to 137 rushing yards and the Cougars scored only three touchdowns in a disheartening 38-24 loss. WSU’s offense never got right after that, scoring just 24 combined points in losses to Washington and Minnesota.

And you can count on Leavitt giving 11th-ranked WSU another puzzle to solve when the Cougars (5-0, 2-0) face the Ducks (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

The Cougars would counter by saying they’re ready for it this time.

“I think we just were off sync in that (Colorado) game, a few plays here or there that could’ve been big for us,” Falk said. “Definitely been watching it this week, to see if they’ll do anything they did last year on us for this year. And something to draw on and just see where we can do a little better.”

The Cougars have been watching film of the 2017 Ducks this week to get a grasp of Oregon’s personnel, but they’ve also combed through last year’s game at Colorado for schematic reasons. Leavitt’s Oregon defense is similar, if not identical, to what the Buffaloes had in place last season. Colorado ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense (342.5 yards per game) and second in passing defense (193.6).

“Schematically, they’re similar, personnel they’re not loaded with seniors like Colorado was,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Jim’s not going to change his scheme much, I mean he’s been doing that for years. It’d be somewhat like all the sudden me coaching offense somewhere and we do zone right, zone left, play-action. That’s probably not going to happen.”

Oregon hasn’t played the crème de la crème of its schedule yet, but Leavitt’s defense is allowing an average of 95 rushing yards after five games and the front line – led by former WSU defensive assistant Joe Salave’a – is tied for fourth in the country with 20 sacks.

Of course, the Oregon coaches are still wary of Falk, who’s become the Pac-12’s all-time leader in completions since Leavitt last saw him and is currently fourth on the national FBS chart with a completion percentage of 75 percent.

“It’s tough. It’s tough,” Leavitt said. “This guy’s been in for a long time, you haven’t seen many defenses slow him down. Ever. Right?”

Added Salave’a: “Literally for Washington State, (Falk) makes everything go and he’s got a good supporting cast. … Those are the things that we’ve just got to make sure we’re detailed in our game plan and our execution. He’s going to make his plays. That kid is blessed with a lot of tools and it shows every Saturday.”

And he’s wealthy in experience – certainly compared to the quarterback who’ll be starting for the Ducks Saturday. Oregon coach Willie Taggart hasn’t determined who that’ll be – at least, he hasn’t announced it – but the Cougars know they’ll either see a true freshman, Braxton Burmeister, or a fifth-year senior, Taylor Alie.

Alie spelled Jeff Lockie in a game between the Cougars and Ducks two years ago, but didn’t complete a pass and only attempted two. He did scamper for an 8-yard touchdown that gave Oregon a 10-7 lead in the first quarter of an eventual 45-38 WSU win.

Burmeister made a brief cameo in Oregon’s game against Cal – he attempted a single pass – but a few of the WSU coaches had the Californian on their radar during the recruiting process.

“He’s in a real good fit for what he’s capable of doing for both throwing the ball and he’s dangerous with his feet,” Grinch said of Burmeister.

And even if the Cougars can corral the guy under center, it doesn’t mean they’ve corralled the Ducks. One of the country’s top running backs, Royce Freeman, still looms in the Oregon backfield and the Ducks lead the country in rushing touchdowns with 25, or five per game.

“It’s very, very difficult to earmark one guy that, ‘OK, if we stop him then we’re going to have a good day,’” Grinch said. “There’s too many athletes on the field and they do too much offensively, formationally and play-wise.”