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Analysis: What Washington State’s Air Raid is up against Saturday and what UW’s 31-point outing against Oregon told us about the Ducks’ defense

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 23, 2019

Six points. Three points. Six points. Seven points. Three points.

If these were point totals allowed by Oregon in individual quarters this season, it would suggest that the Ducks have been stingy on defense in the second year under coach Mario Cristobal and first under defensive coordinator Andy Avalos.

They’re not, though. Those are the point totals allowed by Oregon in five full games this season – the five that followed a season-opening neutral-site loss to Auburn and the five that preceded a pivotal rivalry game last Saturday at Washington.

Tack on the 27-21 loss to Auburn and it took Oregon six games to give up 52 total points – still 15 fewer than Washington State conceded in a 67-63 loss to UCLA in its Sept. 21 Pac-12 opener.

For a stretch of time, Oregon’s defense looked invincible, though Washington brought the Ducks back down to earth in a 35-31 UO win that saw the visitors from Eugene give up more than 400 yards of total offense for the first time this season. With the exception of the opener against Auburn, the Ducks had kept each of their five opponents to less than 300 yards and held an underwhelming Nevada offense to 192.

Mike Leach’s vaunted Air Raid, which has produced the nation’s leading passer for a second straight year, will be the next task for Oregon’s defense, which hasn’t held the Cougars under 30 points since 2012 – Leach’s first season at the helm in Pullman.

This week, the Cougars are diligently studying the film from Oregon’s game at UW, hoping the Huskies uncovered a few clues as to how to score on the Ducks – or, score more than a few touchdowns.

We tried to uncover a few of our own clues, and polled six media members who covered UW-Oregon via email to get a better sense of how the Huskies moved the ball so effectively and what else – if anything – can be gleaned from a 35-31 win that pushed the Ducks one step closer to the Pac-12 North title but perhaps exposed a deficiency or two ahead of WSU’s trip to the Willamette Valley.

“Oregon finally played a team with a good rushing attack AND an NFL prospect at QB. UO’s D is good but was never nine points allowed per game good,” said Aaron Fentress, who covers Oregon and the Seattle Seahawks for The Athletic. “What UO did to Colorado (in a 45-3 win) was impressive, however. That’s a good offense. But Stanford and Cal are very weak on O and Cal was without its starting QB.”

The Cougars haven’t been productive on the ground, if only because they haven’t been committed to it. With one of the league’s best running backs, they’re definitely capable. Max Borghi recently became the first WSU player with three 100-yard rushing games in a season since Jerome Harrison and his 7.3 yards per attempt rank No. 1 in the conference.

“One-dimensional attacks won’t work against Oregon,” KJR radio host Dave “Softy” Mahler said. “You want to beat them? Then show you have a threat on the ground to open up the pass. Huskies did that early and then got away from being multidimensional as the game went on.”

Oregon faced a good quarterback – Auburn’s Bo Nix – in the season opener, but the Ducks had yet to encounter somebody who could step onto an NFL field today without looking out of place. After losing to the Tigers, they played Nevada, Montana, Stanford, Cal and Colorado. The Cardinal and Golden Bears were both using backup QBs.

Enter Jacob Eason, the big UW righty who, along with Oregon’s Justin Herbert, is the other legitimate Pac-12 QB prospect who could hear his name called early in the 2020 draft.

“I think this came down to one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country having an A+ game through the first three quarters,” said Matt Calkins, a columnist for The Seattle Times. “Had the Huskies been able to finish, Jacob Eason’s performance (23 of 30 for 289 yards, three TDs and no picks) would have gone down as one of the best in program history. I don’t think that reflects on Oregon so much as it does Eason’s potential when he’s on.”

The Cougars may have some opportunities to move the ball against the Ducks on first down.

“Washington moved the ball better than any of Oregon’s previous opponents because it averaged 7.6 yards per play on first downs,” said James Crepea, Ducks beat writer for The Oregonian.

But there won’t be as many chances on third down.

“I don’t think anything really came easily for UW, though,” said Christian Caple, The Athletic’s UW beat writer. “Oregon did a good job on third down, holding UW to just 3 for 13, and the Ducks still looked pretty fast and aggressive.”

UW’s tight end pairing of Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton is probably the best in the conference, and Eason leaned on both to spark the passing game. Bryant and Otton each caught three balls for a combined 128 yards.

“I wouldn’t say Washington exposed an unknown weakness of Oregon’s defense in that it’s possible to run against the Ducks, as their defensive line is not loaded with NFL talent,” Crepea said. “But the big pass plays Washington hit were a combination of some terrific catches by very good players and creating favorable matchups. Not many teams have the tight ends capable of being that reliable.”

The Cougars don’t possess them at all, which gives Oregon one less thing to worry about.

The Ducks’ defensive line – one that’s produced the likes of DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Dion Jordan over the years – doesn’t have the elite talent it’s had in the past. Or the elite talent is just undeveloped right now.

So Washington’s offensive line, which boasts at least three All-Pac-12-caliber blockers, won the battle up front, creating running lanes for speedy back Salvon Ahmed while giving Eason ample time to operate from a clean pocket. He wasn’t sacked until late in the game.

“Washington’s offensive line, led by center Nick Harris, outplayed Oregon’s front for three quarters as the Huskies executed a balanced game plan with 120 yards rushing and 242 yards passing entering the fourth quarter,” said Ryan Thorburn of the (Eugene) Register-Guard.

Despite being penalty-prone, the Cougars are generally strong across the O-line and the players protecting Anthony Gordon are much quicker than most of their peers throughout the conference. The WSU QB has been at his best when he has time to set his feet and work through his reads, and that will be especially key against an Oregon defense that seems to capitalize on every bad decision. The Ducks have 12 interceptions this season – tied for second most in the country.

But Eason escaped without a pick, and the Huskies escaped without turning the ball over.

“I think UW’s offensive output probably had more to do with the fact that the Huskies are just more talented than any team UO had seen in Pac-12 play,” Caple said, “and therefore more capable of matching up physically and stringing together a few big plays.”

No Pac-12 team has been better on offense than the Cougars, who are scoring 42.7 points per game. Only one (Utah) has outdone the Ducks on defense. The Utes are allowing just 11.7 ppg.

The game at Autzen Stadium could tell plenty about both.

Just how prolific is WSU? And how staunch is Oregon?

“I don’t think UO has any glaring weaknesses on D,” Fentress said. “But against top-20 competition, the Ducks’ defense isn’t going to overwhelm good offenses.”

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