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Strong ground game, second-quarter successes have helped Washington State rack up four straight wins against Oregon

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 24, 2019

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

While the Washington State football team has had trouble beating its primary rival, it has had its way with the teams from Oregon the last four years.

That the Cougars have handled the Oregon State Beavers is perhaps less surprising. The last 4 1/2 seasons, the Beavers have won just six conference games, fewer than anyone else in the Pac-12 Conference.

But to sweep the Oregon Ducks over that span? That’s a much more impressive, “Duck Hunt”-tweetable feat for the Cougars, who look to extend their winning streak in the series to five games on Saturday night, this time in Eugene.

Never in program history have the Cougars defeated the Ducks five consecutive times.

“We’ve always played extremely hard against them, and I always think we’ve played kind of complete games against them, and we do play well against them,” WSU coach Mike Leach told reporters on Monday. “There’s always kinda been funny matchups in sports, but I don’t really know.”

The Cougars are the only team to have such recent success over the Ducks. Since the start of the 2015 season, Oregon has defeated every other team at least once and only has a losing record against the Cougars and Stanford (2-3). The Ducks are 22-18 over that span; the Cougars are 27-13.

The Huskies – the only Pac-12 team the Cougars haven’t defeated the last four years – are 28-13 in the last four-plus seasons, a game behind Stanford’s league-best record of 29-12. The Cougars have also handled the Cardinal well, winning three of their last four matchups with another looming in November.

Washington State’s streak over Oregon, which includes victories of 34-20, 33-10, 51-33 and 45-38 in double overtime four years ago, follows its eight-game losing streak to the Ducks, its longest in series history.

That was back when Washington State was in – and then climbing out of – its nadir. Meanwhile, Oregon was competing for national championships, carrying a No. 2 ranking in each of the programs’ matchups from 2012 to 2014 and a No. 7 ranking in 2011.

Yet in those four years the Cougars gave the Ducks good first halves if not entire good games. Case in point: In 2014, the Cougars, led by Connor Halliday, were tied with the Ducks midway through the fourth quarter before losing 38-31.

Then, the tide turned. The Ducks declined, the Cougars ascended, and Washington State took over a series that, since 2010, has favored the team that had the better scoring defense that season (so far in 2019, Oregon’s is better).

That includes a year ago, when junior Justin Herbert and the Ducks achieved only three first downs in the first half. Herbert made a game of it in the second half and finished with 270 yards on 25 of 44 attempts, but he threw only one touchdown as the 12th-ranked Ducks lost to the 25th-ranked Cougars 34-20.

“Really, it’s the same things that’s made us successful the other years (when) we were extremely excited to play, and we came out there and did a good job of stacking plays up. I thought we played hard throughout that game,” Leach said of last season’s contest. “I knew that we weren’t going to be able to keep them bottled up the entire game. And so then they did get on a run, and they are explosive. Oregon will make some plays.”

The Cougars played some of their best games each season against the Ducks and proved capable of winning in different ways each year. But in each of the four games, Washington State was consistent in a few aspects.

1. Pounding the ground game

Not usually one to employ a run-heavy offense, the Cougars chose to run against the Ducks more often than usual. That included a 280-yard, 40-carry effort in 2016 when the Ducks finished 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense.

Their running game was more prominent than usual the other years, too. In 2017, the Cougars ran 25 times and completed just 24 passes against Oregon, one of two games that year in which they had more rushes than completions.

In 2015, their running backs gained 178 yards on 18 carries. Last year, the Cougars rushed 24 times against the Ducks, their third-highest number of carries in a game all season.

2. Limiting (or avoiding) Herbert

The performance last year by Herbert was easily the most successful one as far as throwing the football. In 2017, with Herbert injured, freshman Braxton Burmeister made his first collegiate start and completed 15 of 27 passes for one touchdown, 145 yards and two interceptions.

The year before, Dakota Prukop mustered only 132 passing yards in a 14-of-22 effort. He threw one interception, no touchdowns and was replaced late in the fourth quarter by the then-freshman Herbert, who went on to start the Ducks’ final seven games.

On Oct. 10, 2015, a day after Herbert committed to play for the Ducks the next season, Washington State held Jeff Lockie to 123 passing yards and 13 completions on 22 attempts. The Cougars won 45-38 in double overtime, overcoming Royce Freeman’s 248-yard rushing effort.

3. Winning the second quarter

The Cougars have avoided big deficits by dominating time of possession and outscoring the Ducks in the second quarter.

In the last two games in Pullman, the Cougars outscored the Ducks 41-7 in the second quarter. In Eugene, they have been less dominant on offense but just as much so on defense, winning that quarter 13-7.

Washington State led at halftime each of the last three games. It trailed 17-14 in 2015, before overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to earn the victory in Eugene, something they hadn’t done since 2003.

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