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Washington State seeks fifth straight win over Oregon, but faces Ducks team with more defensive bite

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 25, 2019

EUGENE – Anthony Gordon would’ve been a few bad injuries away from seeing the field the previous time Washington State visited Oregon.

Because WSU’s quarterback never had to worry about strapping on a helmet, he was able to take in the ambience of one of the game’s most revered venues.

“I remember it’s pretty loud, I remember their fans,” Gordon said earlier this week. “They’ve got some pretty passionate fans. A pretty big fan base over there. A pretty hostile environment. They’ll be yelling some stuff, I’m sure.”

Autzen Stadium does pretty well on the decibel meter, and until Bose decides to manufacture noise-canceling technology for football helmets, opposing quarterbacks have to deal with the sound head-on.

Unless they can eliminate it.

Two years ago, one of Gordon’s predecessors, Luke Falk, accomplished that by throwing for 282 yards and three touchdowns against an Oregon team that wasn’t particularly impressive on either side of the ball, as the Cougars scored 26 unanswered points and ran off with a 33-10 win.

If Gordon, Mike Leach and Washington State’s Air Raid – 14-point underdogs Saturday in Eugene – can somehow build a big lead early, they might nullify some of the sound generated by what’s sure to be a sellout crowd.

But facing the 11th-ranked Ducks, the Cougars shouldn’t count on it. As usual, Oregon has plenty of athletic skill players on offense to go with one of the nation’s most gifted quarterbacks, but this season the Ducks are showing much more bite on defense.

The rowdy fans pose one problem for Gordon, but Oregon’s ball-hawking defensive backs, who have 12 interceptions this season, are another obstacle entirely.

“Being louder is a big thing, but hand signals especially,” Gordon said. “Overemphasizing the hand signals, really making sure, because as loud as I’m screaming, I’m sure Easop (Winston Jr.) or Tay (Martin) or whoever’s our outside receiver at the time is going to have a tough time hearing. So hand signals is a big part.

“Just got to overemphasize information, it’s key. I’d rather overemphasize and make sure everybody’s on the same page, than trying to be subtle with it and try to hide it.”

Most of Oregon’s defensive players are juniors or seniors who’ve been on the losing end of three or four games against the Cougars, and have been exhausted trying to contain a a high-volume passing offense that stretches its opponents. The Ducks don’t have fond memories of those experiences, but perhaps they can draw on them to ensure lightning doesn’t strike a fifth time.

“My first time was crazy. I could not keep up with those crossers,” Oregon senior outside linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr. said earlier this week. “But now, as long as you keep disciplined, know exactly where you’re covering at, what the coverage is and things like that, and just knowing that you’re passing things on to your teammates and trusting them, it gets better.

“… But it’ll never be easy. They’ve got a lot of explosive guys out there, and we’ve just got to really work hard this week.”

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert bypassed early entry to the NFL to come back for his senior season and cross a few more items off his collegiate checklist. Beating WSU may not necessarily be high among them, but winning a Pac-12 championship is. If Herbert can notch his first win over the Cougars while pushing Oregon one game closer to a division title, it’s all the better.

Herbert has received lofty praise from the defensive staff that’s spent the week planning for him. WSU interim defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni listed the QB’s stats during a midweek interview, saying, “He’s got 24 touchdowns and one pick, I believe.”

Actually, it’s 21 touchdowns and one pick, but better to give the projected first-round NFL draft pick too much respect than not enough.

“He’s got a big-time arm. He make some throws that most humans are not able to make,” Bellantoni said. “A deep out to the other side of the field, and he’s hitting a guy right in the hands. The phrase we’ve used in our room is ‘He throws guys open.’ They may not be open, but he puts the ball where nobody else can catch it, and they get open. So yeah, he’s pretty amazing.”

For all of Herbert’s superlatives, he’s capable of having the occasional clunker, and the Cougars caught the quarterback on an average day last season. He completed 25 of 44 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown, but WSU’s pass rush pressured him in the first half and blanked the Ducks until the third quarter of a 34-20 Cougars win.

But Bellantoni, who was coaching defensive ends at Buffalo this time last year, isn’t willing to take the bait.

“There’s no reason he’s giving you to be optimistic other than you choose to be optimistic, right?” he said. “We’re just going to continue to try to do what we do and when the ball’s in the air, we’ll try to get it. If they’re holding the ball, we’ll try to strip it.”

A few takeaways would be good. The Cougars had three a week ago and emerged with their best defensive performance of the year.

Blocking out the noise won’t hurt, either. Fortunately, this WSU team already has had to do plenty of that this season.

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