Don’t take your eyes off …
Will Washington State’s defense go into its bag of tricks to stifle Oregon’s potent ground game? The Cougars are benefiting greatly this season from a “Cheetah” front – as interim coach Jake Dickert called his team’s speed-rushing defensive line, featuring edges Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson on the inside, and Willie Taylor III and Quinn Roff manning the ends. Sometimes, an edge drops back into coverage and is replaced in the pass rush by a linebacker or a defensive back. Dickert hinted at the possibility that WSU will test the Ducks on early downs with maybe “an extra hat in the box,” and said the Cougars will perhaps “take some chances” with additional pressure packages to rattle Oregon into passing situations. WSU was effective in bottling up Arizona State’s prolific running approach on first and second downs two weeks ago, setting up opportunities for the Cougars’ “Cheetah” front to cut loose on third-and-long. “Their movement, their pressures really are challenging,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said.
When WSU has the ball …
The Cougars’ run-and-shoot offense tends to get the ball out quick. Last season, against Oregon’s formidable defensive front, WSU did so on the majority of its plays, with quarterback Jayden de Laura often taking a two-step dropback before firing to his first look. But the Cougars’ offensive line, which Dickert called the “No. 1 strength of our offense,” has made clear strides over the past few weeks, and based on the eye test, de Laura has been supplied more time in the pocket to go through his progressions, wait for his pass-catchers to break free downfield, then step into longer throws. Can WSU’s big men in the trenches hold up against Oregon’s dominant pass-rushers? The Ducks’ defense thrives in the ground game and has struggled through the air, a trend that might suggest WSU reverts to its pass-heavy ways with de Laura – “the single biggest catalyst of our turnaround,” Dickert said during a radio show this week – playing as well as any Pac-12 QB. Yet Dickert confirmed last week, after WSU ran the ball 42 times against Arizona State, that he hopes to increase the touches for standout tailbacks Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh. The Cougars’ offense may soon become closer to 50-50 instead of 60-40, in terms of its pass-run ratio. “We’ve challenged the offense to kinda get outside the core of (the run-and-shoot) a little bit,” Dickert said during his coach’s show Thursday. “How can we get the ball in our playmakers’ hands? My biggest philosophy is players over plays. … I’m not just a big believer in Max, I’m a huge believer in Deon, too, and his style of play as a 1-2 punch.”
When Oregon has the ball …
The Ducks’ offensive success this season has been predicated on an electric run game featuring a balanced, experienced back in Travis Dye and an offensive line composed entirely of second-year starters. UO runs the ball on about 60% of its plays. The Ducks have logged 100 more carries than passing attempts this year, and their leading receiver has only recorded 20 catches. Asked to identify an area of emphasis, Dickert pointed to the line of scrimmage. How will WSU’s emergent defensive line stack up against the Ducks’ ground-and-pound approach? Cristobal thinks it’ll be a battle. “Their defensive line is as disruptive as you’ll find, really, in college football,” he said. Dickert highlighted the Ducks’ offensive discipline. They have coughed up the ball only nine times (26th nationally), but now will be tasked to keep possession against the Pac-12’s top turnover-collecting unit in WSU, which sits in a tie for fifth in the FBS with 20 takeaways. The Cougars are also leading the nation in fumbles forced with 20, and UO ranks 10th in the conference with 10 fumbles – though just four of them have resulted in turnovers. “They’re fifth in the country in forcing turnovers, and everybody is doing it,” Cristobal said. “They’re punching out balls at the linebacker position, at defensive back, up front.”
Relief on the back end
WSU’s secondary hasn’t surrendered many chunk passing plays over the top, and that’s a notable feat considering how thin the Cougars have been at safety. Strong safety Daniel Isom has been backed up all season by Tyrone Hill Jr., but depth issues at free safety have forced converted corner George Hicks III to take the vast majority of snaps at the position. Without a game-ready backup available, Hicks has assumed FS duties on a full-time basis. It’s certainly welcome news regarding the return of Halid Djibril, the junior who started at free safety in the Cougars’ first two games before suffering a leg injury that has kept him sidelined since Sept. 11. Dickert figures he’ll rotate the two. Djibril is a more reliable tackler, while Hicks hangs his hat on coverage. “Having him back out there will definitely help out, and not just me, but really the whole team,” Hicks said of Djibril.
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