CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Washington State Cougars aren’t downplaying the significance of this midseason Pac-12 matchup.
With a road win over Oregon State, the Cougars could gain a major boost in momentum at a crucial juncture of their season. A loss to the Beavers would be a negative way to head into their bye week.
“We gotta get it (the win),” wide receiver Donovan Ollie said. “We gotta come into that bye week with confidence.”
For better or worse, Saturday’s result might mark a turning point in the year for WSU and Oregon State. One team could leave the field with invigorated ambitions. The other squad could lose steam and slip off pace at the midway point of the season.
The Cougars (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) and Beavers (4-2, 1-2) square off at 6 p.m. Saturday in front of a packed house at Reser Stadium in Corvallis. OSU is favored by 3.5 points.
“It’s going to take a big challenge to go into their place and get the win,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “With the bye week hanging out there, it’s an important (game) this week to leave it all out there.”
The Cougars have dominated the series in recent history. They are riding an eight-game winning streak against the Beavers. Win-loss records aside, WSU/OSU matchups are usually competitive. This season, the teams appear to be almost equally talented.
“I feel like they’re the most undervalued team in the Pac-12, with just how veteran they are, how well-coached they are and how physical they are,” Dickert said of the Beavers.
Fifth-year OSU coach Jonathan Smith called the Cougars defense “one of the best in the league.
“I just think it’s a quality program that competes,” he added. “Particularly this year, on both sides of the ball, (WSU) creates some problems against good players, good schemes. You gotta play well to win.”
High-scoring games have been common over the past decade when the Cougars and Beavers face. The teams combined to average over 70 points per game across the past 10 meetings. But a shootout might seem unlikely in this one.
WSU will be shorthanded on offense. Starting tailback Nakia Watson and veteran slot receiver Renard Bell are sidelined indefinitely due to injuries sustained last weekend in a 30-14 loss at No. 6 USC.
The Cougars are tinkering with their offensive line, which will play the first half without starting guard Grant Stephens, who was ejected for targeting in the second half versus the Trojans.
Starting OSU quarterback Chance Nolan remains sidelined because of a neck injury suffered Oct. 1 against Utah. The Beavers will send out freshman QB Ben Gulbranson for his second career start, according to a report from Nick Daschel of the Oregonian.
Gulbranson performed to mixed results in his first start last weekend. He absorbed four sacks and the Beavers offense stalled before rallying late against Stanford. Gulbranson tossed a 56-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass with 13 seconds left to cap an 18-point fourth quarter in the Beavers’ 28-27 comeback victory over a one-win Cardinal team.
“We were fortunate to find a way to win that game at the end,” Smith said.
The teams’ offenses have been up and down this season.
WSU’s Air Raid has been productive in spurts and ineffective for stretches.
“We gotta be more consistent,” Ollie said. “We just gotta keep climbing.”
For the most part, the Cougars and Beavers are headlined by defense. WSU enjoys one of the top defensive fronts in the Pac-12.
Spearheaded by their linebackers and defensive line, the Cougars have held four opponents under 20 points. They are among the nation’s highest-ranking teams in tackles for loss (49) and sacks (19).
The Beavers boast veteran experience in their defensive backfield. They have come up with seven interceptions. Although they have only managed five sacks this season, the Beavers aren’t weak up front. They used pressure to disrupt USC’s offense on Sept. 24 and controlled the lead before allowing a late touchdown in a 17-14 loss.
“This might be the best defense, holistically, that we’ve played so far,” WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris said.
After struggling against heavy running teams last season, the Cougars have shown progress in their ability to contain talented tailbacks. The Beavers piled up 309 rushing yards last year during a 31-24 WSU win in Pullman.
“It’s about building a wall at the line of scrimmage. Last year, they walked us off,” Dickert said. “It’s incredible, watching that tape, how I feel like we’ve gotten a lot better.”
The Cougars are yielding just 110.3 rushing yards per game this season. OSU is averaging 181 yards on the ground per game.
“Who’s going to win the line of scrimmage is No. 1,” Dickert said when asked for his keys to the game. “That’s what they hang their hat on. We need to make sure we’re prideful about that, too. And I think that’s on both sides of the ball.”
WSU ranks last in the Pac-12 in every major rushing category and has surrendered a conference-most 20 sacks.
Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward couldn’t kick-start the offense last weekend. True freshman tailback Jaylen Jenkins had a breakout performance, logging 130 yards on 13 carries.
WSU and OSU have only lost to ranked opponents this season – the Beavers fell to the seventh-ranked Trojans and 12th-ranked Utah, and the Cougars dropped games against No. 15 Oregon and USC.
“I know, when I go out on the field and our team takes the field, we have the opportunity to win each and every game,” Dickert said.
“I’m just excited about where our team is at and I’m excited for some of the younger guys that have been working their tails off to get their opportunities.”
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