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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Unbeaten Washington State opens Pac-12 play with major test at home versus No. 15 Oregon

Sept. 19, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 19, 2022 at 9:06 p.m.

Washington State coach Jake Dickert high-fives guard Grant Stephens during the first half of a nonconference game against Colorado State on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State coach Jake Dickert high-fives guard Grant Stephens during the first half of a nonconference game against Colorado State on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? The surging Washington State Cougars (3-0) open Pac-12 play at home with a big-time matchup against the 15th-ranked Oregon Ducks (2-1).

Where is it? WSU will entertain Oregon at Gesa Field in Pullman.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.

Where can I watch it? A national audience will be tuned in. Fox is carrying the broadcast.

Who is favored? The Ducks opened as 6-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU, coming off an unforgettable road win against Wisconsin, didn’t overlook a struggling Colorado State team. The Cougars shot out to a lopsided lead in the first quarter. Their offense scored on its first four possessions and their defense had another impressive performance, tallying seven sacks. WSU took its foot off the gas in the second half, cruising to a 38-7 victory on Saturday at Gesa Field.

WSU coach Jake Dickert wrapped up his thoughts on the CSU game during his weekly news conference Monday afternoon. He was pleased with the offense’s hot start after two hit-and-miss performances to start the season.

“Our offense jumping out of the gate like that and scoring on four straight possessions was huge for this team and huge for some momentum,” he said.

Dickert also noted the improvisational skill of quarterback Cameron Ward and the effort from a defensive unit that mostly dominated CSU and its shorthanded offensive line.

“I thought Cam probably navigated some traffic better than we thought he did and kept us alive in some plays,” Dickert said. “He and the receivers were just a little bit more in-sync on off-script (plays).

“We left some things out there. It starts with taking care of the football (WSU committed two turnovers). … We’re doing a good job of taking it away, but we’re still breaking even in that turnover-margin category. Defensively, they continue to play really, really hard and we’re rotating a lot of guys in there, getting a lot of production from a lot of people.”

The Ducks rolled in the first half and registered a statement win, blowing past 12th-ranked BYU 41-20 on Saturday in Eugene.

Oregon was efficient on offense and used a balanced attack to score on each of its first-half possessions . The Ducks led by 17 at the half and as many as 31 points in the third quarter. Transfer quarterback Bo Nix passed 13 of 18 for 222 yards and Oregon’s ground game totaled 234 yards on 43 carries. Standout BYU QB Jaren Hall passed 29 of 41 for 305 yards, but the Cougars’ rushing game was limited to 61 yards.

Oregon, playing under first-year coach Dan Lanning – a national champion last season as Georgia’s defensive coordinator – suffered a 49-3 defeat against then-No. 3 Georgia to open its season. The Ducks rebounded with a 70-14 blowout of FCS Eastern Washington before their rousing victory over BYU.

“I wouldn’t judge Oregon on that Georgia game,” Dickert said. “Georgia is on another planet. (The Ducks) have improved every week.”

Why WSU will win: The Cougars’ defensive front has emerged as one of the nation’s most disruptive units.

WSU ranks second in the FBS in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (31). The Cougars rotate six edge rushers and five defensive tackles. They enjoy the services of an NFL-caliber linebacker in Daiyan Henley, who is the top-graded LB and the No. 2-graded defender in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus.

Up front, the Cougars match well with an Oregon team that boasts one of the best offensive lines in the country.

WSU’s aerial attack showed signs of its explosive potential last weekend. If the Cougars’ passing game clicks, it could have an advantage against a Duck secondary that has had lapses in its coverage downfield, surrendering 368 passing yards to Georgia QB Stetson Bennett and 305 yards to QB Hall on a combined 72 passing attempts. Oregon ranks 114th nationally in total passing defense.

WSU QB Ward is starting to settle in at the wheel of the Air Raid offense. He threw four touchdowns and piled up 174 passing yards in the first half against CSU. Oregon’s defense hasn’t managed much pressure on opposing QBs this season (three sacks) and has collected just two takeaways.

WSU is playing at home and will be riding momentum coming off a sweep of its nonconference schedule.

“I think we’re in a great place,” Dickert said. “They have worked their tails off to get here and they’ve earned it. We’re confident in what we need to do.

“I think they should be confident. They’re confident in each other and they’re buying into what we really want them to do. It’s a process and this is a great opportunity coming in here this weekend. Oregon has a rich history of success, but we also have a rich history of playing them really well. Our guys understand the moment, they understand the challenge.”

Why Oregon will win: The Ducks’ veteran-laden offensive line hasn’t given up a sack this season. Only four teams in the nation have yet to allow a sack.

According to Pro Football Focus’ grading system, Oregon’s O-line is the best in the FBS.

WSU relies greatly on its defensive front, and Oregon seems well-equipped to neutralize the Cougars’ pressure packages.

“(Nix) is confident in the scheme and knows where he wants to go, and they’re giving him some clean reads and he’s getting the ball out (quickly) and letting the playmakers make plays in space,” Dickert said.

After struggling against Georgia’s elite defense, Nix has found his groove. In his last two games, the former Auburn starter completed 80% of his passes for 499 yards and 10 total touchdowns and no turnovers. Nix, a senior who has started 37 college games, is the most skilled and experienced QB the Cougars have faced this season. He’s capable of making plays with his legs – Nix scored three rushing TDs versus BYU – and he is surrounded by speed and length in Oregon’s deep corps of skill players.

“He keeps the play alive and runs very effectively,” Dickert said. “His experience, you can’t replicate it. They did a good job in the portal of upgrading that position. He really has command of the offense.”

Oregon’s defensive statistics are unexceptional, but the Ducks are stocked with talent at the linebacker positions and on their defensive line, and the unit is led by a sharp defensive mind in Lanning. Linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe and defensive end Brandon Dorlus are professional prospects. WSU’s rushing game was inconsistent throughout the past two weeks and will be facing a considerable challenge in the Ducks’ defensive front.

“They’re doing things at a high level and doing it with elite talent and elite speed,” Dickert said of Oregon’s defense. “Coach Lanning, I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done throughout his career. He won a national championship at this level, which is incredible. So, their defense will be ready. It’s still the staple of their team. And it’s physical – it’s really physical.”

What happened last time? Oregon gained some separation in the third quarter and held off WSU for a hard-fought 38-24 win on Nov. 14 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. The Ducks improved to 9-1 with the victory. They were ranked third in the nation at the time and had hopes of qualifying for the College Football Playoff, but were blown out by Utah the next week. WSU fell to 5-5 in the third game under Dickert, then the team’s interim coach. The Cougars are 3-1 against Pac-12 opponents since Dickert took the helm in October 2021.

Things to know:

1. The Cougars were five spots out of the AP Top 25 rankings when the poll was released Sunday afternoon. WSU received 62 votes.

“I don’t even know why they rank anybody until Week 5 – until conference play and you really know who everybody is,” Dickert said. “I’ll leave that for everybody else to talk about. We’ll control what we can control. I didn’t talk about it at this morning’s meeting and I won’t talk about it at this afternoon’s meeting.”

2. WSU’s Chau Smith-Wade is the top-graded cornerback in the Pac-12, per Pro Football Focus. The sophomore starter has surrendered eight receptions this season.

“Chau has really matured from last year, and he’s been very consistent,” Dickert said.

3. The Cougars have a 41-51-7 all time record against the Ducks. Oregon has won three straight games in the series. The Cougars went on a four-game winning streak versus Oregon between 2015-18. WSU’s most recent win over the Ducks: a 34-20 triumph in 2018, when College GameDay came to town.

4. Oregon’s place-kicker, Andrew Boyle, suited up for the Cougars between 2019-21. He won the starting job coming out of fall camp last season, but an injury sidelined him for the Cougars’ opener. Dean Janikowski took over and never relinquished kicking duties. Bob Gregory, a Cougars defensive back in the mid-1980s, is a defensive analyst for Oregon.

5. WSU strong safety Jordan Lee and linebacker Travion Brown missed Saturday’s game due to injuries sustained the week before at Wisconsin. Slot receiver Renard Bell was sidelined during the second half against CSU for unspecified reasons. Dickert wasn’t ready to provide an update Monday.

6. The Cougars’ Week 4 depth chart featured several changes. Djouvensky Schlenbaker is no longer listed on the two-deep at running back. The true freshman has not made an appearance this season. He saw significant action with WSU’s first and second teams during the preseason, but appears to have fallen behind true freshman Jaylen Jenkins and redshirt freshman Kannon Katzer. Andre Dollar is the backup tight end to Billy Riviere. Dollar, a true freshman who chose WSU over Oregon last year, made his collegiate debut last weekend. Reserve tight end Moon Ashby was not included on the depth chart for the first time this year. True freshman John Mateer has apparently established himself as WSU’s No. 2 quarterback. Redshirt freshman QB Xavier Ward was removed from the depth chart. Slotback Robert Ferrel, who recorded two receptions that went for big gains last weekend in his Cougar debut, is Bell’s backup.

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