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Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against No. 15 Oregon

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Theme of the game …

The game-day atmosphere in Pullman will be electric as WSU (3-0) welcomes No. 15 Oregon (2-1) for a Pac-12 opener that will be watched by a full house at Gesa Field and millions more on Fox.

WSU announced a sellout crowd earlier this week – the team’s first sellout since a Nov. 16, 2019, game against Stanford.

“We’ve got an amazing opportunity, and I’m proud of Cougs everywhere, because they’re going to show up and show out,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said.

The Cougars are searching for their first win over the Ducks since 2018, when ESPN’s College GameDay came to town. A few Oregon players remember the scene.

“It’s deceiving, because their stadium doesn’t hold a whole lot (about 33,000),” Oregon senior center Alex Forsyth said. “But it’s probably the loudest place I’ve ever been when there’s fans in there.”

A win would give the Cougars a major early-season lift in the Pac-12 race and propel the team into the AP Top 25 rankings.

When Washington State has the ball …

The Cougars’ Air Raid gave fans a taste of its potential last weekend, piling up four touchdowns and over 250 yards on its first 27 snaps in a rout of a struggling Colorado State team.

WSU appears to be finding its footing on offense after an underwhelming start to the season. Still, the Cougars haven’t yet put together a complete performance on that side of the ball. With a new system in place, chemistry takes time to develop. One of the primary questions facing WSU at this stage of the season: Has the offense truly settled in?

Can it show improvements to its consistency in its Pac-12 opener against a fast and physical Oregon defense?

“They’re doing things at a high level and doing it with elite talent and speed,” Dickert said of the Ducks’ defense.

The Cougars’ passing game has been sharp at times when it uses tempo to its advantage and catches defensive backs off-guard with quick snaps and fast passes delivered to playmakers in space.

“We need to get explosive plays and get rolling and get people off-script,” Dickert said.

Quarterback Cameron Ward is still adjusting to the pace of play at the FBS level, but he’s shown progress each week and impressed against CSU when he improvised in the pocket, dodging traffic and rolling out to extend plays and cause breakdowns in the Rams’ secondary.

“That’s when quarterbacks go from good to great – when you have the ability to play some things off-script,” Dickert said of Ward, who has passed for 727 yards and eight touchdowns against three interceptions on a 65% completion rate during his first season at WSU.

The Cougars’ passing game might have an advantage against a Ducks secondary that has been somewhat prone to coverage lapses early this year. Oregon gave up more than 300 passing yards in two of its first three games. Defense has been an issue for the Ducks on passing downs. Oregon ranks last in the country in third-down defense, allowing conversions 58% of the time. That bodes well for WSU, which has had trouble sustaining possessions for stretches this season. The Cougars have gone three-and-out on nine of their 34 possessions.

The Ducks boast a few pro hopefuls in their defensive box. Oregon has talent up front, but it hasn’t translated to the stat sheet this season – the team ranks 128th in the country with just nine tackles for loss.

WSU’s receiving corps will be playing at full health. Renard Bell was sidelined due to an injury late in the CSU game, but Dickert said Thursday on his weekly radio show that the veteran slotback will be available. The Cougars gained another big-play threat last weekend, when reserve slot receiver Robert Ferrel returned to the field after missing the preseason and WSU’s first two games with a foot injury.

Oregon linebacker Justin Flowe, a preseason All-Pac-12 pick, is questionable to play, according to coach Dan Lanning.

When Oregon has the ball …The key matchup in this game: WSU’s stacked defensive front versus Oregon’s immovable O-line.

Despite opening its season against a powerhouse Georgia defense and squaring off with a strong BYU front last weekend, the Ducks’ veteran-laden offensive line has not surrendered a sack this season.

“It’s a combination of our guys are doing well up front and the ball is coming out on time,” Lanning said.

On the other end, the Cougars are tied atop the Pac-12 and rank second in the FBS with 14 sacks. WSU is also the nation’s No. 2 team in tackles for loss (31).

“They bring some unique pressure that can create negative plays,” Lanning said. “Their defensive line is really aggressive.”

The Cougars alternate six edge rushers and five defensive tackles, all of whom have proven effective.

“They’re really deep,” Forsyth said. “They’re one of few teams that rotates down to their third group of guys, and they’re all talented.”

The Ducks take a balanced approach on offense, tilting slightly toward the ground game, which includes both speed and power. Their top four receiving targets all stand 6-foot-3 or above.

“They find unique ways, just like we do, of getting the ball in space and getting it to their athletes,” Dickert said. “That’s where they excel.

“They’re big at the line of scrimmage. They’re long and tough, and they surround it with a bunch of speed on the perimeter. They added a quarterback who has tons of game volume and he’s a great athlete.”

They enjoy veteran experience at the quarterback position in senior Bo Nix, an Auburn transfer who has been sharp the past two weeks, completing 80% of his passes for 499 yards and 10 touchdowns with no turnovers. The Cougars will need to contain Nix in the pocket. A dangerous scrambler, he has 90 yards on 20 rushing attempts and ran for three TDs last weekend in the Ducks’ blowout win over No. 12 BYU.

Nix and the Ducks’ passing game hope to capitalize on a potentially shorthanded WSU secondary. Standout strong safety Jordan Lee and starting cornerback Chau Smith-Wade are questionable to play. Lee missed last weekend due to an injury sustained the week prior against Wisconsin. Smith-Wade, the Pac-12’s top-graded corner, per Pro Football Focus, went down with an injury in the second half of the CSU game.

Offensive-minded programs led by defensive coaches

For the better part of the past decade, games between WSU and Oregon featured two of the most productive offenses in the Pac-12 – and sometimes, in the country.

The Cougars set all kinds of passing records under former coach Mike Leach, a pioneer of the Air Raid system. Each of the Ducks’ past four coaches – from Chip Kelly (2009-12) to Mario Cristobal (2018-21) – had a background on the offensive side of the ball.

But the Cougars and Ducks have shifted their identities under first-year coaches Dickert and Lanning.

Dickert was a defensive assistant as he ascended the coaching ladder for 13 years, before landing his first Power Five job in 2020 as WSU’s defensive coordinator. He led a defensive resurgence last season and the Cougars’ 2022 team is headlined by its defense.

The 36-year-old Lanning played linebacker at Division II William Jewell. He was a defensive assistant at Arizona State, Sam Houston State, Alabama and Memphis before accepting a position as Georgia’s outside LBs coach. The Bulldogs’ promoted Lanning to DC in 2019, and he oversaw one of the best defensive units in college football history last season. Georgia claimed the national championship.

“That’s what you think of when you see Oregon and when you see Washington State – a lot of offense,” Dickert said. “It’s rare. Defensive head coaches, you don’t get them as much in today’s world. … It’s a little bit unique. It’s maybe a culture and mentality shift, but at the end of the day, I know I want to score a lot of points. I’m sure he still wants to score a lot of points. It’s still an offensive world a little bit in college football.”