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‘We’re confident, but we’re hungry’: Washington State, looking to establish itself early as a Pac-12 contender, hosts No. 15 Oregon

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Pac-12 play begins with a high-profile matchup.

Saturday’s game at Gesa Field will feature a sellout crowd, a national television audience and two of the conference’s top-performing teams in this young 2022 season.

Washington State raised the expectations of its program with a three-game sweep of its nonconference schedule, including a significant resume-boosting win at then-No. 19 Wisconsin.

The Cougars’ reputation is trending upward. This weekend, they could establish themselves as contenders in the early-season Pac-12 discussion and earn national respect.

One of the conference’s most prominent programs stands in the way. The 15th-ranked Oregon Ducks (2-1) have championship ambitions this season, as they often do.

“We know who they are. We know the challenge,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We gotta be up to it.”

The Cougars and Ducks will square off in a much-anticipated Pac-12 opener at 1 p.m. Saturday at a packed house in Pullman. Fox will carry the broadcast.

“That’s a unique environment, a special environment to play games,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said.

The Cougs are surging and campus will be buzzing, much like it was the last time they topped the Ducks. WSU is looking to recapture the magic of 2018, when ESPN College GameDay made its first visit to the Palouse and the 25th-ranked Cougars – energized by their environment – rolled to an upset win over No. 12 Oregon.

WSU found itself five spots out of the AP Top 25 poll after breezing past Colorado State 38-7 last weekend. The Cougars are seven-point underdogs against Oregon, which opened its season with a lopsided loss to Georgia, now the nation’s top-ranked team, before rebounding with blowout victories over Eastern Washington and No. 12 BYU.

The Cougars’ defense is playing at an elite level and should present some issues for an Oregon offensive line that hasn’t allowed a sack this season. WSU is dialing up pressure packages, and its defensive line and linebackers are producing top stats. The Cougars are tied for second nationally in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (31).

“We’re very confident right now,” linebacker Daiyan Henley said of the defense. “Having that confidence only means that we gotta work that much harder to keep it. With confidence comes people trying to take it from us. We’re confident, but we’re hungry right now.”

Henley has stood out early in his first and only season with the Cougars. He ranks second in the country in tackles for loss (7.5) and leads the Pac-12 with four sacks. The senior, a Nevada transfer, sets the pace for a swarming defense that hasn’t shown many weaknesses so far.

“You can tell he’s really fast,” Oregon center Alex Forsyth said of Henley, the reigning Pac-12 Defender of the Week and the top-graded LB in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus’ performance metrics. “His play speed is really impressive and he’s just got a nose for the ball. They’re one of the teams you watch on film and you see literally all 11 guys sprinting to the football.”

Oregon boasts four capable running backs – some speed, some power – with tall receivers and an experienced quarterback in Auburn transfer Bo Nix. The Ducks piled up 111 points and 1,043 yards over the past two weeks. They scored on their first six possessions against BYU. Their offense’s quick pace and well-roundedness make it tricky to defend.

“They got a bunch of four- and five-star athletes running around,” Dickert said, noting Oregon’s versatile play-calling and knack for creating room to run on the perimeter.

“It’s a similar scheme to ours – a lot of formations and movements. … If we can tackle in space, that’ll be a big advantage. Those are hard challenges that we’ve been repping the heck out of this week to make sure we’ve got good posture, pad level and effort. It takes a lot of that stuff when they’re dancing around.”

Oregon’s defensive production has been underwhelming through three games under Lanning, who coordinated Georgia’s powerhouse defense during the team’s 2021 national championship season. The Ducks’ secondary has shown cracks, permitting over 300 passing yards in two of three games, and their front seven has recorded only nine tackles for loss. Perhaps the statistics are misleading. Oregon is well-equipped with NFL-caliber defenders, especially at the linebacker and D-line positions. Early-round draft prospect Noah Sewell captains the defense at linebacker.

“Their defense will be ready. It’s really the staple of their team,” Dickert said. “It’s physical – it’s really physical.”

WSU had a breakout performance in the first half of its runaway win last weekend, racking up plenty of big plays and four touchdowns on its first four drives. That eruption provided a much-needed lift for a Cougar offense appeared disjointed for a few lengthy stretches in its first two games.

But it seems transfer quarterback Cameron Ward is starting to settle in. He and his receivers have made progress in their timing and WSU’s ground game has been somewhat reliable. The Cougars took their foot off the gas in the second half last weekend, but still totaled 442 yards and averaged over 7 yards per play for the game. WSU’s outside receivers might enjoy a favorable matchup against Oregon’s unproven DBs. Cougars receivers Donovan Ollie and De’Zhaun Stribling have combined for 319 yards and five touchdowns on 33 catches.

“They’ve had some really explosive plays on offense,” Lanning said. “They have a quarterback who can extend plays and does a good job of getting the ball downfield, but is also dangerous with his legs. They certainly present some unique challenges.”