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Sports >  WSU football

Oregon offense finds soft spots in Washington State secondary

Sept. 25, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 26, 2022 at 1:13 p.m.

Oregon Ducks wide receiver Troy Franklin (11) is a blur as he accelerates to the end zone for a touchdown against Washington State nickel Armani Marsh during the second half of a Pac-12 game Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Oregon Ducks wide receiver Troy Franklin (11) is a blur as he accelerates to the end zone for a touchdown against Washington State nickel Armani Marsh during the second half of a Pac-12 game Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Oregon identified a weakness in Washington State’s defense and put constant pressure on that soft spot.

The Ducks’ high-powered passing game exploited the Cougars’ secondary. Most noticeably, Oregon took advantage of WSU’s unseasoned safeties on Saturday at Gesa Field in a 44-41 Duck win featuring plenty of highlight-reel plays.

Jaden Hicks, a second-year WSU freshman, started at strong safety in place of veteran Jordan Lee, who missed the game with an injury. Free safety Sam Lockett III, who spent the past two seasons in the junior college ranks, started his fourth game for WSU. The rookie and juco transfer were playing their first game against a big-play Pac-12 offense. That inexperience showed when they were forced into one-on-one situations against the Ducks’ explosive receivers on downfield routes.

Oregon accumulated 446 passing yards. Quarterback Bo Nix hit nine completions that went for 15-plus yards, including two 50-yarders and a couple of 40-yarders. He connected on seven of his last eight passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns to spearhead Oregon’s remarkable comeback.

Nix passed 8 of 10 for 145 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter after going 9 of 12 for 86 yards and a pick in the second. Oregon came out of the locker room looking to challenge the Cougars’ passing coverage a bit more aggressively. The Ducks connected on a 55-yard bomb almost immediately, setting up a TD to cap a drive that lasted 36 seconds.

“You gotta give credit to the Oregon offense,” Cougars linebacker Francisco Mauigoa said. “They saw what we didn’t execute well and kinda took advantage of that. We just needed to execute well in our passing game.”

The Ducks aimed to push the ball into WSU’s last line of defense, a much less proven group than the Cougars’ defensive front. WSU’s tackling numbers indicate that trend – the Cougars’ top three tacklers were all DBs. Hicks and Lockett totaled 11 apiece (12 combined solo), and cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. had nine (six solo).

“We’re thin in the secondary,” Cougs coach Jake Dickert said. “I think Hicks played his tail off and Sammy gave it all out there. Those guys played 90-some snaps.”

The Cougars’ rushing defense performed to mixed results. Oregon gained 126 rushing yards on 19 attempts in the first half but was held to 52 yards on 13 attempts in the second half. The Ducks bounced outside to find running room. In the first half, the Cougars front clamped down in the red zone, rallying to stop the Duck rushing attack and cutting off check-down passes. WSU totaled five of its seven tackles for loss on the day in red-zone situations during the opening period.

“We did a lot of good things within the run game,” said linebacker Travion Brown, who made two consecutive stops at the line of scrimmage to stall one early Oregon drive in the red zone. “They did have a couple of plays where they had long runs, explosive runs, but I think we did pretty good in the run game.”

Nix often rolled out of the pocket, threw quick passes into space and had max protection on deep balls. Oregon’s long ball and fast-paced offensive scheme neutralized WSU’s pressure packages and limited the Cougars’ ability to swarm to the ball.

The Cougars came into the game with 14 sacks – tied for second-most in the nation – but couldn’t get through to Nix, who has not taken a sack this year. The Ducks only punted twice.

“(Our defenders) have to do a better job getting themselves off the field,” Dickert said. “Credit to Oregon. They made plays and I thought their scheme was fantastic. Over the course of the game, it wore us out a little bit.

“They protected well and we couldn’t affect them. … We didn’t do good enough, and I didn’t do a good enough job adjusting. That’s on me. I’ll own that.”

In the first half, WSU’s defense showed the same resilient style of play that made it one of the Pac-12’s most effective units in 2021. The Cougars bent but made timely plays with their backs against the wall. Oregon was held to field-goal attempts on three of its first four possessions. The other drive ended with a pick-6. Nix floated a short pass to the right midway through the second quarter, and Mauigoa was waiting on it. He cut in front of the intended target and took the pick 95 yards down the sideline for WSU’s second-longest interception return in program history – behind linebacker Will Derting’s 98-yarder in 2002 against Nevada.

“It was all part of the game plan,” said Mauigoa, a fast-improving redshirt freshman. “We practiced it throughout the week. I saw it coming and executed it well.”

WSU’s defense leads the country with 38 TFLs and is fifth in sacks (14). The Cougars are now ranked 96th in pass defense efficiency and fell from the top 20 nationally in scoring defense to 42nd after the Oregon game. After surrendering 624 yards, WSU now ranks 79th nationally in total defense (386.8 yards per game).

“Our guys are mature enough to come and respond,” Dickert said. “Especially on the defensive side of the ball, this isn’t going to sit well and they’re going to be hungry to come in and get better, and learn from this.”

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