SEATTLE – The weather forecast calls for a cool, dry evening in the Emerald City, but a perfect storm may be brewing at CenturyLink Field.
There are a football-field-long list of reasons why second-ranked Oregon is favored by 301/2 points over rebuilding Washington State tonight, but three factors may be particularly telling for the nationally televised contest (7:30, ESPN2).
First and foremost, the Ducks have one of the nation’s most explosive offenses (52.8 points and 571.0 yards per game), and the Cougars have one of the nation’s most generous defenses (28.0 points and 473.0 yards allowed per game).
Secondly, WSU’s young defense has experienced problems lining up properly, and the Ducks confuse the best of defenses with their rapid-fire play sequences and the ability to expertly mix in option plays.
Lastly, the Cougars rank way back in the pack when it comes to third-down execution on offense and defense, and the Ducks have been stellar in both categories.
Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why a Washington State victory would qualify as the biggest upset in the 119-year history of the program. It probably won’t help matters that WSU players have expressed a lack of enthusiasm for playing a home game away from Pullman, while Oregon players say they’re looking forward to playing in an NFL stadium.
Oh, and don’t forget: A good chunk of the 60,000 or so fans figure to be wearing Oregon green and yellow. The Cougars have filled most of the seats at their two Martin Stadium games (where capacity is less than half of CenturyLink’s 67,000), but droves of fans left at halftime of both games.
Some WSU fans who stayed for the second halves may have wished they had departed early, because the Cougars have faded after halftime in all four games this season.
“It’s a recurring theme,” WSU cornerback Daniel Simmons said. “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
“I think it’s all mental,” said John Fullington, WSU’s offensive guard-tackle from North Mason High School. “It shouldn’t be. We’ve got stronger people than that.”
A second-half letdown would almost certainly cost the game against the Ducks.
“Once you get fatigued mentally and physically, things start to fall apart,” WSU linebackers coach Jeff Choate said. “That’s kind of what you see in the second half of the games that they’ve played so far.”
Washington State coaches have stressed all week that the Ducks succeed on offense and defense with great execution more than a vast array of plays and trickery.
“The tempo is probably what presents more issues (for WSU’s defense), in terms of preparation, than the scheme,” Choate said. “They execute at such a high level. It’s not like they’re running a lot of exotic plays.”
Of course, you don’t have to get too fancy when you have a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back-wide receiver-kick returner De’Anthony Thomas. A sprinter on Oregon’s track team, Thomas is one of many blurry-fast Ducks.
“The speed they have at the skill positions, it’s unbelievable,” Choate said.
The Ducks are far from perfect – they’ve fumbled 14 times, committed 10 turnovers, thrown four interceptions and had 36 penalties. The Cougars have three fumbles, nine turnovers, seven interceptions and 36 penalties.
“I don’t think we need to shock anybody (to win), because Washington State is right there,” said Xavier Cooper, a defensive end-tackle from Wilson High. “We can compete with anybody when we play to our ability.”
The Ducks can make up for those penalties easier than WSU because they have a speedy, aggressive defense that is coming off a 49-0 win over previously undefeated Arizona.
NO. 2 OREGON (4-0 OVERALL, 1-0 PAC-12) VS. WASHINGTON STATE (2-2, 0-1)
7:30 p.m., CenturyLink Field, Seattle.
TV: ESPN2. Radio: 710-AM, 104.3-FM.
The series: Oregon leads, 43-39-7. Oregon has won five in a row, including a 43-28 decision last year in Eugene.
What to watch: The Cougars have significantly upgraded their team speed in recent years, but Oregon is loaded with superior quickness on both sides of the ball. WSU’s banged-up offensive line may be forced to shuffle players yet again, and former starting guard/tackle Dan Spitz went AWOL again after showing up for practice Sunday. Connor Halliday is expected to make his third straight start at quarterback for WSU, though Jeff Tuel’s injured knee appears to be healing. WSU depth charts often don’t mean much in terms of playing time and actual starters, but three true freshmen are listed as starters (all on offense) this week. That includes Gabe Marks, who has been moved to an inside receiver position from outside (though some players perform both duties).
TNT pick: Oregon 52, Washington State 27.
6De’Anthony Thomas (RB-WR-KR)5-9/176 sophomore
Averages 12.4 yards per touch, though no one has dared to send a kickoff his way yet.
8Marcus Mariota (QB)6-4/211 freshman
Redshirt freshman completing 69.6 percent of his passes for 934 yards, 10 TDs and 2 INTs.
24Kenjon Barner (RB)5-11/192senior
Has run for 410 yards and 6 touchdowns.
14Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (CB)5-10/190sophomore
National defensive back of the week after he made 2 INTs (including 1 TD return) vs. Arizona.
89Travis Long (OLB-DE)6-4/245 senior
Tied for national lead coming into the week with 61/2 sacks.
12Connor Halliday (QB)6-4/189 sophomore
In 2 starts, averaging 50 passes, 389 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs.
86Marquess Wilson (WR)6-4/185 junior
Needs 46 receiving yards to break WSU career record held by Brandon Gibson.
88Isiah Myers (WR)6-0/176 sophomore
Leads team with 24 receptions, tied with Wilson for team lead with 4 TD catches.Howie Stalwick, contributing writer