PULLMAN - Chris Ball has criss-crossed the country for more than two decades, handling various defensive coaching duties for a number of college football teams.
From Alabama in the South to Pittsburgh in the East to Washington State in the West, Ball has studied some of the best offenses in the land up close and personal. He’s not sure he’s ever seen anything quite like the no-huddle, spread-option offense of the Oregon Ducks.
“This is as good an offense as I’ve ever seen. It’s phenomenal,” said Ball, the co-defensive coordinator at Washington State.
Heading into today’s 2 p.m. homecoming game at WSU, the Ducks (5-0, 2-0 Pac-10) are ranked third in the nation. Ball says that might be a tad low.
“They might be the best team in the country,” he said. “I’d like to see them and Alabama.”
The top-ranked Crimson Tide certainly figures to put up a better fight against Oregon than the Cougars (1-4, 0-2). WSU gives up points and yards by the bushel, and the Ducks lead the nation in scoring (56.6 points a game) and total offense (569.2 yards).
“They’re going to move the ball on anybody in the country, and they’re going to score a lot of points,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “That’s just a reality.”
LaMichael James, Oregon’s sophomore running back, averages a whopping 8 yards per carry. He ranks second in the nation with 178 rushing yards per game.
“He’s very fast,” Ball said, “and the best thing about him is he’s tough. He’s a tough, tough football player. He runs hard.”
James, who was suspended for the season opener after an offseason altercation with a former girlfriend (he pled guilty to harassment), has emerged as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
“I don’t care about winning a Heisman,” James said. “I care about helping us staying undefeated.”
Ball hopes the Cougars can plug up the middle against James by inserting heralded freshman C.J. Mizell into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.
“I feel honored,” Mizell said.
Mizell replaces Mike Ledgerwood, who has been playing with a neck injury and may sit out today. WSU gave up 437 rushing yards, much of it up the middle, in a 42-28 loss to UCLA last week.
Mizell, who moved from Georgia to Florida in high school after a physical altercation with a coach, was rated one of the top prep linebackers in the country two years ago. He sat out last season after failing to satisfy NCAA academic requirements in time to accept a scholarship at Florida State.
Mizell’s effort in practice has improved lately. He has drawn the wrath of teammates and coaches for lackluster work at times.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly said he’s “very impressed” with WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel and expects the Cougars “to be throwing the ball all over the lot.” Kelly said Oregon’s speedy defense, which has already picked off 11 passes, “is playing fantastic.”
The Ducks are 36-point favorites. ... Oregon worked out a last-minute deal to televise the game live in Oregon and Southwest Washington. The Cougars had asked Oregon for approximately $100,000 to change the game time for TV. Comcast Sports Northwest will tape delay the game at 6:30 p.m. ... Wulff said safety Chima Nwachukwu won’t play because of a strained hamstring, so true freshman Deone Bucannon will make his second start. All eight defensive backs on the WSU two-deep are freshmen or sophomores. ... Wulff said he expects redshirt freshman Sekope Kaufusi to see plenty of action and possibly start at weak-side linebacker. Coaches had planned to move Kaufusi from defensive end to middle linebacker this week to back up Mizell, but team tackles leader Alex Hoffman-Ellis (the starting weak-side backer) has an injured back.
OREGON (5-0, 2-0 PAC-10) AT WASHINGTON STATE (1-4, 0-2)
KICKOFF: 2 p.m., Martin Stadium, Pullman.
TV: Delay, Comcast Sports Northwest, 6:30 p.m.
RADIO: 850-AM, 1240-AM, 880-AM, 1300-AM.
THE SERIES: Oregon leads, 42-38-7. Oregon won last year, 52-6, in Eugene, Ore.
WHAT TO WATCH: It’s homecoming at WSU, but the home fans don’t figure to have much to celebrate. Football lovers should be able to appreciate watching a potential national championship team and possible Heisman Trophy winner in LaMichael James. WSU’s porous, freshman-laden defense faces the nation’s leading offense.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: Oregon, the reigning Pac-10 champion, needs a win to remain in sole possession of first place. Anything less than a blowout might drop the third-ranked Ducks a few spots in the Top 25. The Cougars want to earn respect after being outscored 168-27 in the past three meetings with Oregon.
TNT PICK: Oregon 61, Washington State 24.
No. Name (position) Ht./Wt.Year
29 LaMichael James (RB)5-9/185Sophomore
Has run for 712 yards, 7 TDs.
13 Cliff Harris (CB)5-11/180Sophomore
Has 4 interceptions, returned 2 punts for TDs in opener.
1 Darron Thomas (QB)6-3/212Sophomore
Passed for 220 yards, ran for 114 last week.
88 Brandon Bair (DT)6-7/272Senior
Has 3 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 pass deflections.
23 Jeff Maehl (WR)6-1/184Senior
Has 21 catches for 304 yards, 4 TD’s.
10 Jeff Tuel (QB)6-3/214Sophomore
Completing 57 percent of passes for 1,233 yards, 8 TDs.
17 Alex Hoffman-Ellis (OLB)6-1/241Junior
Back aching, but he leads team with 32 tackles.
86 Marquess Wilson (WR)6-3/173Freshman
Leads Pac-10 with 458 receiving yards.
12 C.J. Mizell (MLB)6-2/225Freshman
Heralded true freshman makes first start.
76 Micah Hannam (OT)6-4/283Senior
Has started all 42 games since 2007.
Howie Stalwick, contributing writer