Ritchie: Surprising WSU Next Biggest Game for Ducks

Posted on November 12, 2021

  By Steve Ritchie and Eli Ritchie, SuperWest Sports

For a team with as much at stake as the Oregon, every game feels like the biggest game of the season, and that’s certainly the case with Saturday’s home contest against Washington State.

In fact, the matchup arguably looms bigger for the Ducks than next week’s game at Utah, as the winner of the UO-WSU tilt will almost certainly be playing in the Pac-12 Championship on December 4th.

The Ducks played out a familiar script last week against Washington, starting slow and falling behind early before steadying things in the last three quarters for the win.

UO fans have to be pleased with the way the Ducks withstood a safety and overcame a 9-0 deficit in monsoon-like conditions, but falling into the same pattern against Wazzu would likely dash Oregon’s hopes to repeat as Pac-12 champs and make the CFP.

Oregon’s Byron Cardwell vs UW. | Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite being picked last in the Pac-12 North by the media prior to the season—and then losing their head coach and four assistants to vaccine refusal in October—the Cougars find themselves alone in second place in the Division.

Defeat the Ducks, and Washington State claims the top spot with the tie-breaker. With only reeling Washington and doormat Arizona left on WSU’s schedule, it is difficult to see a path for the Ducks to catch them in that scenario.

The Cougars have an opportunistic defense, which forced five turnovers against Arizona State; a dangerous passing game, led by Jayden de Laura; and an improving running game, powered by Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh.

In their October 30 win against the Sun Devils, the Cougar game plan shifted from their previous tendencies, as they ran the ball 42 times compared with just 27 passing attempts.

While Vegas doesn’t seem to take the Cougars seriously, installing the Ducks as two-touchdown favorites, many analysts recognize that WSU is not the same team that started the season losing to Utah State at home.

WSU celebrates vs ASU. | Darryl Webb/Associated Press vs Spokesman.com

Maybe the Nick Rolovich firing lit a spark, or maybe Jake Dickert is just a much better coach than Rolovich?

Under Rolovich, WSU lost at home by 31 to a mediocre USC team and squeaked by Stanford, also at home. Under Dickert, the Cougars played BYU very tough, losing 21-19, and dominated the Sun Devils 34-21 in Tempe.

Dickert’s coaching career includes successful stops at Wyoming, South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Minnesota State-Mankato in the course of developing his trademark 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

He has primarily coached defensive backs and linebackers, and was WSU’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach before being given the head job on an interim basis.

Clearly, the powers that be in Pullman made the right call.

The Cougars are better defensively than a year ago, giving up fewer explosion plays to their opponents and taking the ball away more frequently.

WSU’s Chau Smith-Wade celebrates his pick vs ASU. | Darryl Webb/AP

Takeaways have been a hallmark of Dickert-coached defenses over the past 12 years, and Washington State has recorded 20 takeaways this season, ranking them in the top five nationally.

The case for WSU is clear: The Cougars are a quickly improving team that has gained a lot of confidence in recent weeks, and they figure to benefit from a well-timed bye week.

Moreover, the Cougs have played the Ducks very well in recent years, winning four of the last six meetings, including four-straight from 2015-2018, and two of the last three trips to Autzen Stadium.

Considering all of that, the 14-point spread seems excessive. But what is the case for the Ducks?

Oregon fans on Twitter seem to think their team’s offense is awful, horrendous, and unbelievably inept, primarily because of Anthony Brown’s inconsistent play at quarterback, but also due to Mario Cristobal’s conservative coaching philosophy.

No question, Oregon has looked bad on offense at times. But certainly not all the time.

Oregon’s Travis Dye rushes vs UW. | Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The much-maligned Duck offense is statistically the best in the Pac-12, averaging 441 yards per game, with 40 offensive touchdowns scored in the first nine games for an average of 35 points per game.

The Oregon running game is also statistically one of the best in the country.

OC Joe Moorhead has proven he can devise an effective game plan, and the Ducks rarely deviate from that plan. It’s worth noting that Oregon’s only loss came with Moorhead absent for medical reasons.

The Duck defense has been ravaged by injuries throughout the season. As one defender returns to action, another one goes down, or so it seems. And there is youth, lots of it, on that side of the ball.

But over the past month, the defense has seemingly improved with each game.

Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux vs Washington. | Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the first half hasn’t always been a thing of beauty on either side of the ball, opponents have had a lot of trouble scoring or consistently moving the ball in the second half.

Our feeling is that three factors will determine the outcome of this game: avoiding turnovers, winning the line of scrimmage, and scoring touchdowns rather than field goals in the red zone.

Both teams have been adept at getting takeaways, and both are very physical on the line of scrimmage. Advantage: Neither.

Oregon has been more consistent with its running game (5.4 yards per attempt) and in shutting down opponent rushing production (3.4 yards per attempt). Advantage: Oregon.

Scoring touchdowns on red zone possessions has been an Oregon strength all year, with 40 possessions inside the 20 resulting in 30 touchdowns. WSU has not been as successful, with just 21 touchdowns in 40 red zone possessions. Advantage: Oregon.

Autzen at night vs WSU in 2017. | Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY Sports

There is a fourth, off-field factor that can’t be overlooked—a packed and raucous Autzen, where the Ducks have won 19 of the last 20, including a nation-leading 17 straight. Advantage: Oregon.

In our cool, calm, and rational opinion, Oregon should win if the turnover margin is not heavy in WSU’s favor, provided the Ducks continue to run the ball well, scoring TDs once they reach the red zone.

—More from Eli Ritchie—