Having passed their first legitimate test of the season in Seattle, the Oregon Ducks return to Autzen Stadium to face the Washington State Cougars. WSU has been a bit of an enigma for Oregon over the Ducks' recent run of success: despite the Cougars being the worst program in the conference during that span, they've given Oregon more fight than many more prestigous teams in the conference. The halftime scores the past three years: 23-19, 15-10, and 29-17. So say this for Washington State: while Oregon has buried more prestigous teams midway through the first quarter, the Cougs have managed to make a game of it until the second half.
However, this isn't the completely inept Wazzu squad of the past four years. This is a 4-2 team that possesses a pair of Pac-12 wins, including one over USC. It's certainly not a good WSU team, but it's still the best team the Cougars have put forward in years, and the trajectory is definitely pointing up in year two of Mike Leach's air raid system.
While the team is much better in pretty much every regard, the turnaround to contention may not fully be complete until the Cougars get a more capable quarterback. QB Connor Halliday has the tools, but a penchant for interceptions has plagued him throughout his career. His 2241 yards and 14 touchdowns are impressive, but his 13 picks are ghastly, and three in the second half of last weekend's game with Oregon State is indicitave of Wasington State's Halliday problem. Needless to say, Oregon fans should be licking their chops at the prospect of Halliday facing the likes of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell.
Halliday will throw often, as Wazzu throws the ball about 66% of the time. 12 Washington State receivers have double digit receptions this season. Gabe Marks, with 46 catches on the year, is the go to guy, while Dom Williams and Vince Mayle are the deep threats. Marcus Mason is the leading tailback, but has only 43 carries on the season to lead the team. This is a one dimensional offense, which is a problem against elite teams in general. But one-dimensional offenses with interception-prone quarterbacks are really bad news.
Washington State's defense is improved this season--but not as dramatically as you may expect. Opponents' yards per play is down only .10 from last season--from 5.6 to 5.5. The biggest improvement on the defense is that they are allowing third down conversions at a much lower rate--35% to 45%, and have been more formidable against the run, forcing teams to pass more. That didn't matter to Oregon State, who torched them in the second half through the air, and certainly won't matter to Oregon, who can beat you in pretty much every way possible.
WSU is much improved, but still has almost no shot to beat Oregon. They may hold the dam for a half, as has been the Cougar way over the past couple of years. But that dam will break, and a flood of touchdowns will drown Wazzu for another season.