Entering the 2018 season, expectations were reasonable for Oregon. For a team on its third head coach in as many years, the Ducks wanted to win games they should, have no bad losses and end up around eight wins, putting them into a fairly competitive bowl game.
Halfway through the season and it’s safe to say No. 12 Oregon (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) is more than ahead of schedule, and that maybe those preseason expectations weren’t high enough.
"I just like the way Oregon football plays," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. "The investment is starting to pay off."
Last Saturday’s 30-27 overtime victory over hated rival Washington signified the growth of the Ducks and their ability to overcome adversity, a word that has been thrown out all season long. But if last weekend showed how Oregon plays when it’s the underdog, this weekend’s matchup will show how the Ducks deal with being the favorite.
By no means is No. 25 Washington State a cakewalk, though. In fact, the 5-1 (2-1 Pac-12) Cougars are so impressive that ESPN’s famed “College GameDay” will be in attendance, the second time they’ve been to an Oregon game in four weeks.
“Coach Leach has done an incredible job everywhere he's been,” Cristobal said of Washington State head coach Mike Leach. “He really knows how to attack defenses — he knows where the holes are and the way that offense is designed, that offense is designed to expose those holes.”
Beyond schemes and play calling, mentality will be the most important factor for Oregon in the game. Before the victory over Washington, there wasn’t much pressure on the Ducks because they weren’t expected to win. But now that they have, dealing with the pressures of being the favorite is a new mindset that needs to be conquered.
“You always address it because it's out there and they're going to hear it, they're always going to hear that,” Cristobal said of Oregon winning. “But immediately bring it right back down to Earth — focus that we use every single week is understanding that we need to win tomorrow' practice.”
Saturday’s matchup will be the fourth consecutive top-25 team the Ducks have faced. Oregon is 2-1 in those games, suffering a heart-breaking loss to Stanford before rebounding with victories over Cal and Washington. The good news is that because of those wins, the Ducks are now tied for first place in the Pac-12 North; with Stanford, Washington and the Cougars.
“I think that's something in the offseason that you talk about so that they understand it but once you get into the season you are going week to week,” Cristobal said about being in first place. “This thing is a tight race and going to be a tight race with how wide open the Pac-12 is, not to mention the North division.”
On paper, Washington State and the Ducks appear identical. Both teams average over 40 points and 400 total yards per game, Defensively, they both give up less than 25 points and 365 total yards per game.
But they differ on how they reach those stats.
For the Ducks, it’s about balance between passing and running the ball. The more balanced they are offensively, the harder they are to predict and stop.
“They are kind of a running team, I think — they're one that has that sense of balance that appeals to a lot of people… they're 50-50ish,” Leach said. “They don't run the quarterback quite as much, he throws more than some of their others have. But they're similar type of athletes… a lot of team speed out there for them.”
As with any Leach-led offense, the “air raid” is the staple of their game. The Cougars like to throw the ball and keep throwing the ball, something that has given the Ducks fits over the years because of their porous pass defenses.
“They like to throw the ball, it's obvious. They've got the top passing offense in the conference, one of the best in the country, if not the best,” Cristobal said. “Our guys have to really just burn our eyes watching film and watching formations, watching everything that relates to how they've and what they've done to have success.”