Herbert must be sharp as Washington State will disguise coverages all game long

CJ Verdell and Dillon Mitchell look to continue their hot start in Pac-12 play

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the run offense: Fresh off a Pac-12 offensive player of the week award, CJ Verdell is now listed atop the depth chart for Oregon. He rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries last week against Washington, often earning the tough yards between the tackles.

Backing up Verdell is Tony Brooks-James, fully healthy from an injury and a great change-of-pace running back, and Travis Dye, a powerful runner who shows great burst to get into the secondary.

Quarterback Justin Herbert is a threat rushing the ball, carrying the ball 38 times for 106 yards on the season. If teams collapse in the box on the option, Herbert has no problem keeping it and picking up yards to keep the chains moving.

Last week, Washington did a good job of limiting Herbert, often using a linebacker as a spy to make sure he wouldn’t beat the Huskies with his legs. However, it did take one extra defender out of the box and Oregon made Washington pay, rushing for 177 yards against one of the top defenses in the country.

As a team, the Ducks average 205 rushing yards per game in Pac-12 play, third best in the conference. They’ll be going against a defense that surrenders 197.7 yards per game in in Pac-12 play, third worst in the conference.

Washington State does a good job of disguising defensive fronts, often causing confusion among offensive linemen about their blocking assignments. The Cougars are comfortable in multiple fronts, rarely giving offenses the same look on back-to-back plays.

They have a player at each level with 4.5 tackles for loss on the season. Linebacker Peyton Pueller is the leader if the defense with a team-high 8.3 tackles per game. Defensive lineman Logan Tago is the anchor in the trenches while free safety Dominic Silvels is a physical presence who loves mixing it up in the backfield.

The Cougars will try to overload the box and take away Oregon’s running game, daring Herbert to beat their top-rated pass defense. The Ducks will try to establish the run early, getting positive yards on first down to get the offense in rhythm. But it should be noted that freshman left tackle Penei Sewell is out with an ankle injury, hurting Oregon’s ability to run the ball to the left.

Scouting the pass offense: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell has been unstoppable in Pac-12 play, leading the nation with 154.3 receiving yards per game in conference games. In three Pac-12 games, Mitchell has 29 catches for 463 yards and two scores while the rest of the Ducks have 13 catches for 154 yards and one score over that span.

Herbert is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, ranking second in the Pac-12 in touchdowns (17) and passing yards per game (268.8). He can make every throw possible and has no problem standing tall in the pocket to throw receivers open. Where he’s most dangerous is when he gets out of the pocket, using his legs to extend the play and put pressure on the secondary to defend longer.

Stopping Oregon seems simple if opponents can shut down Mitchell. The issue is that prior to Pac-12 play beginning, Herbert was finding every other receiver on the roster. Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd have a combined eight touchdowns over there 20 total catches. Tight ends Jacob Breeland and Kano Dillon provide big targets for Herbert in the redzone, each with two touchdowns.

Likewise, the Cougars’ strength on defense comes in its pass defense, giving up a Pac-12 best 165.5 yards per game. When a quarterback drops back to throw, the Cougars do a great job of keeping that them in the pocket, tying for the Pac-12 lead with 18 sacks on the season.

Cornerback Darrien Melton leads the team with five pass break-ups as Washington State is second in the conference in opponent quarterback rating.

If Herbert and Mitchell continue their hot connection, the Ducks will do just fine because Herbert will then spread the ball around when the Cougars double team Mitchell. But if Mitchell can be gobbled up in man coverage, it’ll put more pressure on Herbert to make the right reads and could cause the offense to stumble. Washington State will try to overload the box to stop the run so man coverage with a single-high safety will be the primary coverage the Ducks see.

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