High-flying Ducks kick off Pac-12 play against Cougars

Pullman, WA ( - The second-ranked Oregon Ducks will begin their quest for the Pac-12 Conference crown when they visit the Washington State Cougars at Martin Stadium on Saturday night.

Aside from a bit of a stumbling block in the first half against Michigan State, Oregon has had no trouble this season. The Ducks opened the campaign with a 62-13 rout of FCS foe South Dakota, then came back in the second half to best the Spartans, 46-27. They followed that effort with an easy 48-14 win over Wyoming last weekend. All three of those tests came at home for the Ducks, who are playing their first road game this weekend.

Washington State has been much-less impressive in the early stages of the campaign. The Cougars dropped back-to-back tilts against Rutgers (41-38) and Nevada (24-13) before settling for a 59-21 win over FCS foe Portland State last Saturday.

The last time Washington State defeated Oregon was back in 2006, 34-23, in Pullman. The Ducks have won seven straight since and lead the all-time series, 46-38-7. A year ago, they earned a 62-38 victory behind three rushing touchdowns and 192 yards from Byron Marshall.

Marshall is still making plays for Oregon, although he has shared the workload in the backfield this season. Royce Freeman (186 yards, five TDs) has been the most dangerous back as he is tied for the Pac-12 lead in rushing touchdowns with Arizona State's D.J. Foster. Marshall has contributed 179 yards and a touchdown, and Thomas Tyner has picked up 155 yards on a team-high 35 carries.

Marshall's contributions are also felt in the passing game as he leads the squad with 12 receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Darren Carrington (nine receptions, 172 yards), Keanon Lowe (eight receptions, 117 yards, TD) and Devon Allen (seven receptions, 157 yards, three TDs) are key contributors as well.

Of course the offense is really built around Marcus Mariota. The Ducks' Heisman hopeful has completed 70.4 percent of his pass attempts for 806 yards and eight touchdowns, while avoiding a single interception even against a defensive-minde squad like Michigan State. Mariota is also a threat on the ground, which by now is no surprise. However, teams still can't seem to stop him. He has 156 yards and three scores rushing the ball. He had perhaps his most exciting touchdown run against Wyoming when he jumped over wideout Keanon Lowe and a defender to score.

"I took off and thought I was close enough to the end zone, so I tried to jump in there I guess," Mariota said of the touchdown run. "If you play cautious then you're playing at half-speed and you end up getting yourself hurt. I always take the warnings from the coaches, but I'll end up doing what I have to do."

With Mariota at the helm the Ducks are yet again one of the best offensive teams around, ranking 10th in the country in total yards (573.3 ypg) and fifth in scoring (52 ppg).

Oregon has been solid, although not nearly as exciting, on defense. The Ducks are letting up only 18 points per game, despite ranking next-to-last in the Pac-12 in total defense (425 ypg). That is more a symptom of Oregon's high- powered offense getting off the field quickly and giving opponents more time with the ball.

Erick Dargan (14 tackles, three INTs) has been a devastating playmaker in the secondary, along with All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, while Tyson Coleman (2.0 sacks) spearheads the pass rush.

Washington State would very much like to be the consistent offensive power that Oregon is each year. The Cougars certainly have the scheme to do so, as well as a roster of talented offensive weapons. They are averaging 36.7 points and 557 yards of total offense each week, ranking seventh and fourth in the Pac-12, respectively.

However, unlike Oregon's multi-layered attack, the Cougars are one of the most one-dimensional programs in the country, with head coach Mike Leach preferring to air it out rather than run the ball. The Cougars lead the nation in passing yardage (517 ypg), but are third from the bottom in rushing yards (40 ypg).

Connor Halliday is the quarterback Leach has entrusted with his offense. Halliday's arm must be getting tired after working in the system the last couple of years, but he has still thrown for 1,465 yards and 12 touchdowns, as well as five interceptions, while completing 68 percent of his passes.

He has formed an excellent bond with Isiah Myers (26 receptions, 423 yards, five TDs), who currently leads the Pac-12 in receptions and receiving yards. Myers had his coming-out party against Portland State, securing 11 passes for 227 yards and three scores.

"I've been talking about that since the day he got here. He's the best route runner I've ever seen and I've always been in Isiah's corner," Halliday said of Myers. "I've been waiting for a game like this, for him to blow up, so everyone else could see it."

Vince Mayle (25 receptions, 245 yards, three TDs), River Cracraft (15 receptions, 171 yards, two TDs) and Dominique Williams (10 receptions, 253 yards, two TDs) are also serious threats.

For how eye-popping their offensive numbers are, the Cougars really need to clean things up on defense to become an elite team in the competitive Pac-12, especially when teams like Oregon come knocking. They are allowing 28.7 points and 394 yards per game.