Cougars hope to ground high-flying Ducks

Published September 26, 2012

| Sports Network

Coming off a dominant performance in their Pac-12 Conference opener, the second-ranked Oregon Ducks are set to take on the Washington State Cougars in Seattle on Saturday night.

As expected, Oregon has rolled through its first four games, all of which were played at home. The Ducks made easy work of Arkansas State (57-34), Fresno State (42-25) and Tennessee Tech (63-14), in their conference opener they put forth their most impressive effort with a 49-0 rout of nationally-ranked Arizona. They improved to 11-5 (including 8-1 at home) against ranked opponents during the Chip Kelly era.

"Our defense really set the tone for us," Kelly said of the win over Arizona. "We prepared (and) had a great week of practice. We don't expect to come in and have our way with anyone. We play every game like it's the Super Bowl."

Washington State appeared well on its way to a 3-1 start last week against Colorado as it was up 17 points with seven minutes to play, but the defense collapsed by allowing three late touchdowns, including one with only nine seconds remaining to lose, 35-34. The disappointing setback came on the heels of wins at home against FCS foe Eastern Washington (24-20), and on the road versus UNLV (35-27).

These long time rivals have played 89 games previously, with the Ducks clinging to a narrow 44-38-7 lead. Oregon won last year's matchup in Eugene, 43-28.

Oregon lost several key players on offense from a year ago, but the unit has not skipped a beat here in 2012 as it is among the nation's leaders in scoring offense (52.8 ppg) and total offense (571 ypg).

Freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota has been spectacular thus far, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes (78-of-112) for 934 yards with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He has also shown the ability to get out of the pocket, posting 125 rushing yards.

Kenjon Barner is one of the most reliable running backs in the country. He has carried the ball 76 times for 410 yards, and his six rushing touchdowns lead the conference.

The Ducks also have one of the most versatile playmakers in the nation in wideout De'Anthony Thomas. He is the team's leading receiver (13 catches, 165 yards, three TDs), but his blazing speed is also utilized in the run game, as he has accrued 276 yards and four touchdowns on just 25 carries.

The offensive production has come to be expected from the Ducks, but what's truly surprising about the team is how well the defense has played thus far (18.2 ppg). The unit's early success was punctuated by the shutout win over Arizona, its first in conference play since defeating Stanford 35-0 on Oct. 25, 2003.

Michael Clay was the standout performer in the victory, piling up 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble en route to being named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.

Other standout performers this season have been Kiko Alonso (19 tackles) and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (14 tackles, two FF), who both have two interceptions.

It's taken some time for the Cougars to get comfortable with coach Mike Leach's system, but it appears that things are getting better with every game. That said, the Ducks defense looks inspired this season, and even if WSU can put up a few touchdowns, it will have no answer in attempting to stop Oreogn when it has the ball.

Leach took over the Cougars this season after years of producing high-powered offenses at Texas Tech, but his proven methods haven't taken root in Pullman just yet, his team averaging less than 25 points per game.

Connor Halliday has taken advantage of the pass-heavy approach by throwing for 855 yards and eight touchdowns, but that hasn't come without a price. He has completed fewer than 55 percent of his passes (63-of-116) and has thrown five interceptions. Jeff Tuel has also seen time under center, and while he has a better completion percentage (50-of-71, .704), he has also thrown two picks.

The receivers have clearly benefited from the new system, as Gabe Marks (326 yards), Marquess Wilson (317 yards) and Isiah Myers (235 yards) all rank in the top-10 in the conference in receiving yards. Myers and Wilson also have four touchdowns apiece.

The running game has seen very little success, as the team is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. Carl Winston sees the majority of the touches out of the backfield with 34 totes for 147 yards and a score.

The WSU defense has not picked up the slack for the struggling offense, allowing 28 ppg on more than 470 ypg, and it will have its hands full with an electrifying Ducks' attack.

"They really prey on guys that don't get lined up quickly," Leach said of the Oregon offense. "The key thing is to get lined up and be able to transition your defense and switch it off as quick as possible."

The Cougars hope that putting pressure on the quarterback will help disrupt the Ducks' rhythm. After recording just 17 sacks last season, the unit already has 14 sacks, with Travis Long logging a conference-best 6.5 sacks.

The pressure has resulted in eight forced fumbles, though only two have been recovered. The team has also recorded four interceptions.

URL

http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2012/09/26/cougars-hope-to-ground-high-flying-ducks/