Rick Morgan, for EDN
Following their first Pac-12 visit to Colorado, Oregon returns to Autzen Stadium this Saturday to face a more familiar foe, the Washington State Cougars.
The past few years have been difficult for Oregon’s cross border rival. The glory days of Mike Price haven’t been duplicated under first, Bill Doba and now third-year coach Paul Wulff.
It is widely assumed the Cougars, now 3-4 on the year and 1-3 in conference, will be looking for a new head man if they don’t make a bowl game this season. Last weekend’s 44-21 loss to the Beavers was a crippling blow to their chances.
It was the third straight setback for WSU and reversing that trend against the likes of the Ducks in Autzen is a tall, tall order.
A primary cause for Washington State’s difficulties is a loss of scholarships imposed when the program’s Academic Progress Report fell short of NCAA standards a few years ago.
It is difficult to compete week in and week out in the Pac-12 if you don’t have players, and the Cougars just haven’t had the numbers to keep up with the rest of the conference.
Yet in Oregon head coach Chip Kelly’s eyes, Wulff has made a difference.
“I think they’ve improved since Paul’s gotten there,” he said. “He’s done a nice job of rebuilding that program. They obviously had some APR issues and he was down some scholarships and is starting to get back up.
“To play in this league and not be at a full complement of scholarships is a real difficult task. He’s really developing that program. They play with a toughness, they play with a physicality on the defensive side of the ball.”
The Cougar defense is built around three active linebackers, Sekope Kaufusi, C.J. Mizell and Alex Hoffman-Ellis.
“A well coached defense that is really playing tough, physical football which will give them a shot every week,” Kelly stated.
It isn’t just the talent on WSU’s defense that makes it stand out, but also the style.
“They are a physical 4-3 team,” Kelly explained. “The three linebackers really kind of set the tone for them. They like to bring one of those guys to bring a fifth rusher. They play a lot of man in the secondary and I think their four D-line. Travis Long and that group right there can present some problems too.”
Kelly sees marked improvement on the offensive side of the ball as well.
“Offensively, I think they are much improved,” he noted. “They are running the ball better than they did last year.”
Rick Galvin leads the team in rushing with 361 yards on 56 carries.
“They’ve obviously played two quarterbacks,” said Kelly. “I was really impressed with Jeff Tuel last year. Obviously, he went down early but Marshall Lobbestael has done a really good job of filling in for him.”
Tuel, who missed three games earlier in the season, returned to start Washington State’s last three games before being knocked out of last Saturday’s game against Oregon State with an injury to his shoulder.
So it will be Lobbestael who lines up under center against the Ducks. The senior has completed 135 of his 211 attempts this year, 15 for touchdowns. He has given up five interceptions. He also has frequently been forced to run for his life and been sacked 14 times.
However, when given time to throw, Lobbestael does have a dangerous group of receivers to target.
Marquess Wilson leads the pack with 41 receptions and six scores. Isaiah Barton and Jared Karstetter keep the defense from overloading on Wilson.
“Three outstanding receivers,” said Kelly. “They are throwing the ball all over the place.”
That would seem to be the prescription if the Cougars have any hopes of pulling off a stunner. Kickoff is set for noon.