By Ryan Thorburn
Royce Freeman to the rescue? Oregon’s best player is expected to return to the lineup after sustaining a leg injury early in the game at Nebraska and missing a game for the first time in his career against Colorado. “He’s doing fine. He has been practicing full,” running backs coach Gary Campbell said of Freeman. “So I expect him to be 100 percent.”
Despite not having Freeman to carry the load in the team’s back-to-back three-point losses, the Ducks rank eighth nationally and are No. 1 in the Pac-12 in rushing, averaging 275.8 yards per game. Tony Brooks-James rushed for a career-high 120 yards on 16 carries (7.5-yard average) and a touchdown during Saturday’s 41-38 loss to Colorado. “I’m definitely proud of the line and take pride in the running backs, the way we still continue to keep the running game strong, even though (Freeman) was out,” Brooks-James said. “I’m happy he’s healthy and I’m just ready to get back on the field and play.”
Freeman has rushed for 325 yards and four touchdowns on only 37 attempts (8.8 yards per carry) this season. The junior is third in the Pac- 12 in rushing yards per game (108.3) behind Stanford Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey (145.3) and Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins (130.3). Entering Saturday’s game at Washington State (6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), Freeman needs 98 yards to pass Kenjon Barner (3,623 yards, 2009-12) for second all time on Oregon’s career rushing list behind LaMichael James (5,082 yards, 2009-11). During last year’s 45-38 double-overtime loss to the Cougars at Autzen Stadium, Freeman ran for a career-high 246 yards with three touchdowns.
“We all know what Royce can do with the ball in his hands,” senior right guard Cameron Hunt said. “He can make great plays after contact. He did a great job last year, and we have to continue to have a great game against Wazzu.” Brooks-James leads the team with six rushing touchdowns and has 230 yards on the ground this season in relief of Freeman. Kani Benoit has 211 yards and two touchdowns, and Taj Griffin has added 108 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cougars (1-2) rank 21st in rushing defense, allowing 103.0 yards through three games, but Eastern Washington and Boise State took advantage of their 123rd-ranked passing defense (324.7 ypg). “We were able to run the ball pretty efficiently last year, and I hope for the same,” offensive line coach Steve Greatwood said of the matchup with Washington State. “Obviously with the crowd and whatnot, it will be another tough environment like it was at Nebraska for us. “We’ve just got to continue to work and train and get our eyes and our feet right this week. If we do that, I’m confident we’ll be able to move the football.” Before getting injured in the 35-32 loss at Nebraska, a healthy Freeman gashed Virginia for 207 yards and two TDs.
Now the 2-2 Ducks will have their featured back and some confident backups available to help quarterback Dakota Prukop in Pullman. “I think we need to pound the rock a little bit more and kind of open up our passing game,” Hunt said. “Get defenses to think run, and now we’re throwing the ball. I think if that running game really starts to develop and we get going on that, it’s going to make stuff a lot easier for the receivers and Dakota in the backfield.”
By Andrew Greif
It wouldn't have seemed unreasonable in the preseason to circle Saturday's Pac-12 matchup between the Oregon Ducks and Washington State as a game on which heavy stakes might rest. The Ducks were picked third and the Cougars fourth in the conference media poll in July, and each program had Top-25 ambitions following nine-win seasons. They enter Saturday's game at Pullman's Martin Stadium instead a combined 3-4. A win points the victor's season in the right direction. A loss could lead fans to consult their team's schedule while doing the math for bowl eligibility.
Oddsmakers have listed Oregon, losers of two straight three-point games, as a slight favorite. But to help decipher what could happen Saturday, we turn not to Vegas but to a beat writer covering UO's opponent, as The Oregonian/OregonLive does every week. This week the Spokane Spokesman-Review's Jacob Thorpe answered five questions about the Cougars' 1-2 season — with losses to Boise State and Eastern Washington, and a win against Idaho — thus far. Read Thorpe's coverage here and follow him on Twitter here.
It appears that WSU fans are in that unenviable position in which much or all of the season is spent doing a lot of math. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, the Cougars need to finish 5-4 in Pac-12 play to be bowl eligible (Yes, sometimes 5-7 teams also garner bowl invites, but let's not think about that unthinkable shame). If the Cougars lose, then they have to finish 5-3 to extend their one-year postseason streak. But there's more. The post-Oregon stretch is going to be particularly brutal for the Cougars. WSU will travel to Stanford, host UCLA and then head to Tempe, which is always brutal to teams from Washington. There is an easier stretch on the horizon, but the Cougars can't build too big of a hole for themselves. As for Mike Leach, he's got a five-year rollover contract with a big buyout and he's all but certain to get rolled over again this offseason, regardless of what happens on the field. Put another way, his "hot seat" is cooler than Royce Freeman and Royce Da Choice rapping in a Rolls Royce.
Best? Interesting philosophical question, Andrew, and one a lot of folks seem to be struggling with in this election season. Can somebody be the best when none of the options seem especially good? Or are they merely the least worst? Defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (I'd say "defensive end" but he lines up all over) is the player most likely to draw a wary eye and perhaps a double-team from the Ducks, but none of the Cougars have earned the distinction of being considered a plus pass-rusher in 2016. Mata'afa was dominant toward the end of his redshirt freshman season, but has not been the terror many expected this season. Heck, an SI writer even listed him as a dark horse Heisman candidate. There is obviously still time for Mata'afa, and maybe this Saturday will be his breakout game, but for now he appears to be adjusting to playing without a pair of graduated All-Conference defensive linemen on either side in Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao.Otherwise, an inability to rush the passer has been defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's biggest migraine to date. The Cougars had two sacks against FCS Eastern Washington, which is a good FCS team but was also starting five new offensive linemen. WSU did not record a sack against Boise State or Idaho, so there is going to have to be significant improvement in this area or Dakota Prukop will be feeling pretty fresh on Monday.
The easy answer is quarterback Luke Falk. Oregon fans remember when Connor Halliday attempted 89 passes in Autzen Stadium back in 2013, so it should be apparent that quarterback play is pretty important in the Air Raid. But what a lame answer that would be. The true X-factor for Washington State in 2016 is field goal kicker Erik Powell, who is 0-for-3 on his attempts this year. Both of WSU's losses were by just three points and in both cases Powell had kicks miss or get blocked that could have changed the game's outcome. But don't expect the Cougars to turn away from their kicker entirely. His current case of the yips is predated by a very good 2015 season that saw him make 20-of-26 field goals, and a very productive preseason camp. His leg has gotten stronger, evidenced by him consistently putting the ball through the end zone on touchbacks this year. At some point, he is going to start hitting his kicks. When he does, the Cougars will be much more dangerous in close games.
What sets Luke Falk apart from other All-Conference quarterbacks is that his game has no ego. Leach's Air Raid is most successful when in the hands of a player who is content to play a simple game and get the ball in the hands of his playmakers, and Falk is the ultimate takes-what-he's-given player. If the Ducks defense looks ready to defend the pass, he will check into a run. If UO stacks the box, he will try to throw it deep. Ultimately, Falk is going to go through his reads and throw the ball to the first receiver who looks open. He is also a very safe player, not likely to make a risky pass or throw it deep. When the Cougars have big plays on offense, it's usually because he got the ball quickly to a skill player who was able to then make somebody miss or take advantage of good blocking to get downfield. This means the Cougars do not get very many big, field-flipping plays relative to how often they pass, but because Falk is patient they will move the ball. The challenge so far has been once the field gets constricted in the red zone. Last year, Falk excelled in these situations, routinely hitting Gabe Marks and other receivers on perfectly thrown fade routes to capitalize on his steady drives. The offense has struggled in these situations so far in 2016, but perhaps found its mojo during the bye week.
I attribute it mostly to a loss of personnel, but not the personnel you might think. The WSU secondary is probably a little better than it was last season – Shalom Luani is still a very good safety, Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins are solid cornerbacks, and true freshman Jalen Thompson is learning quickly. Also, the Cougars are pretty deep in the secondary, with Treshon Broughton and Charleston White playing ample snaps through the first three weeks. But the Cougars are really struggling to rush the passer. The team has been a case study in how much intersection there is between the defensive units, and the lack of depth on the defensive line has perhaps hurt the pass defense even more than the run defense.