No. 2 Oregon begins its conference schedule Saturday in Pullman, Washington, as it takes on Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense. Here are five things to watch as the Ducks and Cougars take the field at 7:30 p.m. PT:
1. The unbalance in the trenches as Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman do what they’ve done. This season (and past seasons), Washington State has struggled to stop the run. The Cougars have allowed 174 rushing yards per game (4.0 yards per rush), but that’s against teams like Rutgers and Nevada, who aren’t even in the top 45 in the country in rushing yards per game, and an FCS team. Oregon, on the other hand, is averaging 6.3 yards per rush this season, and the Ducks’ 12 rushing touchdowns is tied for third-most in the nation. The Cougars' defensive line was supposed to be greatly improved this season with players such as Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper, but they’ll certainly have their hands full with the Ducks’ three-headed running back monster.
2. Oregon needs to watch the big plays from Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday. On average, the Ducks have allowed only 22 completions per game, however, 58 percent of those completions have been passing plays of 10 or more yards. Now, consider the fact that Halliday is averaging nearly 40 completions a game (on 58 attempts). So, it’s definitely something the Ducks' secondary needs to key in on. However, with all those pass attempts also come quite a few interceptions. Halliday has already thrown five picks through three games, so there will also be a chance for the Ducks' DBs to make big plays of their own while also limiting the Cougars’.
3. How will the Ducks use Marshall against the Cougars? We’ve seen him primarily as a pass-catching guy out of the backfield and as a more traditional back, so will conference play show us a new balance between these two facets of his game? Or will it keep going on a game-by-game basis? Passing coordinator and wide receiver coach Matt Lubick told ESPN.com this week that Marshall’s skill sets make life hard for defensive coordinators because he's so versatile. I have a feeling that every game is going to show us another wrinkle in what Marshall can do for the Ducks.
4. Can the Ducks avoid a trip-up game? Pullman isn’t always an easy place to play, and while this young Oregon team has shown that it has the guts to win an intense game at home, it remains to be seen whether or not they can do it on the road. Oregon's two losses last season came away from Autzen, after all. Statistically and when looking at the rosters, Washington State looks outmatched. But how much of a factor will the 12th man of Martin Stadium play in the final decision?
5. Marcus Mariota has been almost flawless this season. He has completed 70 percent of his passes and thrown for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions while tallying up another three scores with his feet. He has picked apart every defense he has played against this year. And Washington State? Well, the Cougars are fielding A LOT of young defensive players. The starters in their secondary feature two freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. Mariota could have a field day with his group of receivers. Washington State has only given up three passing touchdowns this season, but most of that is due to the fact that the majority of the teams it has played haven’t had too much trouble running against the Cougars. With Jameis Winston’s issues at Florida State this week, it’s just another Saturday for Mariota to step on the field and show that there are no distractions for him and his team on the way to the College Football Playoff and the Heisman.