No. 11 Washington State is going to reveal exactly how much Oregon’s defense has truly improved this season.
Ample evidence exists to show that UO has experienced a dramatic upswing on defense from last year but it’s difficult to tell if UO has gone from horrible to good or simply from horrible to decent.
While Oregon’s defense has gotten off to a strong start – just 26 points allowed per game – the Ducks have yet to face an animal as fierce as the Cougars’ offense, led by senior quarterback Luke Falk.
“Literally for Washington State, he makes everything go and he has a good supporting cast and it’s been working,” Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “We just have to make sure that we’re detailed in our game plan and our execution. But he’s going to make his plays.”
Salave’a, who coached at WSU from 2012 through 2016, knows a thing or two about Falk. Salave’a also knows a thing or two about Oregon’s best chance of containing WSU’s quarterback. Pressure. Loads of pressure. Otherwise, Oregon (4-1, 3-0 PAC-21) will be toast on the back end.
“I think that it’s very important that we get to Mr. Falk,” UO coach Willie Taggart said.
Oregon’s defense last year was historically bad for the Ducks and the problems began early in the season.
Through five games in 2016, Oregon gave up 153 points, or 38.3 per game, to four Power Five conference opponents; Virginia, Nebraska, Colorado and Washington State. The Ducks ended up allowing 41.2 points per game on the season.
Through five games last season, the Ducks have surrendered 96 points, or 32.0 per game, to three Power Five Conference teams, Nebraska, Arizona State and California (3-2, 0-2).
The caveat for Oregon is that it has faced just one team considered to be somewhat explosive on offense and that’s the Sun Devils (2-3, 1-1). ASU put up 489 yards on Oregon, which has allowed 332.2 per game.
WSU (5-0, 2-0) is averaging 495.8 yards per game with 343.6 coming from Falk’s right arm.
Oregon ate up Cal sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers during a 45-24 win last year but he is one of the least efficient passers in the conference.
Falk is one of the best having completed 74.5 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“He’s going to move the ball. We know that,” UO defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said. “He’s just that good. But hopefully we can challenge him a little bit.”
The best way to do that is to apply pressure. WSU has allowed the second most number of sacks in the conference this season (19).
Oregon has made the most sacks in the conference (20).
UO got to Bowers seven times. The problem is, he still managed to put up 255 yard and three touchdown passes. What, then, will Falk be able to do against Oregon?
Another potential problem for the Ducks is what their defense does after a WSU receiver has the ball in his hands. The Cougars spread teams out and throw a ton of quick passes in hopes of breaking some big gains.
Oregon’s open-field tackling prowess is much improved over last season. But, again, the Ducks haven’t played teams loaded with playmakers other than ASU.
Sun Devils receiver N’Keal Harry went for 170 yards on seven receptions and Jalen Harvey gained 133 on eight receptions.
Leavitt had success against Falk last year while guiding Colorado’s defense. The Buffaloes held him to 325 yards passing and 26 of 53 passing with an interception. Colorado won 38-24 but Falk did throw three touchdown passes.
WSU is better than it was last year and Colorado’s defense was loaded with eight senior starters.
Oregon’s defense is quite young and is starting two freshman in the secondary, safety Nick Picket and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr.
WSU is not limited to Falk, either. When he struggled against Boise State, WSU coach Mike Leach turned to sophomore Tyler Hilinski who threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns.
Come Saturday night we will all have a better understanding of where Oregon’s defense truly is in its rebuilding phase under Leavitt and Taggart.
At the very least we already know that the Ducks’ D is headed in the right direction.