Washington State was unstoppable in the first half, and then completely stagnant in the second half against Oregon on Saturday night. However, the Cougars got enough offense when it needed it to and came away with a huge 34-20 win in a key divisional game.
The win, though uneven, showed just how complete Washington State can be. The first half was dominated by the offense, but the defense kept Oregon to zero points and 39 yards. And when it needed to score and make a stop in the second half, Washington State showed it could close a game.
Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s game.
1. Washington State’s offense can be a special kind of monster: This seems obvious when you’re talking about an offense that can put up points in bunches, but Saturday night was an example of just how good Washington State can be. Trying to play defense when Mike Leach’s air raid has your number must be some kind of football hell. For the first 30 minutes, anyway, Washington State could do no wrong. Everything was open for quarterback Gardner Minshew. The little out routes the Cougs love to run was like stealing yards. In one-on-one coverage, there’s not much an outmatched defense can do. Minshew ended the night with 323 yards passing, and nine different players caught at least one pass with four catching at least six. Credit to Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, though, as Washington State had just one scoring drive in the second half, but the Cougars got that scoring drive when it needed it most.
2. The Cougars defense held, too, and that’s what makes them dangerous: The understated part of Washington State’s success under Leach is what the defense has accomplished over the past few years. This is the difference in Wazzu being an average to below average team, and one that can contend for divisional or conference titles. Consider Leach’s first three years when the Cougars were giving up 35 points a game. With the arrival of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, Washington State improved in that category every year. In 2015, the points per game jumped to 27.7. In 2016: 26.4. In 2017: 25.8. Through six games this season: 23.8. Against Oregon: 20. Even with Grinch moving on, Washington State has been able to keep moving forward. The Cougars have come within one game of winning the Pac-12 North in recent years. This time around, they might actually finish the job.
3. Oregon isn’t done: This was a tough spot for the Ducks. They were coming off a huge, emotional overtime win against Washington. Going on the road against a quality conference opponent typically makes for a bad encore. This could have been much worse, though. Oregon was facing a 27-0 deficit at the half, and looked lifeless. But the second half was a different battle. Quarterback Justin Herbert was able to deal against a defense playing a little softer, but more noticeably, Oregon’s defensive front was more active in getting to Minshew. The result was a 20-0 run before Washington State put the game away for good. Oregon just needed that effort for 60 minutes. But the schedule is manageable for the rest of the way, with the hardest game being on the road at Utah. Keep winning, and Oregon will still be in the divisional race at the end of the year.