Four score and more than twenty five years ago I was pretty good at sports. I played the soccer, I played the basketball, the baseball, bit of the tennis, and even a bit of the golf. In fact, I was good enough at soccer to be offered a (half) scholarship to a Division 1 school in the Midwest, where I played for one year before transferring to WSU for my sophomore year.
Anyhow, there were four primary reasons why I was good at sports. First, I was reasonably skilled. Second, I was smart. Third, I was decent athletically. And fourth, I was a major, major scrapper.
On most days, those attributes were enough. I mean, I could never dunk the ball—but I was able to jump high enough to get my shot off, rebound, and defend. I was never really fast, but my 11.8-ish 100 meter speed usually allowed me to get up and down the court and/or the soccer pitch without getting torched.
But then came the spring trimester of my senior year in high school, when a few buddies of mine convinced me that I should run track. And what an experience that was!
And the reason why that experience was so amazing was that it taught me one of the most important lessons in sports : You can teach effort, but you can never, ever teach talent.
So, even though I had routinely out-hustled, out-scrapped, and out-competed just about anyone I played against to that point, none of those things mattered in track and field. Because if guys were faster than you, there was nothing you could do about that. The faster dudes won. Always.
And so, every time I lined up to run my 400 meter “dash,” I knew that even if I exceeded my personal best, I was going to lose. And while I learned how to block all that out for each miserably awful 53 second race, I never won. Hell, I never even placed in the top 3. And there was NOTHING that I could do to change that.
And frankly, followers, my experience “running” track mimics the conditions faced by our Washington State Cougars this Saturday night. Meaning: Oregon is faster than us. MUCH FASTER. And so, if we give them any chance to run away from us in space, they will. And if and when they do, it won’t be because our kids aren’t trying. And it won’t be because of coaching. Sometimes, talent is too much to overcome.
Now, the keys to the game—starting with our defense.
1) Take the game to the Ducks
For many a moon now, the modus operandi of our defense has been to sit back, keep the game in front, and essentially bend, bend, bend, bend, and (don’t) break. But against, Oregon, that passive mentality will get us torched. Because as noted above, when guys who are faster than you get into space, they run away from you. So, the only way to combat speed is to run right at it. Meaning: If you want to tackle those Oregon speedsters, it’s best to do so before they have a chance to get going.
So, if we’re going to hang around for a while in this game, our Defensive Line is going to have to play the game of their lives and our linebackers are going to have to get up the field vertically before those Ducks turn the corner. And that means we’re going to have to stunt a whole lot and Allison and McLennan are going to have to play a whole lot. In the end, pinching up our LBs closer to the line of scrimmage will create a lot of 1 on 1’s for our green secondary. But at the end of the day, it’s better to go down swinging, right?
2) Create Heisman Moments
When you play a team with a great (and perhaps even legendary) player like Marcus Mariota, you know he is going to find a way to get his. And for that reason, the key to any game plan is to figure out a way to minimize the ability of others to “get theirs.”
A few weeks back, Michigan State did EVERYTHING that a team could do to accomplish that objective. Unfortunately for them, the 97 degree heat got to them at the end of the third quarter. And before they knew it, that 27-18 third quarter lead had blown up in their faces.
Nevertheless, at halftime of that game, Michigan State had actually held the Ducks to a feeble 14 yards rushing on 13 carries! And so, even though Mariotta got them in the end, the key for us on Saturday is to make him do it all through the air and with his own legs. Because, even though he may rank among the best ever, whenever a team has to rely on one guy, there’s a greater likelihood for mistakes and quick momentum changes. Put another way, I’d be happier if we gave up 600 yards passing than 500 on the ground.
3) Rotate Early
For the past couple of games, we’ve done a good job of rotating guys in on the D-Line. This game cannot be an exception. Because if the aim is to try to win this game or to keep the outcome in question through three quarters, then our front-line guys need to be as fresh as possible heading into the second half.
1) Start Fast
If the Michigan State game is any indication, we’re probably going to get somewhere between 14-16 offensive possessions in this game. And if we’re going to have any chance of winning, we’re going to need to score on at least 8 of those (with touchdowns on at least 7). So, if you’re a math major, you know that averages out to two scoring drives a quarter. So, for us to stay in the game, we’re going to need to get 14 points in the first quarter and probably 24-28 in the first half. Do that, and we’ll create the conditions for the crowd to stay in the game, for the defense to play a little loosey-goosey, and maybe, just maybe the game will be contested throughout.
2) RG5 Time
If we’re going to hang around on Saturday, it will be because we’ve played a near perfect game. And that quest for perfection requires a sterling performance from each of our skill guys. Toward that end, you can bet that Oregon will be VERY well aware of the potential of Myers, Mayle, and Cracraft to burn them—especially on third down. So, if we’re going to move the chains with regularity on Saturday night, then Rick is going to have to have a very, very big night. The good news is that I think he’ll be ready to play—just like he was ready at Auburn last year.
Like the Huskies of last year, Oregon LOVES to press with those athletic corners. And because of their confidence in those guys, we can bet that we’ll see a lot of 1 on 1 coverage on the outside. And if Oregon is allowed to hold Mayle and Myers like the Huskies did in last year’s Apple Cup (and like Nevada did two weeks ago), this thing will be a 72-17 type affair. But, if the officials starting throwing flags against that garbage circa the Apple Cup of 2012, then we’ll be able to move the ball. I’m hopeful that playing in Martin will encourage the officials to call the game in a way that favors (our) receivers.
4) Play like a Senior
Everyone around these here blog parts knows that I am a big Connor Halliday fan. And for me, this game is going to show a lot about whether he is capable of making the next step to the NFL. Because if I’m Oregon, I’m going to do two things to him early: I’m going to blitz him while pressing the crap out of his outside receivers. And then, every few plays, I’m going to fake pressure and drop 8 guys into coverage and jam those underneath routes. The theory: If I can confuse/rattle Connor early, I’ll get a few quick three and outs, my offense will allow us to jump out to a quick 15-0 lead, and the game will be over before it ever begins.
So, Connor’s going to have his work cut out for him if we’re going to come out firing on all cylinders early. And to do that, his offensive line is going to have to act like they’ve seen an elite Pac-12 defensive front before (which of course they haven’t).
1) Will Connor throw for over 400 yards? (Over. I think he’s going to throw for about 497)
2) Will the RBs amass over 100 yards? (Under. I think the RBs could be a HUGE factor for us—but only through the Air. I don’t think Oregon wants to provide us with many opportunities to take the air out of the ball. So, I’m thinking we’ll get about 55 total rushing yards from the RBs)
3) Will we score 35 or more points this game? (see below).
If we can somehow start fast in this one—like win the coin toss and score on our first two possessions, then I think this one is going to be REALLY entertaining. In fact, I think that I might be the ONLY person out there who is not a player, parent, or coach who can actually imagine a plausible way for us to win this game 52-49.
But, in the end, I think that the evidence suggests that Oregon is going to get to our O-Line early, while I think our D will play conservative and get torched. Moreover, because this game is on the road, Oregon has a shorter bench, making it more difficult for them to take their foot off the accelerator as this one gets away from us. In the end, I see a back-door attempt by us to cover that will pad our offensive statistics but not our egos. Oregon wins 59-31 in a game that will be a lot less close than the score indicates.
I’ll be back Monday (this time for sure—its been a tough work week) with some thoughts on the season’s true do-or-die contest against Utah.
All for now. Go Cougs.