Keys to the game: Washington State at Oregon

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One day, Oregon will lose again in Autzen Stadium. But it won’t happen tomorrow.

The strength of the Washington State team is their passing attack. Marshall Lobbestael throws the ball capably and he has three good wide receivers in sophomore Marquess Wilson, the highlight film guy, and steady possession targets Jeff Karstetter and Isiah Barton.

Rickey Galvin runs the football well as a change of pace. He averages 6.4 yards a carry but doesn’t have a 100-yard game yet this season. The Cougars will only stay competitive as long as they can move the football through the air.

The Vegas line is Oregon -35.5, and that’s with Darron Thomas and LaMichael James still a question mark as starters.

Figure Thomas starts and James waits another week. Thomas needs to reestablish his rhythm after sitting out, with Washington in Seattle just a week away.  Bryan Bennett is likely to play also, probably extensively in the third and fourth quarters.

Here are the keys to the game:

Seize your one chance

Washington State is Oregon’s only football game this week, and as team facing a gauntlet in November, the Ducks want a sharp, crisp performance in their eighth game. Precision, tempo, and cohesion are the goals, not a score, not a point spread, just playing and winning the right way. Preparation and focus are habits, and a sharp, energized performance tomorrow afternoon is the first step in getting ready for two huge road games. As a young team, the Ducks have to continue get better every week. The downfield passing game can be sharper. The defense can get more pressure on the quarterback. To beat Stanford in Palo Alto and win the PAC-12, the Ducks must continue to grow in depth, confidence and consistency.

Don’t let Lobbestael be a passing fancy

Oregon’s secondary has been improving all the time, and the group of young quarterbacks taking over for embattled All-American Cliff Harris, redshirt freshmen Troy Hill, Terrance Mitchell and Dior Mathis, plus true freshmen Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, has to continue to improve their technique and understanding. They can’t give Wilson, Karstetter and Barton too big a cushion. This week is great preparation for them, as they’ll have to face imposing receiver groups all the rest of the year. Even Oregon State has a capable passing offense, going for 4 touchdowns against these very Cougars a week ago.

In the last few weeks the Ducks have succeeded in turning up the heat on opposing quarterbacks. They got to Nick Foles for 5 sacks, Cal for two, 6-8 Brock Osweiler for four, and the Colorado quarterbacks went down five times, including two by Josh Kaddu. Lobbestael has been sacked 14 times this season. Starter Jeff Tuel was battered this year; he suffered eight sacks and two major injuries in his abbreviated season. In short, the Cougs are vulnerable to pressure, and it’s a perfect opportunity for Nick Aliotti’s gladiators to feed their hunger again, become a ravenous, attacking defense that prides itself on creating pressure. It’s an attitude. Great defenses must be hungry and relentless, eager and fierce. Creating success in intimidating quarterbacks builds that attitude, becomes a motivation that feeds itself.

No matter who’s throwing, the Ducks must refine their counterpunch

The Oregon running game has hit its stride. They’re cruising like an armored Humvee on the ground, rushing for 323 yards a game. The passing game has had its moments, including six touchdowns by Darron Thomas in game two, five total by the two quarterbacks against Missouri State, but the Ducks haven’t reached peak efficiency in their aerial game.

Both Thomas and Bennett have missed open receivers. Each has had moments of brilliance and moments where throws they’ve completed hundreds of times in practice fly five yards over their intended target. The Duck quarterbacks have engineered six straight wins, but they’d be the first to acknowledge they have things to clean up. To win the conference, which probably means having to win six more games without a loss, Oregon has to be able to effectively pass the football and use all their weapons. De’Anthony Thomas can get deep on anyone. They have to find the timing and arm strength to hit him in stride, and get Josh Huff and Rahsaan Vaughn fully involved in the offense. It was a great development to see David Paulson get targeted for a touchdown in both of the last two games, and that’s a trend they ought to continue. LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner simply have more room when opponents have to respect the pass.

What Oregon fans most want to see tomorrow is more of the same. Chip Kelly has said he evaluates this team as 6-1. They’ve risen to number seven in the country after the opening loss to #1 LSU. Having achieved that much, falling short of the Rose Bowl would be a disappointment for Webfoot fans. This team is young and has successfully faced a variety of setbacks, challenges and distractions, but now they have to finish the job with six more weeks of their best effort.

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