The Daily Evergreen

Football faces test in Eugene

The Cougs are now in a similar position the Ducks were in back in 2003 when underdog WSU thwarted higher ranked Oregon.

The+last+time+the+Cougars+faced+Oregon+was+2016+in+Pullman%2C+when+WSU+won+51-33.
The last time the Cougars faced Oregon was 2016 in Pullman, when WSU won 51-33.

The last time the Cougars faced Oregon was 2016 in Pullman, when WSU won 51-33.

DES MARKS | Daily Evergreen File

DES MARKS | Daily Evergreen File

The last time the Cougars faced Oregon was 2016 in Pullman, when WSU won 51-33.

BRADEN JOHNSON, Evergreen columnist

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This one has “trap game” written all over it.

Coming off its first win over a top-five opponent in 25 years on Friday, an emotional letdown from No. 11 WSU is entirely possible when it travels to Eugene to take on what’s left of the Oregon football team on Saturday.

Banged up on both sides and without its starting quarterback and middle linebacker, the Ducks are hurting, literally. Oregon’s rash of injuries and likelihood of turning to a true freshman under center plays right into the Cougars’ hands as they play their first road game of 2017 in what ESPN commentator Lee Corso dubbed “the loudest stadium per person.”

Allow me to give you some context as to why this advantage WSU appears to have on paper is a fallacy of sorts.

Having attended games at Autzen Stadium for the better part of the past 15 years, I’ve watched the Ducks at the height of their reign over the Pac-12 and seen the Oregon football program at the lowest of lows.

The earliest game I can vividly remember watching with my dad coincidentally was the 21st-ranked Cougars’ 55-16 thrashing of No. 10 Oregon at Autzen in 2003.

Oregon was 4-0 and coming off a program-altering win over No. 3 Michigan a week earlier. Wolverines Head Coach Lloyd Carr said after the game that Autzen was the loudest stadium he had ever coached in.

It was game that pushed Oregon into the national spotlight and led to the Ducks being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated two days prior to their matchup with WSU.

Before we go on, does this narrative sound similar to one that a 5-0 program in Pullman is enjoying?

Anyhow, as my dad said, it became obvious from the get-go that Oregon had completely overlooked the Cougars.

Former WSU quarterback Matt Kegel’s 41-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Sammy Moore midway through the first quarter opened the floodgates. Moore pointed the nose of the football at the Oregon student section as he crossed the goal line.

Seven first-half turnovers from the Ducks followed suit, and my dad and I bolted to the parking lot at halftime. I’ll never forget the chorus of boos that rained down on Oregon, who trailed 38-2 at the intermission, as we exited.

“Will Derting was in [Oregon’s] backfield all day,” my dad said of the former WSU linebacker. “If it was a prize fight, Oregon took a standing eight-count in the first quarter and got knocked out in the second.”

Seven-years-old at the time, I told my dad we should take the three family-sized bags of shelled peanuts we had at our tailgating site and dump them on the Cougars’ players.

“We should throw them at the Ducks,” he said, as we stormed out of Autzen.

Back to football, the loss sent Oregon’s season spiraling out of control, punctuated with a Sun Bowl loss to Minnesota that dropped its record to 8-5. I also now know that the WSU win propelled the Cougars to a 10-3 finish, Holiday Bowl win over No. 5 Texas and was the last time the program ended the season ranked inside the AP top-25 poll.

I used more than 400 words of text to retell this story because it has never been as relevant as it was 14 years ago. The 2017 edition of this annual matchup takes place in the same venue, but the roles of each team are reversed.

“We know for one thing that they’re gonna play fast, they’re gonna play in sync, and they’re gonna play together,” said redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk. “We’ve got a tough challenge.”

Redshirt junior defensive end Hercules Mata’afa said the team has done well with moving on from its previous game once film review sessions end. For the Cougars’ sake in Saturday’s ballgame, hopefully the Pac-12’s leader in sacks recorded is telling the truth.

Oregon is the team playing with house money this time around. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain in what looks to be its biggest home game outside of the Civil War.

Without sophomore Justin Herbert running the Ducks’ patented up-tempo attack and leading wide receiver Charles Nelson nursing a lower leg injury, Oregon’s passing game is all but neutralized.

That being said, senior running back Royce Freeman has had his way with the WSU defense over the past three years. Three touchdowns and 138 rushing yards in last season’s 51-33 loss to WSU and 461 total rushing yards for his career against the Cougars says it all.

Oh yeah, Freeman is expected to play in Saturday’s game despite exiting Oregon’s 45-24 win over California last week early in the first half.

“They come downhill, they run a lot, so we’re preparing for that,” Mata’afa said. “The more we get into the game plan, the more we’ll feel comfortable playing these guys.”

Oregon may be without its most valuable player in Herbert, but it still has a three-pronged rushing attack in Freeman, Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit that the Golden Bears failed to contain in the second half in their loss, even when everyone in Autzen knew Oregon was unable to go to the air.

From both a talent pool and health standpoint, WSU possesses all of the obvious eyeball test advantages in this matchup. So, too, did the Ducks 14 years ago, and look how that turned out.

One can argue that Oregon has the Cougars right where they want them — playing in front of a sold out Autzen Stadium on a primetime broadcast, with all the pressure and expectations placed on WSU’s shoulders.

It’s the definition of a trap game or “hangover game” for the Cougars, depending on how you look at it.

The point is, regardless of how the game reads on the surface level, it’s going to be another battle in Autzen on Saturday.

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Football faces test in Eugene