PULLMAN, Wash. — Marcus Mariota used his old college magic to pull out a win here four years ago.
The eventual Heisman Trophy winner overcame seven sacks by completing 21 of 25 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns to lead Oregon to a 38-31 win at Washington State on Sept. 20, 2014, en route to the Pac-12 championship and the College Football Playoff.
Over the last three years, the only magic the Ducks have experienced in the series has been a disappearing act at quarterback.
Jeff Lockie stated for an injured Vernon Adams in 2015, Dakota Prukop made his final start in 2016 and Braxton Burmeister started for an injured Justin Herbert in 2017.
During the Cougars’ three-game winning streak, Luke Falk passed for 1,158 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions while Lockie, Prukop and Burmeister combined for a total of 400 yards passing with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Both sides will be armed with a dangerous quarterback when No. 12 Oregon faces No. 25 Washington State on Saturday at Martin Stadium (4:30 p.m., Fox).
The Ducks (5-1, 2-1) feature Herbert, an emerging Heisman candidate and NFL first-round prospect, who made his debut as the mop-up quarterback during the 51-33 loss two years ago.
“Obviously now I’d say it kind of worked out,” senior linebacker Kaulana Apelu said when asked what the reaction was in the locker room when former coach Mark Helfrich pulled the plug on Prukop and turned the offense over to the true freshman from Sheldon High in 2016. “I know it was dark then. If you asked me then, I’d have no idea what to tell you. But everything happens for a reason, and I’m just kind of glad we’re on the other side of things now.”
The Cougars (5-1, 2-1) counter with fifth-year senior graduate transfer Gardner Minshew, who leads the FBS in passing to help attract ESPN’s "College GameDay" to the Palouse for the first time.
“He knows where he's going with the football,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “Changing the picture on him is important because if he knows exactly what you're in he can dial it up."
Oregon has averaged 41.7 points per game in Herbert’s 21 starts and he has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of those games. In six career Pac-12 road starts, the unflappable 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior has thrown 16 touchdowns and one interception.
The Ducks lead the Pac-12 in points (43.0 ppg) and are second in yards (482.8 ypg), but Washington State is 10th nationally in passing defense (163.0 ypg) and 15th in total defense (311.2 ypg).
“I think he’s pretty good,” Leach said of Herbert. “He does a good job leading the unit. He can run a little bit, he’s more effective throwing it though. … They’re one (offense) that has a sense of balance that appeals to a lot of people.”
Oregon is second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards (209.5 ypg) and passing yards (273.3 ypg) while Leach’s team leads the nation in passing yards (414.7 ypg) and is 128th in rushing yards (71.8 ypg).
“You’ve got to be sound, you’ve got to be in the area and you’ve got to be consistent all day long,” Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, a former Washington State assistant under Leach, said of defending the Air Raid offense. “That’s the key for us. Guys have been working hard this week.”
The Ducks are coming off an emotional 30-27 overtime win over rival Washington while the Cougars had a bye week to prepare for one of the biggest games in program history.
Oregon will be without starting left tackle Penei Sewell for about six weeks because of a high ankle sprain. Calvin Throckmorton will replace Sewell with Brady Aiello now starting at right tackle.
The reshuffled offensive line opened up a cavernous hole for CJ Verdell to score the game-winning touchdown against the Huskies. The redshirt freshman has 332 yards rushing, 12 first downs and three touchdowns in three Pac-12 games.
“It doesn’t matter who’s going, we’re a deep O-line unit,” Aiello said. “ That definitely showed out (against Washington).”
Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Justin Hollins, who leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss, is the only Duck who played in the 2014 win.
"For me personally, I haven't beaten Washington State since I've been here, so it is definitely motivation for me,” senior safety Ugo Amadi said.