PULLMAN, Wash. — With freshman left tackle Penei Sewell sidelined by an ankle injury, Oregon started five juniors on its offensive line, four of whom had previous experience against Washington State.
The familiarity didn’t bring the Ducks any closer to solving the riddle of the Cougars’ defensive scheme, which is heavy on stunts, shifts and pre-snap movement.
“There are three guys on our offensive line who played Wazzu for the third year now,” left guard Shane Lemieux said. “We kind of expected it, you know?
“I don’t know what happened. The atmosphere really got to us.”
Leading up to the game, the Ducks put heavy emphasis on preparing for Washington State’s pre-snap movement. That emphasis didn’t translate to much success on the ground as Oregon rushed for only 58 yards on 24 carries in a 34-20 loss to the Cougars.
“It’s pretty tough,” Lemieux said. “We pride ourselves on running the football, and I think Wazzu has dialed it up really well. They keyed into our tight ends and really took them out of the game.
“Their movement really took us off our double teams, so it was really hard to get to the linebackers. That was key for this game — we had to get to the linebackers, and we didn’t do it.”
After topping 100 rushing yards in his previous three games, CJ Verdell ran for 55 and failed to find the end zone before limping off the field in the fourth quarter. The Ducks didn’t have a run longer than 20 yards and finished the first half with seven rushes for 3 yards.
“We knew it was going to be difficult because of their slants and their angles and their stunts,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “There was a point in time in the game where we had to throw the ball. That took us out of our plan and our schedule.”
Travis Dye, the only other running back to see the field, checked in with Oregon facing first-and-goal from the 6-yard line after the Ducks marched 75 yards for a touchdown to open the second half.
Dye was tackled for no gain on first down, a 1-yard loss on second down and a 3-yard loss on third down. The Ducks settled for a field goal to pull within 27-10.
“It was a situation where the structure of the defense calls for an opportunity to run the ball very effectively,” Cristoal said, noting that he inserted Dye because Verdell needed a breather. “CJ was gassed. He was playing banged up, as you saw at the end there.”
Facing a 27-point deficit, the Ducks were forced to go to the air in the second half. Quarterback Justin Herbert attempted a season-high 44 passes, completing 25 for 270 yards.
Herbert gave credit to the Cougars' defense for taking the Ducks out of their game plan.
“They’re really well coached, and they kind of got us in the first half,” Herbert said. “A lot of that (movement) kind of caught us off guard. We tried to do our best to prepare for it.
"We didn’t do a great job of it, but I think it’s definitely something we can learn from.”